By Anne Palmer Peterson

Officially, he was provost. But during two years as No. 2 at the University of Michigan, James Bernard Machen earned credit for rescuing the school from crisis.

James Bernard Machen – an authentic guy who prefers to go by Bernie – prepared himself for candidacy at Utah by unexpectedly guiding the University of Michigan through the turnover of three presidents. He had only planned to re-structure the school of dentistry, but wound up serving as the university’s de facto president instead.

Machen steps in to serve as thirteenth president of the University of Utah January 1, 1998.

A soft-spoken southerner, he is at the same time gentle and disarmingly direct. The initiative he took in helping the University of Michigan adjust to changing times propelled his ascent in higher education administration. “I wanted to be where a lot is going to happen, as opposed to where a lot has happened,” says Machen. As second in command at Ann Arbor, he not only saw a lot-he had the unenviable task of repairing much of the damage that occurred in the wake of past presidents.

A peacemaker who soothed strained relations between the University of Michigan Board of Regents and the university’s president (they weren’t speaking), he also managed to get faculty and top administrators on good terms again. Machen (pronounced MATCH-en) is highly regarded for leaving the university in better shape than he first encountered.

It wasn’t a job he’d set his sights on. Opportunity simply knocked, and persisted until Machen answered.

His predecessor had quit under pressure. The president asked each of the deans whom they would prefer as interim provost, and Machen was the unanimous choice. “I didn’t want to be provost, but I agreed to do it as interim provost while a search to find a permanent one was conducted,” he recalls. Within weeks of taking the job, the president who appointed him announced his resignation. Machen wound up extending his term for two years – again at the behest of his peers. His term as provost ended Sept. 1, 1997, when he began a sabbatical. Many of the deans at Michigan were disappointed that Machen chose not to seek the presidency at Michigan.

The University of Michigan’s provost is chief academic and budget officer of the institution. The provost oversees the activities of 19 deans and is central to fundraising efforts. Unlike Utah, where tuition is established by the Board of Regents, the provost at Michigan is integrally involved in setting tuition. Machen was recognized for granting one of the lowest tuition increases at Michigan in 30 years. He also implemented a new budgetary system. And, during his tenure, the university completed the most successful fundraising campaign at any public university to date. In all, $1.3 billion was raised during the capital campaign for Michigan which ended September 30, 1997.

Colleagues with whom he worked say that Machen has all of the qualities of a great leader.

He is open, honest, willing to listen, and capable of making the case for his position as strongly as possible, says Michigan’s new president, Lee Bollinger. In fact, Machen makes his case so persuasively, with such precision, one might assume he was trained in law – not dentistry.

Says Bollinger, “I wanted Bernie to remain provost when I came on as president, but it was clear to me right from the beginning that he should be a president rather than a provost. He had already mastered that, and was clearly ready to lead an institution.”

Machen, 53, and his wife, Chris, don’t even try to mask their excitement about finally moving West, to Salt Lake City. Living in the West is a dream they share. The couple met in St. Louis, Mo., where she attended nursing school and he was a student in the school of dentistry. He had studied pre-dentistry at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Machen went on to earn a master’s degree in pediatric dentistry and a doctorate in educational psychology at the University of Iowa. His expertise in educational psychology is testing and assessment of learning.

The young dentist’s academic career began at George Washington University. From there, the Machens moved to the School of Dentistry at the University of Maryland for a year and then to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where they remained from 1975 to 1989. He taught pediatric dentistry, was a clinical professor of educational psychology, and eventually served as assistant dean of the dental school. She was a nurse in pediatric critical care.

Former University of Michigan President James Duderstadt, the one who appointed Machen provost then retired, was responsible for bringing Machen to Ann Arbor from North Carolina to rebuild a dental school that had fallen on hard times. Duderstadt remains at the University, where he is involved in planning for virtual education. When Machen was selected as a finalist for the presidency of the University of Georgia last spring, Duderstadt told a reporter, “He’s been the glue that has held this place together.”

Machen said that while he allowed himself to be nominated for presidencies at Georgia and Alabama, where he also was a finalist, neither had the appeal that Utah held for him and Chris, a horsewoman and 4H club leader who rides her quarterhorse daily. “I’ve sort of been looking around for the right opportunity, at a research university. I really love the West. And the University of Utah feels very comfortable, a lot like what we’re used to,” he says.

Bollinger, who grew up in the West, maintains that the Machens will be a good fit with Utah. “Bernie’s southern character is closer to the western character, than an easterner’s or midwesterner’s,” he struggles to explain. Machen was born in Greenwood, Mississippi. He works long hours and relaxes by playing golf. He’s not averse to doing business on the links, either. And when he can’t sleep, he watches the Golf Channel for tips.

