Park University’s new president comes to Kansas City after a five-year stint at Webster University in St. Louis, and before that, nine years at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he rose to assistant vice chancellor for business operations in the Office of Academic Affairs. Greg Gunderson also has experience in the private sector as project controller and chief of staff at ConAgra and director of finance for inbound operations at APAC Customer Services in Omaha; senior revenue accountant and tax accountant at Cray Research in Eagan, Minn.; and tax accountant at Arthur Andersen and Co. in St. Paul, Minn.
Q. How did what you learned in the corporate world prepare you for higher education?
A. The best career advice I ever got was to think of a carerer as a utility belt: You have to acquire skills needed for new positions, so that’s what I did: I worked my career from that perspective, got my MBA, and learned to think of a career as increasing your capacity to do different things.
Q. What made higher education the right fit?
A. At ConAgra, my last task in finance was to figure out the optimal time to announce layoffs to drive up the stock price. I was sitting there, thinking about what I wanted on my tombstone some day, and thought: Is this my best and highest calling? I didn’t think so. In the business world, they think 30 to 90 days ahead, to the next stock announcement; higher ed thinks in terms of decades. I really liked the long-term perspective.
Q. How did the transition go?
A. At Nebraska, one of the first things I observed was that no one in finance had ever taught a class or had a Ph.D. It was odd that an enterprise that was all about teaching people didn’t have any teachers. So I taught in the classroom there, to build that skill set. That led to the opportunity to go to Webster, and to a fantastic experience there.
Q. How does your experience with Webster’s distance learning and on-line instruction make this position the right fit for you?
A. I really appreciate the distributed-education model Webster had. There are only four non-profit higher-education institutions with this unique model. When the presidency of Park came up, it was one of the four. When I interviewed at Webster, (President) Beth Stroble asked about my long-term plans, and I said I hoped to be a college president one day. I was very lucky that she appreciated the candor and worked with me over five years to develop the right skill set. The Park model is something I believe passionately in, and felt like it was an opportunity I needed to examine.
Q. What do you see as growth opportunities at Park?
A. Park is a jewel of Kansas City that I don’t think is recognized for the unique role it plays in higher ed, not just in Kansas City, but nationally. High on my list to do is to help people understand that role. We’re an open-enrollment institution, which means we accept students of all skill sets. Whether they are military, or students on campus who need help with English or writing, we have the tools to provide everyone that chance for success. We can transform anyone’s life.
Q. And the most significant challenges?
A. When it comes to change, people react in different ways. In its 140 years, Park has embraced innovation in a manner its peers would envy. What we have to do is re-embrace change innovation.
My Get-Out-of-Jail card to employees is to have them say, “It’s Greg’s fault.” If you a make mistake, blame the president. We’re not about assessing blame; we’re about moving on, being innovative. So there will be a push on my part to make innovation not just transparent, but a way of life here.