The university’s new, 24th president on why NU beats the service academies, his bet on quantum computing, and the power of empathy
INTERVIEW BY SEAN MARKEY
NORWICH RECORD | Summer 2020
It’s been said that great leaders rise during times of extreme crisis. And while no university president would wish for a crisis of any stripe—let alone the tragedy of a once-in-a-century global pandemic and recession—NU’s 24th president, Dr. Mark Anarumo, USAF (Ret) steps into his new role prepared to face the challenge of his career. He arrived on campus ahead of schedule in May, having already blazed a trail as a distinguished military officer, organizational leader, academic, and thinker. Career highlights include his oversight of complex, multinational operations as vice commander of the 39th Air Base Wing at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and, most recently, as a permanent professor and department head for the Center for Character and Leadership Development at the U.S. Air Force Academy. There, Anarumo grew the research center into a thought and practice trendsetter for effective individual and institutional leadership. A military officer who first enlisted in the Army then spent 26 years in the Air Force, Anarumo earned his undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees in criminal justice at Rutgers University and is a former National Security Fellow at Harvard University. In January, Pres. Anarumo spoke with the Record in a joint interview with Norwich journalism students. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You get to introduce yourself to many Norwich alumni for the very first time. What is your message?
I grew up—professionally, personally, academically—as a tremendous fan of Norwich. I believe in its mission. I believe in its identity. The excellence that this school has generated both for our nation and the world and for the students that we serve is profound. I have worked with Norwich graduates in the Army and the Air Force. They were exceptional. They were exceptional officers and exceptional human beings. So Norwich is doing things right.
I will not, as the next president, come in and change a whole lot. This school is already operating at a high level of excellence. What I plan to do is leverage the current foundational excellence that the school is at right now and use it as a springboard to start some significant work to improve the school. Not to change it, but to build.
We’ve been left a remarkably stable foundation for the school. That doesn’t often happen for a new president. All the problems that we’re talking about in higher education—the birth dearth, the increasing demographic challenges in the Northeast—these are all things that can be flipped to be a benefit for Norwich because of what we are. We’re so different. It’s a different delivery model. It’s a different identity. It’s a different regional affiliation for a senior military college. All the other senior military colleges are in the South. There’s so much about Norwich that we can leverage for excellence. Norwich alumni will be key to all this.
So how should Norwich pitch itself to the next generation of students, the next generation of leaders?
We’re in the age of truncated communication. It’s very brief. It’s very staccato. You’ve got to be early. You’ve got to be aggressive, and you’ve got to be short. Leveraging platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, etc., to reach college-age kids and kids who will enter college is going to be critical. We start building up our freshman class by contacting them when they’re freshmen or sophomores in high school.
Who pays the bills for college typically? The parents. So we’ve got to reach to them. As a parent of a student that just went through the process, I can tell them, “Hey, Mom and Dad, Norwich is the place you want to send your son and daughter. Your daughter will thrive here. We will challenge her. She’ll be tested with leadership. We’ll put her out front. She will go through a crucible experience that’ll make her a better citizen, a better person, a better adult. And when she graduates from Norwich, she will have a remarkable resume to be fully employable. Your son will come here, and he will be tested. The kind of things that he’s looking for and the challenges that you may not be aware of, Mom and Dad, he will get at Norwich. We hope he will go into the Corps. He will have work experience. He will do phenomenal things. He’ll go through a recognition and come out of that feeling like a remarkable adult. He won’t get that literally anywhere else.” I think that message resonates with parents. I can tell you that, as a parent, this is what I would’ve wanted for my kids.
Obviously, I’m coming to Norwich from the Air Force Academy. It’s a similar experience. But a service academy is not for everyone. It’s also very tricky, given the Congressional distribution and the law of who gets to go to the service academies. It’s difficult to get a nomination. You could be fully qualified for a service academy but be in the wrong Congressional district for that year and not get in. It’s a complex formula. But Norwich offers so much. So my message will be, “The service academies are great. We’re better, and here’s why.”
You led the Air Force Academy’s Center for Character and Leadership Development. What insights from that work will you bring to your presidency at Norwich?
The importance of emphasizing leadership and character development in all phases of the student experience, from academics to sports. Take sports, for example. Obviously, they bring the community together and provide students the crucible of athletic competitions, so they’ll learn to win with class and lose with dignity. But athletics are also a character development experience and, especially, a leadership development experience. Every sport experience brings that out, including peer leadership.
