MSU, a longtime leader in particle physics, unveiled a new particle last week: the anti-Engler.
In its first week under the microscope, the particle has already demonstrated that it attracts rather than repels. A gentleman and a scholar, a collaborator and a listener, a University Distinguished Professor and a deft administrative hand, acting president Satish Udpa gets almost ludicrously high grades from his peers.
Physicist Wolfgang Bauer called Udpa “the kindest person I’ve ever met.”
“He never raises his voice,” Bauer said.
“He treats everybody with respect, and that leadership style is really what’s needed now.”
Udpa, 68, rose to his current post as executive vice president for administrative services in 2013, after seven years as dean of the College of Engineering. He quickly recruited Bauer, who was then Physics Department chairman, into the administration.
Together, they developed one of the boldest and most conspicuous projects at MSU in recent years, the solar arrays that cover the parking lots in south campus. Bauer and Udpa also worked together on projects involving the campus water supply, IT, power plant and mobility on campus.
“He solves problems by consensus, not by decree,” Bauer said.
Bauer will likely take over some of Udpa’s administrative roles, including overseeing design and construction of the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams.
On Thursday, his first day on the job, Upda held a conference call with MSU deans.
“There will be times when I ask your input,” he told the deans. “But even when I don’t ask for it, give it to me anyway.”
Rachel Croson, dean of MSU’s College of Social Science, said the call was “heartening.”
“He is very collaborative in his leadership style,” Croson said. “When you interact with him, he is empathic, caring, respectful, gentle. I think those are all traits we really need.”
Trustee Dianne Byrum predicted that Udpa, who is not seeking the presidency, will “calm the university.”
“It’s important to get an interim president who is not going to be the source of negative headlines in newspapers both in Michigan and across the nation,” Byrum said.
At beleaguered MSU, words like “kindness” and “empathy” fall like water in the desert after the prolonged Larry Nassar scandal and the ham-handed treatment of sexual abuse survivors by former President Lou Anna Simon and interim President John Engler.
“Following Engler’s latest ill-advised, inappropriate and hurtful comments that broke from a story in The Detroit News, people started to say this is enough,” Byrum said. “For all the reforms we’re making, we keep slipping backwards.”
Under Simon, MSU had an intermittently bruising relationship with its assigned college roommate, the city of East Lansing, but Mayor Mark Meadows is pleased the board picked Udpa.
“Satish is a wonderful guy,” Meadows said.
“In terms of not rubbing people the wrong way, he was definitely the right choice. He’s a very smart man that knows how to get his points across without ramming them down people’s throats.”
Kindness and calmness are the order of the day, but Udpa’s qualifications run much deeper.
As dean of engineering from 2005 to 2013, he reached beyond his field to other MSU colleges and the broader community with an array of innovative outreach projects. As an administrator, he oversaw all of the non-academic campus systems, including human resources, land management, IT and the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, or FRIB.
“That’s quite a portfolio, and he’s done it in a gentle and thoughtful way,” Stephen Esquith said. Esquith, dean of MSU’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, has been one of the most vocal critics of MSU’s handling of the Nassar scandal.
Esquith credits Udpa with quietly mitigating Engler’s negative impact on the university all year.
“While we’ve had somebody in the president’s office who’s a bit of a bull in a china shop, Satish has tried to buffer units from all those Engler pronouncements and dictates that come from on high,” Esquith said.
Once the trustees decided Engler was toast, Udpa’s name kept on coming up as a possible successor, Byrum said.
“The major activities of the university, the big picture items — those come through his office and across his desk currently,” Byrum said. “He was in a situation to step right in and keep traffic running and keep the university moving forward without a hiccup.”
“He’s not coming in with any enemies, any baggage,” Croson said. “He has social capital so people will follow when he points.”
Even Udpa’s engineering research specialty, “nondestructive evaluation,” has a conciliatory ring. (The term refers to ways of testing materials without damaging them.)
Siddharth Chandra, director of MSU asian studies, has worked with Udpa for 10 years. Chandra called Udpa “a complete package” and a “fantastic choice.”
“It’s very rare to find a person who combines the qualities of being a really distinguished academic, as well as being an incredibly nice person to work with,” Chandra said. “He has phenomenal interpersonal skills and a brilliant organizational mind.”
“He knows both sides of the university, the academic side and the operational side,” Croson said. “Few people have that scope of understanding.”
One of the first phone calls Croson got after joining MSU as dean of the College of Social Science three years ago was from Udpa.
Udpa was looking for help with several big projects on campus mobility, including the use of autonomous vehicles. Udpa wanted to know how people would react to the presence of autonomous vehicles on campus and what unforeseen impacts they might have on the physical and mental environment.
It impressed Croson that Udpa was reaching out of the engineering silo to the social, legal and urban planning fields.
“It’s an example of him reaching out to make sure everyone had the chance to contribute to make the outcome strong as it can be,” Croson said.
As dean of engineering, Udpa put a high value on communication skills. That impressed Esquith.
“Engineers have to work with non-engineers in community settings,” Esquith said.
“He stressed that his engineering students don’t come out as mere technicians, that they come out sensitive to ethical issues, capable of communicating well with different audiences.”
As dean of engineering, Udpa also developed a range of “pipeline” programs to recruit minority and under-resourced groups. He got MSU engineering students involved in everything from Lego competitions to robotics fairs across the state.
Under Udpa, engineering students worked hand in hand with students from Esquith’s college to mount a major art installation at Peckham Inc., Art@Work.
“It wouldn’t have been done without Satish,” Esquith said.
Esquith said such projects reflects Udpa’s holistic view of culture, science and work.
“It’s never been part of his agenda to downsize the core colleges — Arts and Letters, Natural Science, Social Science, the residential colleges,” Esquith said.
Chandra said Satish has shown a strong interest in the cultural side of STEM education.
“I’m not an engineer. I’m a social scientist, an economist,” Chandra said. “I’m absolutely confident he will take a very holistic approach to how the university works.”
Besides putting a stop to the drip of toxic Engler remarks, many people in the MSU community say it will be a welcome change to have a quiet professional at the helm.
Chandra didn’t mention Engler by name, but it was clear he was drawing a contrast.
“Maybe, when you go through crises, they call for special circumstances, but to be back in professional administration mode will be great for the university,” he said.
In addition, Udpa’s calming presence will make it easier for MSU to recruit a strong president, Croson said.
“They won’t be walking into a world where there are protests and people are angry and yelling on campus,” Croson said.
Bauer admitted that the acting presidency is a new level of exposure for Udpa.
“It’s good for the university,” he said.
“Whether it’s good for him, I don’t know. There’s an attention level from the press. It was obvious from the board meeting this morning — 10 TV cameras, radio, press in the room. “ But Bauer is grateful that he no longer has to brace himself for more toxic spills from the front office.
“There are people who really like to hear the sound of their own voice on TV, but he is not one of those,” Bauer said.
It is likely that Udpa will not have to handle the added scrutiny for long.
Byrum said she expects him to be president “for the next three board meetings.”
“We’ll be assembling the candidate pool until the end of the month,” she said. “It’s not a long period of time.”