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Urban visionary
Author: Jeff Kuechle; photos by Kelly James
Posted: September 25, 2008

ON HIS FIRST DAY at work, new Portland State University President Wim Wiewel rode his bike to campus, accompanied by Mayor-elect Sam Adams. Looking preppy in pleated green slacks, green PSU polo shirt, and cool lime-green cycling jacket, Wiewel was greeted by a crowd of PSU staff and students.

Portland State President Wim Wiewel"What better way to emphasize PSU's commitment to sustainability than bicycling," said a cheerful Wiewel. "And what better way to symbolize our partnership with the city than to do it with our new mayor-elect."

The event encapsulated Wiewel's approach: high energy, media-savvy, in touch with his environment, and oriented toward partnerships.

It was those same qualities that led to him taking on the interim deanship of the business school at University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), even though he had no background in business. In 1999, Wiewel, then dean of the UIC's urban planning college, was asked to step in temporarily to head the business school. Its dean, a high-profile investment banking executive, was unable to make the transition from corporate to the academic culture and had left after just one year. The faculty was deflated, and infighting that existed before continued on.

One of Wiewel's first tasks as acting head of the business school was to work with key faculty to refresh the school's strategic priorities, including an ambitious push to make it one of the top 10 comprehensive urban business schools in the country.

A year later, Wiewel won out in a national search to become the college's permanent dean, and was well on his way to achieving his goals for the school. During his first three years of leadership, the business college moved up from 94th to 49th in U.S. News & World Report's undergraduate college of business national rankings. He increased full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty by almost 15 percent, which reduced class sizes and expanded course offerings. In the process, he infused the college with new energy and high expectations.

Wiewel served four years as the dean of UIC's College of Business Administration. His crowning achievement was landing a $5 million gift to establish the Liautaud Graduate School of Business.

"He was so successful that the faculty—economists, management, and information science professors—chose him to be their permanent dean," says David C. Perry, UIC colleague and scholarly collaborator. "That exemplifies Wim. His administrative skill cuts across disciplines. He truly is an administrative and intellectual leader who asks the questions and finds the practices that best exemplify the university as an urban anchor."

Mayor-elect Sam Adams and PSU President Wim Wiewel
Mayor-elect Sam Adams and PSU President Wim Wiewel

WIEWEL, 58, was chosen in May as the eighth president of Portland State University. A career academic, Wiewel has a well-documented passion for building urban university programs that make the cities surrounding them better places to live.

A case in point: The UIC Great Cities program created in the early 1990s to address key urban issues in Chicago and around the globe. Wiewel was given the task of developing the details of the program.

One of those specifics, generated through a series of committee and town hall meetings, was the Neighborhoods Initiative. At Wiewel's suggestion, the university worked with two neighborhoods bordering the UIC campus: the primarily African American Near West Side and the mostly Latino Pilsen neighborhoods. Through the initiative, the university created collaborations with the neighborhoods' community, business, school, and health agencies. Substantial federal grants funded research and community programs to improve the quality of life in both neighborhoods.

The Great Cities program is still an integral part of the UIC mission, bringing in millions of dollars in funding annually.

"Certainly the Great Cities project is Wim's legacy here," says Joe Persky, a professor of economics at UIC and another frequent Wiewel collaborator. "He brought people in from all over the world and involved them in research and community development. The Neighborhoods Initiative has made a huge difference here in Chicago. It's still one of the defining programs of this university."

A VISIONARY with a wide-ranging intellect is revealed in Wiewel's 25-page résumé. It shows a man who has headed major efforts in academic program development, published books and papers on long-term strategic planning for large cities, presented papers at major conferences from Shanghai to Belfast, and chaired committees and boards addressing some of the most fundamental challenges facing U.S. cities today. Wiewel holds a master's in sociology and urban planning from University of Amsterdam, where he was born, and a doctorate in sociology from Northwestern University.

