He’s courageous enough to do something other people won’t even try,” his wife, Eva, says of Dr. Glenn Olds. Seven years ago that something was to assume the presidency of Ohio’s Kent State University just after the Vietnam-era confrontation in which four students were slain by National Guard gunfire. “The school was traumatized when I went there,” Olds recalls. “It took a lot of patience and listening, but I think we succeeded in turning the university around.” Then, as he was about to move on, mission apparently accomplished, there was an aftershock: Hundreds of demonstrators again went to the barricades over the university’s plan to build a gymnasium annex near the site of the earlier tragedy. Olds extended his stay until that was settled, noting proudly: “Although the atmosphere was testy, the final action was peaceable, and no one suffered a scratch.”
So what would be the next quixotic challenge for the now 56-year-old educator? Prior to Kent State, he had taught philosophy and religion (at Yale, Cornell and Northwestern), was president of Springfield College, consultant to four U.S. Presidents, an architect of Sargent Shriver’s VISTA program and U.S. ambassador to UNESCO. “When he came home one night and told me about a situation that was impossible,” reports his wife, “I knew that was where we were going to go.” It was the presidency of Alaska Methodist University in Anchorage.
Or what was left of it. After running up a $4.5 million debt in its tenuous 17-year existence, the university was on the brink of extinction. “People think I’ve lost my mind coming up here,” he allows, noting that the trustees had had 18 different comptrollers in the previous 30 months and then finally closed down the school for a year of agonizing reappraisal to determine if it should ever be reopened.
“It was a tough scene, and I’ve never worked harder with less,” says Olds, who had to adjust from a $100 million Kent State budget to AMU’s $850,000. By fall he had reopened with 98 students, en route to a hoped-for enrollment of 10,000 from all over the Pacific. “I’m going to build a university for the 21st century, something new, fresh and exciting,” enthuses the Oregon logger’s son. As for faculty, he is seeking those “unhappy and bored with the conventional curriculum.” There are 631 applications to date. “Of course I believe in miracles,” he adds unnecessarily at the end of yet another 90-hour week. “Why else would I be at AMU?”