Dr. John Brazil grew up in California, doing his undergraduate work at Stanford. He earned a Masters Degree and Ph.D. from Yale. After a brief time in the U.S. Army, Dr. Brazil began teaching as an instructor at San Jose State in San Jose, California, working his way up to full professor. Administrative work eventually led him to the presidency at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. He accepted the presidency of Bradley University in January 1992.
How did you make the transition, in your career, from teaching to administrative work?
At various points during my career, people asked me to take on certain administrative assignments, and they went fairly well. I would like to be able to say that I ended up as a university president because of some clearly defined and rationally developed career path, but in truth I started off to be an academic. I love teaching and research; but I did fairly well in some administrative posts, and before I knew it I was dean, then a vice president, then a president. I’ve been in the role of president for ten years now – seven and one-half years at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and two and one-half years now at Bradley University.
Sometimes when people consider the business community at large and the economic impact of local employers, they tend to overlook educational institutions. What is the economic impact of Bradley on the Peoria area?
It’s hard to think of an area of the Peoria community in which Bradley does not have a major impact, and that certainly includes an economic impact. As a major employer, we have a direct economic impact; we are the fifth largest employer in Peoria County. We will expend close to $80 million this year, which will generate some $240-250 million in personal income for people in the community. We spend a lot of money – whether it’s acquiring materials, building things, or paying salaries – money which finds its way into the economy.
We also have a direct impact through many of our programs. We have, for example, a Small Business Development Center which, over the last ten years, has averaged 225 to 230 clients per year. We help these small business clients with everything from accounting services to marketing plans. It is estimated that the Small Business Development Center generates about 30 new jobs a year and retains about 40 jobs a year. We have a Technology Transfer Center which works with the development of high-technology products, serving well over 150 clients within the last half-decade. And we have a Business Technology Incubator that has helped launch new businesses.
In addition, our faculty members do consulting with manufacturers, hospitals, schools, and numerous business groups. So we are involved in virtually every aspect of the economic life of Peoria.
There was a big study conducted at MIT about four or five years ago – involving people from business, economics, marketing and other areas – that concluded that roughly 95 percent of all economic development in the United States is going to occur within 50 miles of universities, during the next 25 years. That is how important universities are to economic growth.
How would Central Illinois be different is Bradley University were not located here?
Central Illinois would be dramatically different without Bradley. One of the great things that a good university does is help a community attract and retain talented people. Roughly two-thirds of Bradley’s students come from outside the Tri-County area. We are importing a lot of talent, much of which stays here after completion of a high-quality education. That contributes enormously to the success of our work force. Many talented people in this area, who would otherwise go away to school and not come back, stay here because of Bradley – or return because of Bradley. Of graduation students who enter the work force directly, 30 percent take jobs here. So we have an enormous impact on the human resources available to the local business community. I like to think, too, that we contribute indirectly by working with area high schools and primary schools to help them develop high-quality programs.
When a business is thinking about locating somewhere or expanding, one of the first questions it asks is, “What is the quality of the educational system?” Businesses have to recruit people. They have to continue the education of their people. Nobody takes a job these days and stays at the same level; they have to continue to study in order to be successful. Businesses also ask themselves what the general quality of life is like in the area. Of course, Bradley – through its theater department, various music ensembles, art galleries, and joint projects with the Symphony and Ballet – contributes a great deal to the quality of life here. All of this makes Central Illinois more attractive to people who have to decide where they are going to locate their business, or whether or not they are going to expand their business locally.
In what ways do local businesses rely on Bradley?
In addition to attracting good talent, and providing high-quality educational opportunities for employees and their families, people rely on Bradley for very specific things. At any one time, we may have two or three dozen projects going with businesses – from L.R. Nelson, to Caterpillar, to Keystone, to one of the area hospitals. We really provide a vast resource of very highly trained, highly skilled people, whose business is to discover new knowledge and to solve problems. It’s fascinating to see the way our faculty members attract people from the community who have a problem, and then work with them to solve that problem. People look at us an enormously important resource – intellectual capital, if you will – for the development of the community.
