JOHN WHITE, JR. was a terrible encyclopedia salesman.
It was the summer of 1959 and the man who would go on to become head of the engineering directorate at the National Science Foundation, dean of engineering at Georgia Tech and chancellor of the University of Arkansas, was just looking for some air conditioning.
At 19 years old, White and his fellow salesmen had been dropped off in a Little Rock neighborhood to haul boxes of the reference books door-to-door, and he was terrible at it.
“I was the world’s worst seller of encyclopedias,” White said. “I concluded sales was not in my competency list.” He quit after two days.
As it turns out, selling was what White spent most of his career doing.
He didn’t wind up selling books, or any commodity, really – White was in the business of selling ideas.
After graduating from the University of Arkansas in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, White took a job at Tennessee Eastman Company, where he intended to stay his entire career.
On Feb. 23, 1963, White’s boss, Buck Newsome, went on a fishing trip with Herb Manning, head of the industrial engineering department at Virginia Tech, known as Virginia Polytechnic Institute at the time. Manning had two openings on his faculty, because two instructors had been mobilized through the National Guard to deploy to Berlin, and he wondered whether Newsome knew anyone who might step in.
Newsome did, but White had a small problem: he and Mary Elizabeth Quarles were engaged to be married on April 13. He asked Mary Lib what she thought.
“She said, ‘Well, I guess you’ll just have to commute.” That decision set White on a path that would take him to some of the highest ranks in academia, industry and the federal government.
He took the job on the condition the school would support him until he completed his master’s degree in industrial engineering.
White still remembers his first day in the classroom. It was the day he realized he was put on earth to be an educator.
“Naturally, I was very nervous,” White said. “I had never taught before. Here I was just a year and a half into my industry work. Some of my students were older than I was. I just remember walking into the room, standing in front of the class and thinking ‘Oh my goodness. Here I am. This is what I was put here to do.”
There were challenges, but White found success. He credits his classroom success to something that eluded him when he was selling encyclopedias: passion.
“Back then, I realized I needed to sell myself to these students,” he said. “They needed to have confidence in me, be confident I knew my subject, and confident I cared about them. I always tried to teach with a lot of passion, a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of excitement about having the opportunity to be with the students.”
Over the course of his 56-year career, White, who never thought he would sell anything, sold his passion and his expertise to more than 4,000 students. His work touched the lives of tens of thousands more through his leadership.
White completed his master’s degree and pursued a doctorate at Ohio State. He graduated and joined the faculty of Virginia Tech, where he earned tenure after a year and a half. He taught for five years before joining the faculty at Georgia Tech, where he was a faculty member for more than 22 years, ultimately serving as dean of engineering.
He took a brief detour from his teaching path when in 1988 he was tapped to serve as assistant director for engineering at the National Science Foundation, a post he held for three years.
During that time, White focused on something that would be a hallmark of his leadership tenure: expanding opportunities for women and underrepresented minorities to enter the field of engineering.
It wasn’t always a popular pursuit. White received national criticism and was accused of using his post to conduct “social engineering.” Engineering leaders from a variety of corners tried to convince him that women simply were not meant to be engineers; they simply did not have the capacity to succeed in math and science. He didn’t let those people slow him down.
“Just because people were criticizing me and resisting my efforts didn’t make me question whether I should be doing it,” he said. White knew he had the support of NSF Director Erich Bloch and he pressed on.
White ultimately earned NSF’s Distinguished Service Medal for his impact in growing the ranks of women and underrepresented groups in engineering. He was also honored for his progress in building interdisciplinary collaboration in engineering education.
In 1997, the call, or rather, calls came. The University of Arkansas needed a new chancellor, and they wanted to talk to White about it.
White was Dean of Engineering at Georgia Tech. It was an excellent job. He had a wonderful faculty. He was surrounded by outstanding students.
