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Q&A with Earl Lazerson, retired president, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

    IBJ: You look well. People will wonder how you’re doing.
    Lazerson: I feel good. I’ve got some medical problems, but everybody does at this age (88).
    IBJ: You’ve got an award coming up, a doctorate of humane letters, at the spring commencement. That’s a nice honor.
    Lazerson: Thank you.
    IBJ: Walk us through your time at the university.
p06 Lazerson    Lazerson: I arrived there in September of 1969. At that time, I was an associate professor of mathematics. They had offered me a position there primarily because they had intended to start a doctoral program. I had had considerable experience with doctoral students. I worked with the chairman of the department on the program they wanted to put together.
    In the first year I was there I won the university teaching award. I really enjoyed teaching.
    In ’72 the chairman of the department went on leave and I was asked to serve as the acting chairman. When he came back, he did not want to maintain the position, and I became the chairman of the department.
    In ’73, I became the dean of the School of Science and Technology. In ’76, vice president and provost. Then in ’79, the president.
    IBJ: You held that last role for an awfully long time.
    Lazerson: 15 years.
    IBJ: That’s as long as anyone had it …
    Lazerson: Longer.
    IBJ: That was one of the more productive periods of the university’s entire history, as it was still finding its legs, swinging around to a commuter campus.
    Lazerson: Exactly. It’s a complicated story in some ways, but in others quite simple. At the front end, the thing that got me to thinking about the role of the university and what got me on the administrative side was the work that had been done by the people in Madison and St. Clair County. A group of Americans who wanted something for their kids in terms of higher education. It was their effort that brought the university there. It would be wonderful if you could resurrect the list of names of those people who made that push. They are the real heroes of this story. They had the foresight to realize that it was imperative to provide an opportunity for their children.
    IBJ: It wasn’t easy, was it?
    Lazerson: No, and as a reporter you know the politics of Illinois. It was a tradeoff between the Chicago campus of the U of I and the creation of SIUE in the 1950s. Coming in 1969, I had no real sense of the people that had been involved. It says something about what we can do when we put our thoughts together on a goal.
    IBJ: You were always recognized as one of those guys who would reach out to the region. Both sides of the river.
    Lazerson: Absolutely.
    IBJ: Why was that important for you to do that?
    Lazerson: After I’d been there a couple of years, one of the initial views I had was that if the university was going to prosper, the region had to prosper. For me that meant it was imperative that the university, to the extent that it made sense, used its resources to aid in the growth of the region.
    You can play games with the notion that there is the (Mississippi) River, etc. But that’s ridiculous. The region is a region — it’s a metropolitan statistical area at a minimum, and it’s interdependent. To push aside the fact that metropolitan St. Louis is there, and ignore it, never made sense to me.
    I also knew that you have to learn to, in effect, scuttle along before you get recognized.
    I had two people who were a great assistance to me, Bill Maritz and Bob Hyland, the president of CBS. They became great friends, not just in the fraternal sense, but in sharing with me their view of things. And they were primary movers in the city.
    IBJ: They encouraged you to go forward with the regional idea?
    Lazerson: Absolutely. But I want to go back a second to when I became vice president and provost in 1976. Carl Mathias, the Illinois Power executive, came to introduce himself. He had a purpose in coming. He felt that development was not proceeding in the way that it should in the region. There was too much jealousy. For example, say a company was looking for a location in Town A, but Town A didn’t have what was needed. However, Town A would not point out that Town B down the road had exactly what they wanted. They were very protective.
    He put it very graphically and said the only way you could cure this was for the university to be involved.
    Carl Mathias in 1976, in effect, threw down the gauntlet. I took him up on it.
    IBJ: What happened then?
    Lazerson: The first thing I did was attend a mayor’s group in Madison County, which met on a regular basis. I was about as naïve as you could be, bearing positive tidings, and it was very illuminating to me. The mayors were quite unhappy with the university. They felt that in some sense, the university had been sold on the basis of, “this is for us,” but that there hadn’t been delivery. Not enough to aid the community. I took that very seriously.
    As time went by, it became clear to me that (the regional approach) had to be formalized in some way. In my mind that meant bringing together business, labor and resources of the institution to look at problems.
    IBJ: This sounds like the birth of the Leadership Council (of Southwestern Illinois)?
    Lazerson: It is. Carl Mathias planted the seed that led to the Leadership Council.
    IBJ: You were one of the co-founders?
    Lazerson: I was the founder. I went out and solicited membership. People were always pleasant, but that didn’t mean they were ready to jump on board. I was somewhat frustrated by that.
    IBJ: How did it start?
    Lazerson: In 1982, I called a press conference and I announced the creation of the Leadership Council. The only firm member at that point was myself. But it worked, we began meeting, starting with three or four people.
    IBJ: Who were the three or four?
    Lazerson: Byron Farrell (a Wood River contractor); two bankers in Edwardsville, John Fruit and Bob Wetzel; and Ralph Korte (a local contractor). Ronald Thompson, who had a railroad car refurbishing business, was one. Then came the local head of Shell.  And I always had Carl Mathias, he was right there from the beginning. And I worked closely with Jim O’Flynn, who at that time was president of the Regional Commerce and Growth Association.
    My view was, if this was going to work, it had to be self-sufficient. It was not my intention to sit there the rest of my life.
    I saw my role as getting it started, but then there had to be a natural momentum.
    IBJ: Among other things you still had a university to run.
    Lazerson: That’s exactly the point. By the end of the first year of this, it was time to let the baby go. We instituted a search and found an executive director, and she — Mary Kane — did a hell of a job. And that was it, I pulled out.
    IBJ: Let’s go back to the campus, which you had never gotten away from. There were many new buildings you were instrumental in. Like the residence halls.
    Lazerson: It took me 10 years to get approval from the Board of Higher Education to put in housing. The first time I tried was simultaneously with becoming president.
    IBJ: Why would they turn you down?
    Lazerson: They didn’t want it to be a residential institution.
    IBJ: Seems like if they wanted to encourage the growth of the institution, they’d want just the opposite.
    Lazerson: We don’t have the time. This is very convoluted. I can’t begin to tell you. But the truth of the matter is 10 years finally convinced them.
    IBJ: The first residence hall was a long time being approved. Were you involved when the other ones were built?
    Lazerson: No, I was gone. I told the board in January of 1993 that I wanted to retire from the position in June of that year. They asked me to stay another six months and I had a year of sabbatical. The construction of the first residence hall began in ’93. I retired from the university Dec. 31, 1994.
    IBJ: Other buildings were formulated while you were there, like the Vadalabene Center.
    Lazerson: Yes, and one of the last things I initiated the planning for was the new Engineering Building.
    IBJ: You’ve got to see the campus blossom even more in recent years. From a distance. How do you think she’s done?
    Lazerson: I think it’s done very well. I think the important thing, the first priority, is doing well by the students. That institution exists for the students.
    I grew up in Detroit, Mich. My father worked in a factory all his life. He left school in the eighth grade, my mother the same. It’s a funny thing, but I always felt somehow or other, that this institution represented what Wayne University, the city university in Detroit, did for me.

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