The first finalist in the search for the next University of Idaho president will be on the Moscow campus today for a series of meetings and open forums with UI students and community members.
Donald Birx, 59, is the chancellor at Penn State Behrend, in Erie, Pa., a position he has held for the last three years. Prior to Penn State, Behrend held similar administrative positions at the University of Houston and New Mexico State University.
Birx will visit all UI campuses throughout the week, but will be in Moscow for an open forum at 9 a.m. today in the Administration Auditorium. A second open forum will be geared toward the Moscow community and will be held at 3:30 at the 1912 Center on 3rd Street in Moscow.
Birx also spent 19 years working for Systems Research Laboratories Inc. in Dayton, Ohio, giving him an industrial perspective of academia as well as the administrative perspective.
“I got to see the other side of things, the industrial side and the academic side, It gave me an appreciation for both — and for the differences between them, and also for the bridges that can be built,” Birx said in a 2010 interview with the Erie Times-News.
During his time at Penn State Erie, Birx’s vision for the university has focused heavily on research and bridging gaps between industry and academia. He has worked to develop an open laboratory environment at Penn State Behrend, something Bill Gonda, director of Marketing Communications, said has been a part of Birx’s vision since becoming chancellor for the university.
Gonda has worked closely with Birx during the last three years and said he has been Birx’s primary consultant in communicating with students, faculty and staff at Penn State Behrend.
Gonda said Birx is particularly adept at articulating his vision for Penn State Behrend, but because he has only been at the school for three years many of Birx’s ideas are still in the early stages.
“He is a big thinker and he has big ideas about how to improve things at the university,” Gonda said. “He is a collaborator. He respects the opinion and the feedback of other people and he is known for treating other people with courtesy and respect. It is clear that he believes in treating others as you would like to be treated.”
Gonda said Birx can be persuasive when he is passionate about an institution and it’s mission. He described Birx as quiet but friendly, approachable and courteous.
“Don is a quiet man so he wouldn’t be the kind of person to walk in and talk and shake hands with every person in the room,” Gonda said. “He certainly takes the interests of students to heart. He believes in doing whatever is necessary short of breaking rules to support a student in his or her success.”
Birx worked as the vice chancellor and president for research at the University of Houston from 2006 to 2010. While there he organized a similar “open lab” concept project. The $15 million project paired students and faculty from the university with a company that produced superconductors. The project allowed for hands on research and interaction between the school and the research industry in Houston, according to Birx’s 2010 interview with the Erie Times-News.
Birx’s academic background is primarily in research related fields. He attended John Hopkins University as an undergraduate studying electrical engineering and computer science, but earned his bachelor’s degree from U.C. Berkeley in engineering physics. He earned to master’s degrees — one in bio-physics and one in finance — at Miami University in Ohio. In 1990 he received his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Dayton.
Gonda said Birx embraces the concept of a land-grand institution because of its responsibility for advancement of students as well as the region.
“That is a big part of his vision even in advancing this open lab environment in terms of creating open labs that will work with local companies that might have to attract new industry and company,” Gonda said. “The economic development facet of the land-grant institution is something that he is very much attuned to.”
Former ASUI President Hannah Davis is a member of the search committee that selected Birx as a finalist for the next UI president. She said the open forums are a way for the candidates to present themselves to the university because until now, the search committee members are the only people who have interacted with the candidates.
“I think it’s important for them to do these open forums because the president is not someone solely for the State Board of Education or solely for the alumni,” Davis said. “They represent and interact with the students so it’s for them too and quite frankly it would be ridiculous if students didn’t have an opportunity to have a say in the process.”
Davis said she encourages all students to attend the forums because it will be an opportunity to interact with the candidates, ask questions and provide feedback on the UI leader.
“Hopefully professors will be lenient because it’s important for students and faculty and staff to go to these forums,” Davis said.
Kaitlyn Krasselt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org