When Luis Proenza joined the University of Akron, he assembled some staffers for an improbably named group called “Wild on Wednesdays.”
Their goal was not to party but to unearth UA “firsts,” “bests” and “onlies” that Proenza could use to pitch his new employer to students, employers, researchers and virtually anyone else who would listen.
The results, he said this week, were astounding.
“I found far more excellence than I could possibly have expected,” he said in his modest office at UA’s Buchtel Hall. “The university was not appreciated for the excellence it had.”
Proenza announced at a UA trustee’s meeting Wednesday that he is beginning to turn the page of a new chapter on his life.
Don’t call it retirement, he cautions. Call it a transition.
He will leave the presidency in June, take a one-year fully paid sabbatical and return to campus as the first holder of the new Trustees Chair in Higher Education and the Economy.
He will teach interdisciplinary courses that he develops for graduates and undergraduates in his twin primary interests: higher education and economic development, as the new position suggests.
That might mean, for example, stepping into a Bliss Institute class to discuss his experiences working with state and federal legislators.
But his nine-month schedule as a faculty member will give him time to savor a slower lifestyle. He no longer will have to rise at 5 a.m. to be the university’s chief fundraiser, cheerleader and administrator, often working well into the evening at dinners, meetings or fundraisers.
His new life likely will include sailing with his wife, Theresa, on their 28-foot boat, the Apogee. Just last week, they returned from a monthlong cruise to Lake Huron and the North Channel, a 1,000-mile excursion. Proenza envisions sailing to the Caribbean and to the East Coast.
The couple, he said, would like to visit Spain and his native country of Mexico, which he left at age 11 for boarding school in Georgia. That kind of travel, however, always leaves them with mundane questions on what to do with their dog, three cats and two birds, he said thoughtfully.
They might spend more time at their private home in Vermilion, which is on the water and near their beloved boat. He might like to do more woodworking.
Proenza is naturally private and does not talk much about his personal life. Even when directly asked, he gently deflects questions back to his career.
“He’s almost European in his bearing and demeanor,” said Candace Campbell Jackson, vice president and chief of staff, as she happens by his office. “He’s more of a thinker than he is emotive.”
Proenza waxes eloquent, though, when the topic turns to higher education.
He envisions writing an article, or possibly a book, loosely titled, Why Everything You Thought You Knew About Higher Education Is Wrong.
After 14 years at UA and decades before that at Purdue University, the University of Alaska and elsewhere, he has honed his own ideas about higher education — and they do not always reflect the mainstream view that the most selective universities are necessarily the best.
He long has argued that public universities, like UA, take students from where they are and help them to be more well-educated citizens.
“Any education is better than none,” he said.
Too often, urban universities like UA are derided because they work with students who are poorly prepared, who are not encouraged by their families or who attend college part time while working. Those students take more care and coddling than high-school valedictorians with scholarship opportunities and career goals.
How much effect does a college really have if it accepts excellent students? They will succeed no matter what, Proenza maintains. It’s the poorer students who can benefit from help in counseling or career services or faculty members.
At the same time, he does not seem bothered by the idea of an executive sitting in his paneled office with its deep blue carpeting.
In a few months, he will take down the framed proclamations and sailing photos and remove what might be the most notable decoration: a 3-foot, leatherlike kangaroo with a Zippy stuffed animal tucked in its pouch.
He didn’t know what he would feel when he announced his departure, even though he had been thinking about it for months.
“I think it may be a sense of, ‘What now?’ ” he said.
Carol Biliczky can be reached at email@example.com or 330-996-3729.