For the past four years, Wiewel served as chief academic officer at University of Baltimore. His years in Baltimore were jam-packed with the creation of an entirely new freshman and sophomore program and assistance with a planned 50 percent growth of the institution, including development of a joint MBA and an undergraduate real estate program.

IN PERSON, Wiewel displays a talent for explaining complex concepts effortlessly with his masterful command of the English language enlivened by a slight Dutch accent. Wiewel came to the U.S. as a teenage exchange student 40 years ago. His eloquence before groups may be something of a genetic gift.

"My grandfather in Amsterdam was a very good public speaker, although I only saw him speak at family events," says Wiewel. "He made the toast, whatever the occasion. I always was impressed by how he would stand up and verbalize what others were thinking and feeling-make people laugh and feel good. I could see that I liked that role, going back to when I was just a boy."

Wiewel had other important influences as well.

"At my American high school, 12th-grade social studies was team-taught by two of the best teachers I've ever had," remembers Wiewel. "It was a conversion experience. It's one of the reasons I believe in the power of good teaching. These guys were totally committed, totally into it, and were able to enthuse a very diverse group of students about sociology."

The late Rob Mier at University of Illinois Chicago was a mentor and major influencer of Wiewel's career. Mier, a professor of urban planning and economic development, was a renowned social activist who in 1979 hired Wiewel as a research associate.

"Rob was very good at analyzing a situation and presenting that analysis to people in a compelling manner, thereby shaping the logical next steps for an organization to take," says Wiewel. "He was a great entrepreneur, strongly valued equity and social justice, and knew how to steer the university's resources to promote those values."

Wim and Alice WiewelWiewel has brought this wealth of experience to Portland. His wife, Alice, is working for the Oregon University System as well. Previously director of facilities planning and associate university architect at Georgetown University, Alice Wiewel is involved in capital planning for the entire university system.

"Alice and I are incredibly excited to be here," Wiewel says. "We talk about this as our great adventure. We see it very much as a team and partnership effort between us. I couldn't envision taking this on without her as a partner. And we're thrilled that her children—my stepchildren—are here as well."

This past summer, the Wiewels and teenagers Kelly and Sam considered driving from Baltimore to Portland.

"We thought there was some nice, symbolic, even spiritual meaning to transporting our minds simultaneously with our bodies," he says. "Then we took a 185-mile car trip as a family, and decided we're going to fly instead."

The Wiewels are eager to take on the Northwest lifestyle. Both are enthusiastic hikers, tennis players, readers (at the moment, Wiewel is enjoying Richard Russo's bittersweet academic comedy, Straight Man) and, not surprisingly given the city in which he grew up, cyclists.

"Portland is very similar to Amsterdam, to me," says Wiewel. "There's just something about the lifestyle, the atmosphere-it's tolerant, a little funky, progressive, laid back, and culturally and artistically creative with a lot to do. Then there are things like the rain and the bikes."

WIEWEL'S OVERALL vision for the University will place it squarely at the juncture of academia and the real world. "Portland State has a tremendous opportunity to play a major role in shaping the future of Portland—applying its knowledge to real, current problems," Wiewel says. "That's why Portland and Portland State are such a perfect match for me."

Wiewel says he learned a number of important lessons during his tenure at UIC and at University of Baltimore. "It's been said that vision without action is a daydream; action without vision is a nightmare," he says. "I'm a big-picture guy in that I'm able to come up with the vision, but it's not something I do by myself. I do it by talking with and listening to people."

To that end, Wiewel and Mayor-elect Sam Adams plan to hold a conference in the spring that will include area community leaders. The focus is Portland State's role as a civic partner, but the meeting will also serve as Wiewel's formal inauguration.

Ultimately, university presidents are remembered for the changes that occurred during their term at the helm. What does Wiewel see for PSU?

"I want us to be known as a national and international leader in sustainability," says Wiewel, "and an exemplar of what it means to be a civic partner in a major urban area."

Jeff Kuechle, a Portland freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to Portland State Magazine.