From a brown leather sofa chair on the east wall of his new, spacious office, CSU Interim President Tony Frank takes a much-needed moment to breathe.
“Everyone wants to know what my plans are, but I’ve only had about 120 hours in this office to think about it,” he says, revealing a fatigued smile beneath his self-described “Todd Helton” goatee.
It’s a short distance from his old office of the provost across the lobby of the Administration Building, set at the apex of CSU’s Historic Oval. But the move up the leadership ladder and across the way has sent a ripple effect through a transitioning administration.
During his short time in the office, which former President and Chancellor Larry Penley surprisingly vacated two weeks ago amid a shroud of criticism, Frank says he’s been busy “putting out fires.”
His schedule is filled with back-to-back meetings with the student government president and vice president, state legislators and other officials, and an eager news media. And he’s running about 20 minutes behind.
“It’s a bad strategy to keep state representatives waiting in your first week as interim president,” he says, admittedly hoping to get out of posing for a portrait for the Collegian.
CSU’s transfer of power
As the nation witnessed a historical presidential victory two weeks ago, so did CSU experience an unexpected change in executive leadership.
With little notice, Frank, a 48-year-old pathologist and administrator who has been at CSU for 16 years, took the university helm – an increasingly challenging role as Colorado ranks at the bottom of the barrel in higher education support and as economic woes have universities across the country gripping to dwindling financial support.
“As a pathologist, I’d tell you there aren’t really a whole lot of organs you can remove without the patient dying. And I think the same thing’s true about the university,” Frank said. “We can’t live without kidneys, hearts, lungs – you get the drill. But if you had to say . what’s the heart and what’s the soul, the lifeblood if you will, of a university, I don’t think you could separate students and faculty.”
For some on campus who previously clashed with Penley – whose tenure was underscored by his all-business CEO approach and a hushed, last-minute attempt to drastically increase tuition in 2007 – say Frank has a unique opportunity to mend relationships.
Throughout his time at CSU, Penley was criticized for a lack of communication with campus, eventually sparking inquiries from student government, faculty and state legislators who cited too much focus on administration while the academic colleges and the library saw a much smaller growth. At the same time, tuition and fees sharply increased.
Penley was also lauded, however, for substantially increasing the school’s budget and for thrusting the school’s ongoing research and commitment to sustainability to the national stage.
Frank says he hope to continue Penley’s push to establish CSU’s national prominence but hopes a split role of chancellor and president will allow him — and his possible replacement — more time to work with students, faculty and staff on campus.
“The main thing, the reason for a university’s existence, is teaching and learning, the discovery of new knowledge, and you can not do either of those things without faculty and students,” he said. “You take either one out, you don’t have a university anymore.”
In stark contrast to Penley’s mixed legacy, Frank has already announced cutting about half a million in administrative support and has vowed to increase transparency in the budget by opening CSU’s finances to public debate.
“For me, quite frankly, the last week, it feels like a breath of fresh air blew through the campus,” said John Straayer, a long-time political science professor and public critic of Penley.
“All the dealings I’ve had with Dr. Frank have been good . he doesn’t always agree with what I have to say, but I feel more than pretty good. I feel very good right now.”
“There’s just a comfort level that I feel now that I didn’t before,” he added.
Straayer, who has worked at CSU in several capacities in the last 42 years under nine different presidents and interim presidents, said he believes Frank would be a good choice to lead the school and that he hopes the CSU System Board of Governors promotes from within.
“What you don’t need is a bunch of résumé builders who are drudged up by a bunch of head hunters,” he said. ” What you get in Tony Frank is someone who has been here for a long time.”
Taylor Smoot, the president of the Associated Student of CSU, said Frank is “the man for the job.”
The man behind the goatee
Frank’s climb to CSU’s top office was an unlikely one.
“I didn’t want to be an undergraduate,” Frank said. “I wanted to stay on the farm in north central Illinois. The girl I was dating at the time was from a dairy farm about four miles away . My sole goal was to stay on the farm, and, eventually, to marry her.
“And I think my parents did a very smart thing at that point — they said that you don’t have to go to college if you don’t want to, but we do expect you to move out of the house.”
Growing up on a farm about six miles outside a town of about 200 people — “several miles outside the megalopolis of Compton, Ill.” — Frank’s roots in agriculture are perhaps appropriate to the mission of a land grant institution founded as Colorado Agricultural College.
On his mother’s urging, Frank attended Wartburg College, a small Lutheran liberal arts college in his home state, on a scholarship.
But Frank wanted to attend the University of Illinois.
“You could fit the entire campus in about a four-block area,” Frank said. ” . It wound up being a great education, but it missed some of the things that a big research university can offer. You didn’t have opportunities to be actively involved in research labs and things of that nature.”
When Frank graduated, “the farm economy had gone in the tank,” so instead of returning to rural Illinois, he applied for the veterinary medicine program at the University of Illinois, where he eventually found pathology and his wife, Patty.
“(I met Patty) in the University of Illinois Small Animal Emergency room as a student,” he said.
“As a farm kid, I was pretty out of my league, and as the daughter of a faculty member, she was able to help me survive that rotation — but only barely.”
Frank’s wife now works in private practice in Fort Collins and is “the brains of the operation,” he said. Together they have three daughters: Jenny, Hannah and Megan.
Developing a flair for research, Frank later accepted a faculty position at Oregon State University and in 1993 moved to CSU, where he previously served as chairman of the department of pathology and associate dean for research in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
Frank says he’s excited to lead the university, which he’s seen overcome myriad hurdles including a flood that devastated campus a decade ago and historic shortfalls in state funding five years ago.
“There’s something about this place. There’s a special quality to it,” he said. “We get a lot of things done that perhaps we don’t have any right to get done as well as we do them with the resources we have available to us . the university doesn’t have a culture of ‘Well, we’re not going to do what we’d like to do because we don’t have the funding we need.”
When he’s not on campus addressing faculty council or in Japan working to establish the new environmental medicine collaboration with schools there, Frank enjoys hiking, cooking, rooting for the Chicago Cubs or playing “a bad imitation of golf” with his family.
And though he’s been in microbrewery-rich Fort Collins for the better part of two decades, Frank says in homage to the notoriously odd baseball announcer his favorite is Budweiser because “It was good enough for Harry Caray.”
Enterprise Editor J. David McSwane can be reached at email@example.com.