Members of the University of Utah’s presidential selection committee say they were particularly taken with Machen’s interpersonal skills, and experience that included health sciences administration. They forwarded his name with three others to the State Board of Regents, who made their selection and announced it in a hastily-called press conference at 4 p.m. on Halloween.

One of Machen’s priorities was promoting diversity at Michigan, where people of color comprise one-fourth of the student body. Tom Loveridge BA’79 MA’81, acting director of the Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Office and a search committee member, was impressed. “You get the feeling when you are dealing with him you are dealing with him honestly,” says Loveridge.

His accomplishments as provost include involving faculty in institutional and academic unit governance to encourage diversity of ideas, a sense of shared responsibility, collaboration, collegiality, and institutional excellence. “He has a talent in building linkages with various constituencies and helping them see other points of view, and I’m hopeful that will help him be a fine president,” observes former Faculty Senate President Susan Chesteen PhD’78, another member of the selection committee.

Michigan Vice President for University Relations Walter Harrison applauded Machen’s efforts to unite faculty across campus in order to improve communication. As provost, Machen orchestrated events where, for instance, professors of medicine, architecture, and German and their partners attended dinner with him and participated in guided conversations. “I was invited to a couple of these, and it was incredible; people who had worked in separate departments but been on campus together for 20 years had never met, because they were too isolated,” says Harrison. “Several people have told me that they became involved in interdisciplinary work with someone they met at a dinner Bernie hosted.”

Harrison paid Machen the highest compliment of all: “He’s the best human being I have ever worked with. I’ve worked with a lot of very talented administrators, but he remembers that what you’re doing as administrators is working for people. It’s always the first thing he thinks about. Everything is done in an atmosphere of mutual respect and admiration.” That doesn’t mean people always agree with Machen’s decisions – but at least Machen solicits opinions, weighs them fairly, and makes his judgments known.

At the same time, colleagues say Machen is fiscally tough. He is recognized at Michigan for his successful cost-containment efforts and talent for reducing operating costs. Machen delegated authority to deans to ensure budgets were closely tied to cost centers and academic priorities. The budget system he implemented is known as responsibility-centered or value-centered management.

His focus on cost centers at the dental school, for instance, brought about reforms in the curriculum, an emphasis on competency rather than classroom time, and better care for patients of the university’s clinics. Patient volume doubled in five years, says Dean William Kotowicz, and the school now has five rather than 18 departments where funds are managed and department chairs take responsibility for faculty recruitment, mentoring, staff development, and research. The bottom line: decision making is carried out in departments where responsibilities include not only allocation of resources but accountability for outcomes.

“Sometimes when people hear that a dentist is head of a university, they question that individual has a broad enough experience,” ventures Kotowicz. “The fact that Bernie’s background includes educational psychology, having served as dean of the dental school, and involving himself in undergraduate education on campus committees served him well. He’s a quick study. And he became very well-versed in the value-centered methodology of budgeting,” he says.

Last year, Machen recommended freezing non-academic departmental increases to make the university more efficient. “Higher education has done a poor job of minimizing costs in non-academic units. We can’t keep driving up the cost of education for students, so we have to take money out of the administrative side and reinvest it in improving the quality of education,” he says.

He advocates spending more on recruiting and retaining faculty and less on campus buildings, and would like to see philanthropic efforts aimed at establishing endowed funds for top faculty and scholarships for students. Former President Arthur K. Smith, he said, told him that he believed the University of Utah’s student body and teaching programs are absolutely of the highest quality, and not yet fully recognized for how good they are.

“The quality of undergraduate education at a flagship research university is incomparable. The University ought to capitalize on that distinction, because the ability to get an education like that is going to make a difference to those who take advantage of it for the rest of their lives,” Machen says.

He believes that what universities like Utah do matters enormously, and so is determined to find ways to make the public understand what distinguishes it from other institutions of higher education.

“Utah deserves a world-class university for its citizens. The University of Utah is not a well-funded institution, and that makes its quality all the more laudable,” he says, noting that of the 3,500 institutions of higher education in the U.S., fewer than 100 have been identified as Carnegie Foundation Research Level I universities. In a group of 31 public research universities with medical schools, the U ranks last in state dollars per student for educational purposes. The University of Michigan was ranked No. 1 in 1995-96.

After a 10-month search for Arthur Smith’s successor, Machen was named just in time to shepherd the U through the upcoming legislative session. Chris won’t make the move until spring, when their daughter Maggie graduates from high school, though she intends to commute to Utah as often as possible. Machen expects that to free him up to put in long hours in preparation for and during legislative hearings.

“The key to building accountability,” he says, “is to start building trust, one-on-one.” And then, perhaps applying a little educational psychology, he raises his dark eyebrows and asks, “Don’t you trust me?”

Copyright 1998 by The University of Utah Alumni Association