After Jean-Lou Chameau came to the United States in the 1970s to pursue his graduate education at Stanford University, he never did become a mathematician but eventually he did become president, although it was not the type he had envisioned.
Chameau took the reins of the California Institute of Technology in September, becoming the university's eighth president.
It was a journey that started in graduate school. While pursuing his doctorate in civil engineering, Chameau realized that the academic world was a good fit for him. He was weighing the prospects of a business career, but was offered a teaching job at Purdue University in 1980 and he jumped at the opportunity.
Over the next two and a half decades, Chameau found himself climbing the academic ranks, as he says, "totally by accident." A lot of hard work and a little luck propelled his ascent from professor to dean of the Georgia Institute of Technology's College of Engineering and to provost and vice president of academic affairs for the whole university. There he guided educational and research programs, while displaying his knack for fundraising.
It was also there that he met the woman he would marry. Carol Carmichael is a fellow academic and the two, who met when they were working on similar research projects, got married in 2000.
Now the 53-year-old Chameau, with a boyish charm and French accent, finds himself leading a university that, though small in size, has international renown.
Question: How has this new job in the early going been different from your previous job at Georgia Tech?
Answer: The main difference is that in my previous job it was mostly focused inside the university. I was the provost at Georgia Tech and the provost of the university is the person who's running the place running the operations, the academic programs, the research program, and so on. But when you're the president, the number of stakeholders increases dramatically. Basically, you're reporting to everybody you're reporting to the trustees, to the faculty, to the students, to the staff, to the parents, to the local community, and on and on.
Q: What does your outside work include?
A: Fundraising, building relationships with key stakeholders, promoting the university, building relationships with federal agencies and corporations and foundations. More than half of the budget of Caltech comes from federal research grants, so that gives you an example of the extent of the relationships.
Q: What does it take to be an effective leader in such a post?
A: If you want to be in a position like president of a university or like the one I held before, provost of a university, the first thing is that you have to be willing to serve. It's easy to say that you have to have leadership capabilities, that you have to have a vision people always refer to vision but I believe the most important thing to remember is that you are here to serve the institution, to serve the people within the institution. A willingness to serve is to me the first requirement. Then, it's really a position where you have to interact with people. You have to be a cheerleader, and more importantly you have to be a person who is willing to listen.
Q: After starting your career as a professor at Purdue University, how did you move into a leadership position?
A: It happened totally by accident. My first leadership/management-type position came about because I was working with a group of faculty members at Purdue who were all very outstanding but they couldn't get along. One day the person in charge of the department said, 'I'm tired of the way those people are behaving, you are in charge.' I was too na & #271;ve or too stupid to say no, and I found myself in charge of that group. And it turned out after three or four years that the group had really gelled and the people were working together.
Q: Did you have to actively seek out promotions as you moved from professor to provost to president?
A: If you look for promotions, I believe you will not succeed as well as if you concentrate on doing your job well and enjoy what you're doing. If you do it well, good things will happen to you. About a year ago I received a call from Caltech asking me if I wanted to talk to the search committee for president. I was surprised they called me, but it means that I've done at least a few good things.
Q: Was there one turning point in your career?
A: Well, I can think of two. The first was when I was a graduate student at Stanford. I believe it was then that I realized that the research/teaching/education environment was something I found to be fun. Until that time, in my mind I was going to work for a corporation and get into business. The other one is when I was asked to start leading the group of researchers at Purdue, because after about three or four years of doing that, I realized that what was the most rewarding thing in my life was to be part of the accomplishments of a larger unit. I realized that serving, that providing leadership to a program is at least as rewarding as doing my own work.
Q: What was the best advice you ever got?
A: There are two things, and when I think about them they are actually very similar. My mother used to say, and still says, that 'no' is not a good answer for 'yes.' I have always viewed this as a way of saying not to accept things the way they are. And a colleague of mine one day told me something that is very appropriate to a university environment. There is a tendency in very large organizations that when you see something that is not working well, people will just tell you that's the way it's been going on for the last 20 years it's always been the same, that's what you've always been doing and there are all kinds of reasons why it cannot be changed. And my colleague told me that when you hear that, it should convince you that it can in fact be changed and should be changed.
Q: Describe your typical day.
A: A typical day is going from one meeting to another, from one discussion to another, one phone call to a meeting to a conference call to another meeting. Plus there's breakfast with people, lunch with people, dinner with other people, sometimes cooking dinner for students. And in the middle of that there's a speech here and a speech there. It's a people job. If you want to be in this position, you have to enjoy and be very good at working with people and reaching out to people.
Q: You cook dinner for the students?
A: We do offer a cooking class. I try to attend the cooking class from time to time. I wouldn't say I help them but I work with them and sometimes have dinner with them. One night I cooked dinner for a group of students because I enjoy cooking as a hobby.
Q: What do you cook?
A: I love to make appetizers and main courses. I would say lobster and fish would be what I enjoy cooking the most. I don't like to make desserts.
Q: If you had not gone into engineering, what field would you have gone into?
A: When I was in high school and college I really loved mathematics, and honestly, if I had had my choice, I would likely have become a mathematician. But I learned that I was not good enough to be a good mathematician and I only wanted to be one of the best. And my father told me I would not make enough money in mathematics, and since I came from a low-income family I decided to become an engineer where I could make some money. So, that's what led me into engineering. If I had not been in academia, I would have likely ended up in a business position, maybe a consulting firm. And if I had not been offered a faculty position at the time I would likely have gone into a consulting job. If I had stayed in France I would have been in politics. All Frenchmen would love to be in politics. It's one of my dreams, but it didn't happen.
Q: What kind of politician?
A: You name it. I would have been president, which would never happen in this country.
Q: Tell me about your wife.
A: In one of the meetings with the search committee for this job, I was asked, 'What is your passion in life?' I'm sure they expected that I would talk about some of my interests or research but my answer was my wife. I think it was the best answer I could give. I really have passion for my wife. We had very similar interests in the environmental science and environmental policy areas. She had been a research faculty at Georgia Tech, where I worked for many years. She arrived there before me. We were doing some related work in different parts of the campus and didn't know each other. We were introduced to each other and we started to work together. And three years later we were married.
Q: How much free time do you have?
A: What is free time? (laughter) There is very little free time in my job. That includes weekends. If you're leading a large organization, you're on call 24/7. There are always things to do. If there are problems, you have to be available. Many things are planned for you weeks and months in advance. There is little free time.
Q: Does it bother your wife that this is a 24/7 job?
A: I hope not. I don't think it does. But we knew it when we came here. It has been a bigger adjustment for her than for me because in my previous job it was essentially a 24/7 job, but the difference was that my wife didn't have to be part of it all the time. She had her own activities and less pressure on her time than she has now. I think the biggest adjustment has been for her and I am very thankful that she has done it.
Q: What do you two like to do in the little free time you do get together?
A: We enjoy hiking. The little bit of free time we have we try to optimize it. It's very nice here because you can be in the mountains just minutes from campus. Both of us enjoy reading so we do read quite a bit when we have a chance, especially on planes. And music we also enjoy going to concerts. My wife loves basketball. Basketball is very important to her so it became important to me. So we enjoy watching basketball games.
Q: So, with a losing streak dating back to 1996, I'm sure the Caltech men's basketball team's win last month was a big deal.
A: It was exciting to be there. We don't have too many of those, so it was great to be there. I am extremely proud and pleased for those students.
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