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Straight Shooter

Ed Parrish's term as the 14th president of WPI may have ended, but the legacy of the frank-talking southern gentleman who put the university on the national map remains.

By Ray Bert '93

Ed Parrish sits in the WPI president's house on Drury Lane, sipping water and discussing his impending retirement. It's a bitterly cold January day, and as talk turns to attachments Parrish formed during nine years in the heart of New England (the weather isn't one of them for this lifelong southerner), he's asked offhandedly how he'd react should the Boston Red Sox ever manage to win the World Series.

"Frankly, my dear, ..." he responds without hesitation in his deep, measured drawl. He chuckles to himself and explains that while he cares not a whit, it's largely because he doesn't follow baseball. (Football and the Super Bowl-champion Patriots are another matter, he makes clear.)

The easy answer would have been to say that, of course, he'd be happy for Red Sox Nation, but Parrish isn't wired that way. On matters far more serious than sports, he says what he thinks--says the hard things, the things that need to be said regardless of whether others want to hear them. That trait, combined with his ability to build community and consensus, served him well during his tenure at WPI--a time marked by significant challenges and important successes.

Perfect Match

Edward Alton Parrish arrived at WPI in 1995, fresh from eight years as dean of engineering at Vanderbilt University. Though he'd had success expanding the faculty and the research program there, he found himself "pretty frustrated" trying to get faculty at a major research university to take a greater interest in teaching undergraduates. "I was ready to go back to the faculty, do research and, especially, teach freshmen again," he says. "I had planned to step down in another year anyway." So when WPI came calling, Parrish was ready to listen. There was only one problem. "I knew very little about WPI," he says. "I had no clue where Worcester was, and I certainly couldn't pronounce it."

Parrish's lack of familiarity with WPI was both surprising and predictable. Surprising, because he was a veteran of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET, the organization that accredits engineering programs nationwide) and a key proponent and contributor to the development of Engineering Criteria 2000, its new outcomes-based approach to accreditation. Predictable, because while WPI's innovative, project-focused curriculum was in many ways a working model of what ABET hoped to promote for all engi-neering programs, the school had long struggled to gain wider recognition for its program.

"I learned that 25 years earlier a group of faculty at this small institution, which few people had heard of, had come to the same conclusions that many national studies by the engineering education groups had come to," says Parrish, betraying some residual surprise and admiration. After all, WPI's academic revolution prefigured the national movement to base an engineer's education on learning to solve real problems rather than just memorizing facts and formulas. "And more than simply writing a report and putting it on a shelf, they had actually done something. That's why I came; I was blown away. And the longer I was here, the more impressed I became.

Nine Years That Changed WPI

The presidency of Edward Alton Parrish was marked by significant growth and achievement. Here are some milestones.

"WPI is still so far ahead of most other technological institutions," Parrish says. "There's a huge flywheel that's been in motion here for 30 years, and all it takes is an occasional swat to keep it going. A lot of places are still trying to get the thing to start moving. It requires a cultural change, not a legislative or executive change."

In WPI, Parrish discovered a school already deeply committed to the principles and goals of EC 2000. In Parrish, WPI found a champion: an experienced educator and administrator who had the ear of influential people throughout the engineering education community. "I made it my mission in life to make WPI better known," Parrish says, "and fortunately I had a national pulpit to work from...a network I could use to try to make people better aware of WPI's efforts."

Advocate and Ambassador

That mission, of course, wasn't without its complications. Parrish came to WPI at a difficult time in the school's history. Succeeding John Lott Brown '46, who had filled in admirably for nine months as interim president, Parrish faced a skeptical faculty and significant budget problems--the result of spiraling financial aid costs in the mid- to late-1990s.

"Jack Brown did a lot to smooth over things," Parrish says. "And we came in and added to what he had done. Within three or four years, people's suspicions and skepticisms eventually began to die out."

As a successful administrator who believed passionately in the importance of teaching (he developed and taught a freshman engineering course while serving as dean at Vanderbilt to set an example for faculty who seemed allergic to such a task), Parrish understood the faculty's central importance to the school's success.

"Ed's being a former faculty member was critically important," says Jack Carney, provost and vice president for academic affairs at WPI, who had worked with Parrish at Vanderbilt. "It took several years to develop a new strategic plan for WPI, and his collegial attitude toward the faculty helped make it a consensus, rather than something handed down from on high." That approach played a large part in putting the school back on an even keel.

Also important to Parrish's success was his ability to face facts and his willingness to make the hard decisions. Nothing inspires trust like honesty; one of the best examples of this aspect of Parrish's leadership style: convincing the Board of Trustees of the need for significant tuition increases in the late 1990s to bring WPI's price more in line with the true cost of providing a WPI education.

"A lot of attention was being paid nationally to tuition costs outpacing inflation," Parrish recalls. "But WPI's tuition was lagging behind its peers and new resources were needed. What helped persuade the board was the fact that even students who paid full tuition were not covering the cost of their education--everyone was getting about a $6,000 annual subsidy." The five-year plan (two years of large increases--9 percent in 1996 and 6.75 percent in 1997--followed by three years of more modest increases) enabled WPI to add 20 new faculty positions (a 10 percent increase in the size of faculty without a commensurate increase in the student body) and make many improvements to teaching and laboratory facilities.

Despite the obvious need, "there was concern about the reaction of parents," Parrish says. So he did what seemed to him the most logical course of action: he gave it to 'em straight. "We laid out in a letter to parents why we did it and how we were going to use the money, and promised to report back on the impact."

