Nice Guys Finish First
Is it possible to be president of Kentucky's leading metropolitan research university and still have everyone like you?
Apparently so, if you're James Ramsey.
An educator with more than 20 years' experience in state government, Ramsey was named president of the University of Louisville in November after serving as its acting president for two and a half months.
Only a few days after he expressed interest in the permanent position, the university's presidential search committee unanimously recommended him as the No. 1 pick for the job. Two days later, the U of L Board of Trustees hired him by unanimous vote with an immediate start date.
Faculty, student and staff leaders, alumni and community members reacted to the news with enthusiasm.
Ramsey, who initially wasn't a candidate for the permanent job, says he decided to apply for it only after people on and off campus strongly urged him to do so.
"The job grew on me," says Ramsey. "Many people asked me to rethink my initial position and the overwhelming support made me sit back, think and reconsider."
So what is it about Ramsey that inspires such goodwill from others?
"Talking to him is like talking to your next-door neighbor," says Chris Marlin, president of U of L's Student Government Association. "When you meet the guy, he comes across as so personable and easy to talk to you feel like you've known him all your life. He's as nice as they come."
David Ensign, faculty senate chair and trustee, says if he had to choose one word to describe Ramsey it would be "genuine."
Ramsey is "bright and extremely capable," Ensign adds. "He's served at the top of state government, but I don't think there's a pretentious bone in his body."
In late September, Ensign and Ramsey were among attendees at the Governor's Annual Conference on Postsecondary Education Trusteeship in Lexington. Ensign assumed Ramsey would sit at the head table with top officials, but instead he took a chair at the table with Ensign and his wife and ended up chatting with them at length.
"You could see people 'working the room' to try and meet the influential people," Ensign recalls. "Dr. Ramsey didn't have to do that. People came to our table to see him."
Rick Feldhoff, former Faculty Senate chair, agrees that Ramsey is the kind of person who inspires trust and confidence in others. "His core personality is sincere, people-caring and people-sensitive. There's an empathy there." Feldhoff adds that although Ramsey is extremely well-liked, he doesn't shy away from making tough decisions.
"When you listen to people and try to understand their viewpoints and perspectives, when you build collegiality the way he does, you can make tough decisions and people will respect that. His ego is not going to get in the way."
Ramsey, also senior professor of economics and public policy at U of L, is well-liked by students. Sofya Alterman, a senior economics major who worked as his student assistant, watched Ramsey in action as he taught "Economics 202 (Principles of Macroeconomics)," required for all business majors.
"He's very organized and diligent, and his lecture style is personal," she says. "He relates theory well to the real world. His students pay attention."
From the left: James, Jacqueline, Jennifer and Jane Ramsey.
A look at Ramsey's credentials shows that he's much more than just a nice guy--he's a very accomplished guy. Not only has he survived for years in the vastly different professional worlds of state government and higher education, he has steadily succeeded in them.
Besides twice serving as Kentucky's budget director and working as the state's chief economist, he has headed up both the Office of Financial Management and Economic Analysis and the Office of Investment and Debt Management. For five months in 2000 he worked as interim commissioner of Kentucky's Office of the New Economy.
In 1999 he was named Kentucky's Distinguished Economist of the Year, and in 2001 he won the National Governors Association's Outstanding Public Service Award.
Before he joined U of L's faculty three years ago, he had been on the faculty at no fewer than five other universities: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Loyola University, University of Kentucky, Western Kentucky University and Middle Tennessee State University.
A prolific author, he has published more than 60 articles since 1975 on issues ranging from zero-based budgeting to state road taxes.
He also has held two top-level finance and administrative positions in higher education, one at WKU and the other at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has worked as an adviser to the chairman of the Kentucky Council of Postsecondary Education and has served as acting president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.
Perhaps even more significantly, Ramsey was a primary architect of legislation in the late 1990s to improve Kentucky's higher education system. It is that legislation--House Bill 1--and the Challenge for Excellence, U of L's plan to achieve national preeminence by 2008, that will anchor his actions as president, Ramsey says.
"While I was acting president, I was hearing that the campus wanted someone to come in and finish the job (started by former U of L President John Shumaker). I believe we have to stay the course and move forward toward the goals of HB1 and the Challenge."
That doesn't mean Ramsey won't take a new look at the Challenge next year--the halfway point in the 10-year plan--to see if it needs "freshening up."
Current economic conditions will pose an added challenge for the university, he says. "It's important to make sure that our budget is aligned with our priorities. Maybe some of our targets are too ambitious, maybe some aren't ambitious enough."
Strengthening U of L's financial position is one of four objectives Ramsey established in a "100-day plan," a document created to identify his goals as acting president. Other objectives in the plan include addressing diversity issues, boosting legislative relations and increasing collaboration with UK.
Ramsey also wants to improve academic counseling and advising for students, promote closer integration of the Belknap and Health Sciences campuses, develop innovative ways to fund new facilities and build on existing university partnerships.
What's more, he'll continue to be an unwavering advocate for the state's Research Challenge Trust Fund (Bucks for Brains), he says.
"As time goes on, more and more people are realizing how important this program is."