Tactics: Dr. John Karl Scholz Reflects on His First Year at UO

The university’s president talks about what drew him to Eugene, why the school is bucking enrollment trends and what’s next for the post-Pac-12 Ducks.

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In May 2023, the University of Oregon’s board of trustees named Dr. John Karl Scholz as the university’s 19th president. According to a university press release, Scholz was selected following a six-month international search conducted by a 22-member presidential search committee comprised of trustees, students, faculty, staff, and academic and administrative leaders, as well as representatives from higher education outside of the community.

Scholz’s predecessor, Michael Schill — credited with increasing the size of the school’s endowment and launching new academic projects like the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact and the Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health, as well as increasing financial aid and graduation rates — served as president for seven years and announced his departure from the school in August 2022 after accepting an offer to lead Northwestern University. 

Scholz, an economist by training, came to Eugene from the University of Wisconsin-
Madison, where he had spent the bulk of his career, starting as a professor and more recently serving as the school’s provost. Scholz, who received his undergraduate degree from Minnesota’s Carleton College and his Ph.D. from Stanford, taught at UW-Madison’s department of economics and he has also worked for the Council of Economic Advisers and the U.S. Treasury Department under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, respectively.  

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

You were hired last March and started in July. How has it been so far?

You’re probably speaking to the luckiest person you’ll encounter in the next year. The last eight months, I’ve been getting to learn a new great university. It’s a beautiful setting, people have been incredibly supportive and warm. It’s an outstanding university, the outside is breathtaking — and so it’s really exhilarating. Stepping back, I think what universities do in society is really precious, right? There’s not very many institutions where they’re organized around bringing people together from very disparate backgrounds. The military, for instance, might be another that brings people from very different walks of life and then organizes around a mission. What’s distinctive about the higher-education sector is it’s organized around the transmission of knowledge to the students that we serve, and the creation of knowledge and serving our city, the region, the state, the world. There’s no other sector that’s organized around that. So the opportunities to play a key role in what a university of the caliber of the University of Oregon truly is a dream come true.

What stood out to you about the University of Oregon as you were interviewing for the position?

Going through an interview process, you never really know an institution in great detail. You’re trying to get the best impression that you can, but it’s really the old metaphor of trying to figure out which part of the elephant [you’re touching]; you may be on a trunk, when the legs and the tail are really where the action is. 

With that caveat, going into the interview, I knew that U of O is recognized as one of 71 universities in the AAU (Association of American Universities). These are America’s leading research universities: There are over 2,500 four-year colleges and universities in the country, so to be designated as one of the top 71 — that’s rarefied air. That’s very exciting, that you’re going to one of the finest institutions in the world. I knew about things like the Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact and the Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health. These are areas of really breathtaking expertise that are attractive for any ambitious higher-education leader. 

Then getting here and spending time, the elephant comes more fully into view. I get to learn about the creative-writing program here that is one of the 10 best creative writing programs in the country. I get to learn about the Oregon Bach Festival, which is just an incredible cultural resource. I get to learn that the canonical organism for geneticists, the zebrafish, their use was pioneered here, and we still raise most of the zebrafish that are used in research around the world in genetics. It’s been almost a kid-in-a-candy-store type of experience.

Enrollment at most higher-education institutions in Oregon — and my impression is nationally — has been declining a bit in the last few years. And there’s been a lot of worry that we’re about to hit a demographic cliff in enrollment. But U of O has bucked that trend; I think you just enrolled your second-largest freshman class last fall. Why do you think that is?

I think the answer is that we are doing a wonderful job with the education we provide. There are lots of components to that. One is we’re in a stunningly beautiful setting in the magnificent Pacific Northwest. The campus is architecturally homogeneous; it’s a beautiful spot. Equally or more important to that is the staff and faculty here are really focused around what really matters, and that is delivering outstanding educational experience. We get great students here and they have a good experience. They bring that back to their communities and their families and others. They are our best marketing. It’s a combination of just a vibrant place, wonderful students who have great experiences, and that feeds on itself. I’ll say we are in a very privileged position in the higher education landscape, and we don’t take that for granted. We work really, really hard to try to continue to constantly be better.

What is the demographic mix in terms of students coming from in state versus out of state?

It’s roughly 50-50, I believe, though I believe last year we had our highest number of Oregonians that we have ever had, and we’re very proud of that. [Editor’s Note: According to information published on UO’s website, in fall 2023, 51.3% of UO’s students — 12,237 people — were Oregon residents.] We really are very focused on serving the state; we are a state institution and take that seriously. Out-of-state enrollments have been strong, and that’s necessary both because it adds vibrancy to the campus and is also important for the underlying economics of the university. 

I also want to ask about sports. Twenty years ago, U of O sports, and especially U of O football — I think people mostly knew about it if they were from the Northwest. That was where most of the fan base was. Now it is a nationally known brand; I can go elsewhere in the country and buy Ducks gear because of the transformation of the brand and the team. Now U of O has departed the Pac-12 conference. Do you have any thoughts on the future of the program — thinking of football, in particular, but also athletics across the board?

When you said, “I want to ask about sports,” my immediate thought was, “Oh, there’s sports teams at Oregon?” [Laughs] My career in comedy is not going to go very well. 

But to answer your question: Oregon athletics is a wonderful benefit to the university. I view it as a wonderful asset in that it helps lots of students and families from around the country become familiar with the University of Oregon. The first thing they may know about us is the uniforms of the football team or the reputation for innovation. Then they dig in a little bit and say, “Oh, Phil Knight went to the University of Oregon, and Nike came out of the work that Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight did.” 

We’re deeply, deeply proud of the success that the football team has had. There’s been this big upheaval in intercollegiate athletics. I coincidentally was the interim chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when UCLA and USC moved from the Pac-12 to the Big 10, so I was closely observing that. Before that, Texas and Oklahoma moved to the SEC. I’m grateful that Oregon has been able to join the Big 10. At the same time, I’m mindful of the challenges that are being presented to Oregon State; I have a great deal of empathy for them as they chart their new future. It’s created some challenges in the state, because the Pac-12 has been a venerable athletic conference that we’ve been very grateful to be part of for a long time. But the landscape was absolutely shifting. It was important, I think, for the future of the University of Oregon to do what puts our university in the best possible position going forward. The most I’ll say is those changes aren’t done. [Editor’s Note: After Scholz spoke with OB, Oregon State and Washington State — the two schools who chose to remain in the Pac-12 conference — announced that they had reached a settlement agreement with the 10 schools that departed the conference last year. The two schools combined will receive $65 million from the departing institutions, which include UO. The settlement followed a lengthy legal battle.]

What do you do when you’re not at work?

I love the outdoors. I historically have been an avid recreational runner. So being in TrackTown USA is nice. I love food and wine, and then just getting to know the community, the region and meeting people. It’s just wonderful. 

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