The President's Office had grown accustomed to receiving at least a dozen angry letters from parents each year when the new tuition was announced. "The year we raised tuition 9 percent, we received just six letters; only one began negatively, and it ended positively," Parrish notes with satisfaction. "The following year, there was not a single letter complaining about tuition."

The influx of new faculty members made possible by the tuition increase did more than lower the student-faculty ratio: it gave Parrish reinforcements to help raise WPI's profile. "I tried to encourage the faculty to 'get out of town' and talk about what they were doing," he says. "They hadn't felt the need to blow their own horn...but that's important."

Parrish's prodding and additional travel funds resulted in greater faculty participation in conferences, symposiums, and other forums. Combined with the president's own indefatigable efforts--he logged more than 120,000 miles in the air some years--WPI became an increasingly visible presence on the national stage. Examples include the selection of WPI as one of two universities to pilot-test the EC 2000 criteria and the Association of American Colleges & Universities' designation of WPI as a leadership institution to help define the future of liberal education in the United States.

Southern Comfort

Ed Parrish exercised his musical talents by attacking challenging compositions on the grand piano in the living room at One Drury Lane. He also relaxed in the basement of the presidential home as he crafted exquisite items in his well-equipped woodworking shop.

By any standard, Ed Parrish adapted extremely well to what was a major change in his professional environment. Educated at the University of Virginia, he had served on the faculty of his alma mater before becoming chair of the electrical engineering department; he then proceeded to Vanderbilt in 1987. "Having always been at major research universities, WPI was quite a change for me personally," he says.

So, too, was adapting to life above the Mason-Dixon Line. "We are not winter people," Parrish says of himself and his wife, Shirley, a mathematician and computer scientist. "Summer and fall can be delightful here...and so can the day or two of spring, if you can identify them."

Possessed of a dry, subtle wit, Parrish is every bit the courtly southern gentleman, unfolding his sentences as carefully and gracefully as he folds his tall, lanky frame into a chair. He clearly enjoys telling fish-out-of-water stories about his misadventures with the state's idiosyncratic road system, noting that Carney, a Massachusetts native, had warned him of two things when he headed north: don't get emotionally involved with the Red Sox, and don't try to drive in Boston. He batted .500. "Eventually, I gave up and bought a GPS," he says.

The closeness of everything in Worcester was also no small matter for a man who prizes his space, who had always lived in secluded areas with "plenty of woods and quiet." "He is not an extrovert," Carney says. "He can surprise you, but he's generally a private man." So while Parrish admits that he and Shirley will miss some of the convenience of a more densely populated area, they are enjoying the relative privacy and quiet--he says each word several times--of their new home on Skidaway Island in Savannah, Georgia.

Parrish has plenty of plans for his retirement. He'll put his computer engineering skills back to work for his youngest son's computer company, "working in the back room taking care of hardware and software problems. Just because I like doing it." He'll also remain active with ABET, where he is a fellow, a member of the board of directors, and chair of the International Activities Committee, and with the IEEE, which elected him a fellow in 1986 for his work on pattern recognition and image processing and recently elected him to the board of directors of the IEEE Foundation.

He'll also have time to more fully indulge two other passions: music and woodworking. An accomplished musician who played in a jazz band and once had a repertoire of many instruments, Parrish limits himself these days to piano and guitar. He says he looks forward to reestablishing in earnest what is clearly a long-standing rivalry with his oldest son. "He's a better pianist than me. Or he was. He needs to practice," Parrish says with undisguised glee. "I'm back now. I'm ahead."

Parrish does his woodworking in an extensive workshop that includes many hand- and power tools. "I've been adding to it ever since I was 10 years old," he says, and points out several examples of his craftsmanship, which include mantel clocks and footstools.

Fly Away Home

Parrish's handiwork is even more evident in the strides WPI has made in recent years. While he is more comfortable sharing than accepting credit, he is clearly proud of what was accomplished during his presidency (see sidebar on facing page). For example, he notes that funds raised through the $150 million Campaign for WPI (triple the goal of the previous capital campaign) funded, among other projects, the long-awaited Campus Center. He also has fond memories of a number of alumni events, including the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the London Project Center. On the downside, "one big regret is being unable to get a new academic building built and occupied," he says. "The economy killed us and forced a delay."

Parrish worked hard to leave things in good shape for his successor, Dennis Berkey. That includes having made the difficult decision, in the face of what he terms "the hardest budget year I've ever had to deal with in 25 years and probably the worst budget year in WPI history," to eliminate 42 staff positions in January and make other cuts in various areas. The reduction in force, though painful, was part of a financial restructuring that will enable WPI to make new investments in the years ahead and relieved the incoming president from having to immediately confront a budget crisis. And it was perfectly in character for Parrish to make the hard call himself.

"One of the nice things about being in a position like this is that you're able to make decisions that have a broad effect on the institution, not just short-term but long-term. You're also in a position to affect the quality of education of thousands of students during your tenure, the professional careers of hundreds of faculty members, and the quality of life for the staff," he says. "There are a lot of things that you can feel good about."

So, then, why leave? "I have always felt that eight to ten years in a position like this--whether president, or dean, or department head--is the maximum," Parrish says. "A change is healthy at that point."

Parrish, 67, is clearly at peace with having made his way back south, and for a moment you can see him skipping ahead in his mind, envisioning more time with his family, his piano, and his woodworking tools, and less time in the frigid cold. Sure, he'll miss the WPI family and the university environment, but the straight truth is that when he looks around his Georgia homestead he likes what he sees. "In Worcester, there are a lot of gray days in the winter," he ruminates. "In Savannah, there are blue skies, you're in shirtsleeves...."

Ray Bert is a frequent contributor to this magazine.

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