All engineering students participate in senior projects that solve problems for local businesses and industries. Bradley industrial engineers, for example, designed the plant layout for L.R. Nelson’s new manufacturing facility, researched and recommended a new paint system, and scheduled the move from their Princeville and Pioneer Park locations to their new location.
For 20 years, the Small Business Institute (SBI) has used faculty members and professional staff as consultants along with SBI students who become involved as a part of a senior level business class, by spending about half a semester completing projects for Small Business Development Center clients.
The Smith Career Center provides Central Illinois employers with full- and part-time cooperative education placements and internships.
Our library is available to residents in the area. Ten thousand people a year use our library to get materials locally, or anyplace in the country. We are a part of Internet and other resources which can access major libraries in Illinois and around the country.
Are there any new initiatives between Bradley and local businesses that would like to develop?
I don’t think we are in the position right now to undertake new projects of a really broad scope, but virtually every week we start a new limited project with some company or enterprise. Our major focus for the immediate future is to continue developing our educational quality. Clearly, our primary focus has to be on our mission, which is providing high-quality educational opportunities for undergraduates and graduates.
It’s very much to our advantage to work with local manufacturers and other businesses. It’s good for our faculty; it gives them stimulation; it brings some very applied, hands-on experience to our classrooms. But that is really instrumental – a means to an end. Our principle end is education. As part of that process, we do many things with the community, to help us perform our primary mission better.
Having been in Peoria approximately two and one-half years, what is your general assessment of the area business climate? What areas of strength or weakness can you identify? Have there been any surprises?
There have been no real surprises. I spent considerable time getting to know the Peoria area before I decided to move my family here. Although you learn new things all the time, there haven’t really been any major alterations from the initial perceptions.
The overall business environment in Peoria is strong. It is home to many very talented people and well-let, strong companies from health care to insurance to marketing; and, of course, the leading manufacturer of earth moving equipment, Caterpillar. It’s unfortunate that our national image tends to dominated by the labor confrontation with the UAW. It’s my understanding that Caterpillar has other labor unions and that they do fairly well working together under signed, mutually-agreed-upon contracts. We have many labor unions here in Peoria who work in the construction trades or other kinds of businesses, and they see to get along well. I don’t want to say that the UAW situation is an aberration, because it has been with the community a long time, but in some ways it is atypical. My impression is that, on the whole, however, the business climate is very positive.
I suppose it’s a cliché by now, unfortunately, but a great deal of what we do is affected by the labor relations between the UAW and Caterpillar. God knows we’d all like to see that relationship better. We’d like to see it resolved in a way that Caterpillar can remain globally competitive and remain here, and simultaneously that the membership of the UAW can feel well-served by the contract. We simply cannot get away from the fact that Caterpillar is still the dominant economic force here. I certainly hope that is for a long time to come; I have every expectation that it will be. I hope reason will prevail and this will get settled.
My understanding is that the current labor dispute is much less traumatic than that which occurred in the early 1980s. The business community has diversified considerably; certainly Bradley is bigger and stronger, and has much more significant impact. There are many new businesses now that were note here a decade ago, as well as businesses that have grown considerably since that time.
Peoria is an ideal medium-sized community. There is a lot going on here. I think sometimes people locally don’t understand just what a wonderful community this is. Sure it has problems; to be alive is to have problems. Given its size and history, Peoria can take great pride in what it offers its citizens.
Many people point to transportation as a weakness for the Peoria market, with limited jet service and the lack of a direct four-lane route to Chicago. Do you see this as a significant weakness? How does it affect Bradley?
I don’t think there is any doubt that better air transportation and a more direct route to Chicago – particularly one that connected to Kansas City – would help. These, in themselves, are not fatal flaws; they are retardants, which slow economic growth. I don’t think they have any particular direct impact on Bradley. Those manufacturing and service industries which require certain kinds of transportation would be some better off with improved transportation; and our area would probably become somewhat more attractive for new industry and businesses which are dependent on highway or air transportation.
The truth of the matter is, in the coming century, it won’t make a heck of a lot of difference where you are located; you will be able to business just about anyplace. You don’t have to be in New York to be a stockbroker. You don’t have to live in Los Angeles to be in entertainment. You can be just about anywhere.