White politely told Alan Sugg, president of the University of Arkansas system, thank you, but he wasn’t interested. White had been at Georgia Tech more than two decades, ascending through the faculty ranks to lead the internationally-renowned program. Sugg persisted, and White rebuffed.
Finally, Sugg called for the last time. The search committee was meeting in a few days, and they wanted to know why White wouldn’t even apply to lead his alma mater.
White agreed to at least discuss the prospect with Mary Lib. He had great reasons to stay at Georgia Tech. The program was successful there, faculty, staff and students were growing and diversifying.
Then came the phrase that began a chain of events that would reshape the University of Arkansas.
Mary Lib said “If you don’t do it, I am afraid someday you’ll regret it.”
White paused, and he still pauses when telling the story.
“I said, ‘Fine. I’ll go print my resume and send it to them.’”
The search committee met Monday, and by Tuesday the Atlanta Journal Constitution ran a story that John White was a candidate for the University of Arkansas chancellor job.
White interviewed two weeks later, and told the search committee what he had told Alan Sugg all along: He had no interest in the job.
“I told them ‘I will not have interest in the job until I’m convinced there is a commitment to make the University of Arkansas as nationally competitive in its academic fields as it has been on its athletic fields’,” White said.
He then pulled out an index card listing 19 universities nationally with fewer resources per student than Arkansas and read it to the committee.
After the interview, White boarded his flight back to Atlanta figuring that was the end of that. It was not.
Sugg offered White the job, and he accepted on two conditions. The first – White wanted to continue to teach while serving as chancellor. It was partially to let faculty know he was dedicated to undergraduate education. It was mostly because he wanted to stay in touch with modern students. Plus, there was the fringe benefit.
“I knew if I could teach it would be the best three hours of my week,” White said. “And if I could have those three hours, I might be able to handle everything else.” White’s second condition was that six families make a commitment to support his quest to make the University of Arkansas academics nationally competitive. The Walton, Tyson, Dillard, Stephens, Ford and Murphy families all agreed, and White set about his mission to transform the University of Arkansas.
Under his leadership, the University raised more than $1 billion during the Campaign for the 21st Century. The centerpiece of the campaign was the largest single gift to a public university in the history of American philanthropy: the $300 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation. That gift alone enabled the university to establish an Honors College, create an endowment for University Libraries and establish endowed scholarships and fellowships across the campus.
The university grew and improved by almost every metric. ACT scores, grade point averages of incoming freshmen, freshman enrollment and retention rates, and six-year graduation rates all increased dramatically. The number of National Merit scholars nearly doubled, from 90 to 171. Research expenditures increased from $73.7 million to $113.8 million, and the university endowment grew more than six fold, from $119 million in 1997 to nearly $900 million upon his stepping down as chancellor.
White left the chancellor’s office in 2008 and returned to his first love (after Mary Lib): the classroom, teaching industrial engineering.
White retired in May 2019, but even though his full-time faculty work may be over, his mission to teach is not.
White continued advising doctoral students through the summer of 2019, he is currently revising a textbook he co-authored and has been contacted by a publisher to revise another textbook he co-authored. He Skypes every week with a former graduate student who now lives in Turkey.
THE SECRET TO SUCCESS
So what’s White’s secret to success?
There’s a metaphor he uses when students ask him how to be successful in life, and they ask him often.
Everyone juggles multiple balls. It’s hard to keep them in the air, especially when new ones are constantly tossed in. The path to success is in realizing this: Some of those balls are rubber, and some are crystal.
Your relationships. Your health. These are the balls you shouldn’t drop.
“The big things in life have nothing to do with the courses you’re taking,” White said. “I tell students ‘Don’t jeopardize your health by not taking care of yourself. Don’t overdo it. Get good sleep, eat well, exercise. Stay in touch with the people you care about, it’s far better to give roses to the living than to send them to funerals. You need to let the people you care about know you love them – don’t just assume they know.”
If Dr. White impacted your life over the past six decades, you can let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org.