Eric Anderson expected to spend his academic career teaching history in the Napa Valley, a place he laughingly calls an academic “hardship post.”
And, for 30 years he did just that, writing, developing an honors program and chairing his department at Seventh-day Adventist-owned Pacific Union College, a few miles from St. Helena in Northern California’s wine country.
Then Southwestern Adventist University made Anderson an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Now, after nine years after making a sharp career turn that brought him to Keene as president of Johnson County’s only four-year university, Anderson and his wife plan to put Texas in the rear view mirror and head back to the Napa Valley, the grandkids and retirement at the semester’s end.
Anderson is looking forward to getting back to the house they bought in California in 1978, but the folks who worked with him at the little school on the hill seem to be reluctant to see him go.
“They understand, but they’re sad,” Amy Rosenthal, vice president for academic administration, said. “They were hoping he would stay a little longer.
“There just had been a period when the administration and the faculty had just not jelled,” before Anderson arrived, Rosenthal said. “That was a time of some growing pains.”
Karl Konrad, a retired SWAU dean of the faculty and chemistry professor, concurred.
“It was kind of a critical year when he came in 2005,” Konrad said. “We’d been going through a period of declining enrollment.”
Konrad also said the campus had high turnover a the top.
And the school was also due for the regional accrediting association to make its once-a-decade evaluation of the university.
“We hadn’t explained why we had four presidents in five years,” Konrad said.
But Anderson did more than provide stability.
“He has really made this institution a family,” Rosenthal said. “It means a lot to create this dynamic. Eric and Loretta [his wife] have really cultivated this.”
Judy Myers Laue, a SWAU English professor, was on the search committee that invited Anderson, 64, to Texas.
“From the beginning, he was one of the people on my short list,” Laue said, recalling that Anderson sent her a photo of his well-worn ’71 Ford pickup truck at some point during the presidential search. “We figured a guy who drove a pickup could come to Texas.”
She and Anderson stopped to chat when they crossed paths outside the administration building recently. Before the interlude was over, she’d good-naturedly whacked him a couple of times as they discussed books her English-literature students were reading. Laue also teased her boss about his cufflink collection.
Although Anderson said his wife tells him he dresses too formally, the white-haired administrator doesn’t come off as a starchy guy, cufflinks, french cuffs and suit notwithstanding.
Nor does he seem to be the sort of academic or administrator who’s so focused that he or she can’t see outside his wheelhouse: It was Anderson, not the literature professor, who came up with the name of novelist Pat Barker when the conversation with Laue turned to books about World War I, for example.
Apart from his sense of humor, taste in trucks and the things you can assess by looking at a curriculum vitae, Laue also remembers liking another thing about Anderson.
“He had a way of saying ‘we,’” when he talked about what he hoped to accomplish at SWAU, Laue said.
Anderson laughs when he talks about his ability to work with students, faculty, alumni, board members and donors: The son of a psychiatrist with a hospital practice, he said he was reared around “crazy people.”
And despite growing up in the affluent Chicago suburb of Oak Brook — it’s the kind of place with polo fields, corporate headquarters and family incomes that hover around $152,000 — it turns out that Anderson had some connections to Keene and the university.
Before graduate school at the University of Chicago, or the year he spent teaching in Borneo, one of his mentors during Anderson’s undergraduate years at Andrews University in Michigan was Donald McAdams, who went on to a nine-year stint as SWAU’s president.
There was also a family connection: From 1897 to 1902, Anderson’s great-grandfather, Charles C. Lewis, was principal of SWAU’s early ancestors, a school then known as Keene Industrial Academy.
As it turned out, Anderson had to make one of the toughest decisions of his presidential career when, in 2009, he had to decide whether to close Soutwestern ColorGraphics, a university-owned company whose roots stretched to his great-grandfather’s day.
“It had to pay its own way. It was a victim of the recession of ’08,” Anderson said. “That was a disappointment.”
Anderson has had to make other tough calls, and still has second thoughts about one or two of the moves: dropping SWAU’s criminal justice program, for example.
“That may have been a mistake,” he said. “We may have to reconsider that.”
It hasn’t been all bad, however, despite enrollment challenges, a tough economy and a modest university endowment that Anderson said is something “under $10 million.”
The Adventist denomination contributes about $3 million annually, and Anderson has had a few pleasant surprises: the two times that a benefactor dropped by campus, unannounced, for example.
“In each case,” Anderson said, “he made us a gift of a million dollars.”
Under Anderson’s leadership, the faculty has also added key leaders who are women. Rosenthal, who met Anderson when she took an undergraduate history class from him, and was then a colleague on the Pacific Union faculty, is one of them.
“Some of those things happen not because you planned them” Anderson said. “You’re just open to a range of possibilities.”
In addition to creating the university’s first research professorship, Anderson also leaves SWAU with a new simulation center for the growing nursing program and a just-approved associate of applied science degree in fire science.
Fire-science classes are slated to begin online this summer, Rosenthal said. On-campus classes will start in the fall, Rosenthal said.
“I think it may be the first program where we begin to think about public service,” Rosenthal said. “Anything we can do to reach out and make Johnson County stronger we want to do because it’s our home.”
Meeting what Rosenthal calls the “cost challenge” at a school that depends heavily on tuition will continue to be a headache for Anderson’s successor.
The university needs a performance hall, an academic building. It would also be nice to have a cafeteria with some meeting space.
But for Anderson, the career detour that brought him to Texas was the right turn in the road.
“I’m glad I did it,” he said.