One of the attractive elements of communities like Peoria is that they don’t have many of the problems of some of the larger cities. Peoria does have problems, but they are of a manageable scale. People are going to want to live where they can have a better quality of life. If they can live in a city like Peoria, where they can raise their children in reasonable safety, where they can get a decent education, where homes are affordable, where they can live a secure and productive life, then they are going to choose those areas. They can work just about anywhere. They can access virtually instantaneously any kind of data base or any kind of business they want. The one exception is surface-dependent or air transport-dependent manufacturing; we may have a little disadvantage in that area, but one which I hope we will be able to overcome.
In addition to offering a strong liberal arts education, what unique attractions does Bradley offer?
It’s interesting that you put the question that way because many people perceive us to be a technologically oriented institution, because of the historic strength of our engineering and business programs. We do, however, offer a very strong liberal arts education. One of the things that makes Bradley attractive, it seems to me, is that we marry the two elements. We want people with technological expertise to also be broadly flexible intellectually – to have intellectual depth. It enables students to not only get a job, but to sustain a career. It makes them more functional as citizens and as people. Simultaneously, we want our people with a liberal arts focus to get a job – to have saleable skills. We look at ways we can make liberal arts and pre-professional training mutually supportive; we do that very well.
The thing about Bradley which is most attractive is the quality of our faculty and the quality of instruction. We hear so many complaints about students going to a university and not being able to get a class, or going to an institution where they never see a professor, just a graduate student. In some universities, research completely overshadows teaching and teaching is viewed as an ancillary activity. That is not the case at Bradley. We have no graduate students teaching; every class is taught by a regular faculty member. Our mission is very explicit; teaching is our first issue and our focus is on students. We get very good faculty whose first duty is high quality instruction. That’s enormously attractive.
We are also attractive because of our size. We are large enough for a full range of programs in five colleges; liberal arts and sciences, education and health sciences, engineering and technology, business administration, and communication and fine arts. But we are small enough to treat people as individuals. Students don’t come here and get lost; they aren’t just a number in a computer. It’s very easy to develop a good circle of friends outside the classroom and some personal relationships with faculty and staff. That makes education more meaningful. We have the best of both worlds. We are not some small, liberal arts college off in the woods somewhere; and we’re not a huge metropolitan university where students are just individual atoms bouncing around a larger reaction.
In what ways is Bradley keeping abreast of technological innovations?
We not only want to keep abreast of technology; we want to lead. We want to contribute to the expansion of technology and its application. You can’t name a field in which we are not near the cutting edge. We make it a priority, whether it’s the application of technology to engineering solutions, the development of classroom strategies for K-12, marketing, or computer –based art. We have faculty which we support very well so that they can make sure, in their own professional development and in the classroom instruction they offer their students, that they are getting something that is valuable now, not something that would have applied five years ago. When students walk out our doors, we want them to be competitive with anyone. It’s part of our institutional culture, and I have to say that we do very, very well. We have made a major investment in our faculty, and in the hardware and software that has allowed us to stay right at the cutting edge, and to move that cutting edge further along.
Caterpillar Inc. is a major financial contributor to Bradley, and has a large number of Bradley alumni employed within the company. How do you view the relationship between Bradley and Caterpillar?
The relationship is long-standing and historical. We do have a lot of alumni employed at Caterpillar – I believe some 1200-1400. Many of our employees are in Caterpillar management; two Caterpillar group presidents serve on our board of trustees. The relationship between Caterpillar and Bradley is mutually very supportive. I think Caterpillar Chairman Don Fites has a visionary view of what Peoria can be, what Caterpillar can be, what Bradley can be, and how important we are to each another. He and his colleagues have made a very courageous investment in this area and in Bradley. That makes it all the more difficult to see the labor trouble that the corporation is having. I know they very much want to get it resolved in a way that’s fair to all parties.
Whether it’s as a resource for training, or developing a special engineering research project, or whether it’s a place where an assembly line worker sends a child to get a high-quality education, Bradley has a very good relationship with Caterpillar. As far as I can tell, this relationship has never negatively affected the principle mission of either one of us. It’s all to the good.
How do you view the future development of the work force in Central Illinois? With the current labor situation, where Caterpillar is hiring skilled workers, we are apparently seeing some shortages of skilled manufacturing workers. How do you view the dynamics of the local work force?
I think things may get a little tighter. However, one of the marvels of the market economy us that when you have a buyer’s market, buyers appear – when you have a seller’s market, sellers appear. The market economy is very seldom in perfect phase, with supply and demand perfectly synchronized. If you have an expansion of supply, it affects demand; if you have an expansion of demand, it affects supply. The good news, for our area, is that we aren’t oscillating too far one way or the other; we don’t see the supply of labor way out of proportion to the demand for it, or vice versa. That’s a very healthy market economy. Despite the fact that it does cause dislocation and discomfort at times, the free market is a heck of a lot better than any other system; in the long run, it means a lot more for a lot more people.
We have heard much in recent years about the failures of U.S. elementary and secondary schools in providing a basic quality education. Is our educational system facing a crisis?
It has been for some time. There’s no doubt that the colleges and universities in the United States are the envy of the world. We are a net importer; everybody from around the world wants to come to an American university. That’s because we are the best. We’ve been under some considerable stress, however, and we are going to be hard pressed to retain that preeminence.
There is also no doubt that our K-12 system has not kept abreast of a lot of other industrialized countries. Now, that’s a complex problem and I don’t want to lay it solely at the door of the system, that is the teachers, administrators, and politicians that deal with the K-12 system. Yes, there have certainly been some mistakes and some erosion along the way, but it’s also a larger, societal problem. You cannot as a classroom teacher, who has a child for six hours a day for maybe 175 days a year, to make up for all the other influences. When the family is unstable, when the neighborhood is unstable, when health is unstable, and when there are a number of other things having a negative impact, you can’t ask the school to make up for all of that. It’s illogical and nonsensical.
The schools are not the sole problem, nor are they the sole solution. There are, however, clearly some things that have to be done. Kids need longer time on tasks; we have to have longer school days and a longer school year. We have to refocus our efforts on the things that make a difference. There are some incredibly important enrichment programs that I think we need to have, but do we need to have them at the expense of children learning how to read and write and do basic mathematics? Our children must learn the basic mechanics of a market economy before they can function in it. By the time children are ten or twelve years old, their study habits and fundamental skills are fairly well set and very hard to change. It can be done; there are individuals who have been shortchanged early on, only to make great strides and catch up. However, as a nation, we just cannot afford to let people fall that far behind, and we have.
What other changes need to be made in the United States educational system in order for the U.S. to maintain world leadership in business and other areas?
The truth is, we know most of the things that need to be changed. We are not dealing with something that is highly mystical or problematic. Most educators and most citizens know what the solutions are. It is now a question of political will – whether or not we are going to deal with the problems on a broad scale, and commit the kinds of fiscal and human resources necessary to solve them. We simply cannot compete as a nation with half of our human resources underprepared, underdeveloped, and underapplied. If the people who have historically not participated – minorities and inner-city people – simply become drains on the economy rather than contributors to it, then the greatest universities in the world, the greatest research in the world, and the most powerful companies in the world, in the long run will be unable to stave off economic disaster.
What major trends do you see at Bradley over the next few years, as well as in higher education across the United States?
There is no question that we will hear a greater call for accountability – particularly for colleges and universities that are less market responsive – some way of assessing institutional and programmatic effectiveness. It will go beyond the current kind of assessment that occurs during accreditation. There is going to be a greater call for efficiency and productivity. The resources spent on higher education really are enormous, nationally. People are going to demand more for less, as they do in almost every service or product. I think there is going to be growing emphasis on alternative delivery systems such as interactive technologies.
If we can solve the resource problem, the productivity and quality problem, the assessment problem, and the technological problems, then as a nation we will be ahead of the rest of the world for a long time. The things that encourage me are, one, I think those are the things that should, and two, I think it puts Bradley in a wonderful position. We are already well ahead of that curve in almost every area. We do a superior job of institutional and programmatic assessment. We have a very clearly defined mission which allows us to focus our resources rather than dissipate them, which in turn produces very high quality. We are at the front edge of the technological revolution. Bradley – given what we can anticipate – is in a very good position. Our need now is to make sure that we have the resources and the will to push ourselves further. IBI