One of the tricks that we’ve discovered through our leadership center’s work is that peer leadership is critical, but so is followership. Being a poor follower means you’re going to be a poor leader. You must learn to follow before you can lead. That’s a very important feature of leadership development that we easily lose track of. Because very few of us are going to be truly luminary, high-level leaders. But anyone who reaches that level has dozens or hundreds of peer-enabling followers and subordinate followers. It’s something we actually encourage. Before you can lead, you must learn to follow, and you must learn to do that with a high level of dignity. At Norwich, that’s in the curriculum everywhere. It’s in the classroom. It’s on the field, and it’s through the commandant’s work with the Corps.
Among your many professional interests is a keen focus on institutional culture. Why is that important? What sparked your interest?
Taking over organizations and seeing which were healthy and what was more predictive of success or failure started to fascinate me. Because I would take over an organization that, by all performance metrics, was doing very well. But you felt it in the first five minutes that it had a bad culture. Then you realized it was a house of cards that was going to fall apart the first time something went wrong.
I’ve led a lot of international teams and anti-terrorism organizations. Incirlik Air Base is not an American Air Force base. It’s a NATO base run by the Turkish Air Force where the United States Air Force has a presence. Talk about complexities—we’re supporting the Kurds in that base, while the Turks are in active operations against the Kurds from that base. It was very complicated. But I’ve learned that if you build an effective culture, things work.
When I started reading about culture, I realized—studying organizations—that you can have all the talent in the world and you can have all the resources in the world, but if your culture is wrong, the organization fails every single time.
There are a lot of sports team analogies. For example, some professional teams buy all the talent in the world. They have the largest payroll in whatever sport they’re in. Yet they fail, because they never built effective culture. Hockey’s a great example. This is a hockey school. You need grinders. You need the skilled players. You need defensemen that will stay at home and don’t want any glory. You need the offensive players that will move the puck well. So you’re building a culture around people sharing their skillsets to build up a team. That’s really it. The phrase is, “Talent and strategy will be eaten by [the buzz saw of] culture every day.”
Fixing and building effective culture always results in success, even in the face of decreased talent, decreased resources. It’s very interesting. My academic background was in criminal justice, terrorism, and political violence. That’s my PhD. But those aren’t terribly happy programs. As I was [studying and thinking about] terrorism all the time, I realized that as much as I found it interesting, there was something else calling to me. I realized it was thinking about leadership, character development, organizational culture, what kind of environment you want to build—those kinds of things.
What’s your leadership style?
It’s funny because we have phrases now like emotional intelligence or emotional quotient or empathetic leadership. When I was reading through the literature to see what works and what doesn’t, I realized that those were things that I’d always done. I went to the FBI Academy and there’s a very simplistic personality test called True Colors. Based on your answers, you get assigned one of four colors: blue is empathetic leadership; gold was high-achieving with structure; green and orange were more scientific, analytical, or thrill-seeking behaviors. It’s not the end-all, but it’s a very interesting foundation. Of the 300 people in the room, me and one other person were blue. Most of the people were gold, with a mix of the rest.
But my style is empathetic leadership. Some of it is a connection, it’s instinctive leadership. But it’s the high level of empathy. I realized through looking at literature that oh, well, that probably was the basis of my past successes, but I didn’t even know it. Now, all these things are in the literature that are fairly obvious. But it can still be an “aha” moment for people.
What are you looking forward to most in your new role as president?
Just learning the culture and trying to find how I can be most supportive of the school and the different constituency groups. How do I most support the cadets? What do they need from a military training standpoint? How can I most support the civilian students? What do they need from me? How about the faculty? Do they need me to go find endowed chairs and other funding lines for academic excellence? Do they need me to maybe get a donor interested in publishing an academic journal from Norwich, which is a great strategic vehicle for the school? Or the athletic department—what do they need from me in supporting their goals? So really, to answer your question, figuring out what people need me to do to help them be successful—that’s what I’m most looking forward to.
Are there new areas you’d like to see Norwich push into?
As we build up new revenue streams, there’s a lot of money to be had from the government every year that we can go pursue. Norwich has a high level of excellence in several areas, including cyber and cyber defense. Everything now has a cyber component. So what’s our role in that?
Elsewhere, what about artificial and augmented intelligence? We’re not going to build autonomous systems here. We won’t have the facilities. But we can certainly delve deeply into what are the ethics of legal applications, all those things. Quantum computing is the key to everything for the next two generations. The first country that achieves quantum supremacy, their place in the world will be similar to where the United States was after World War II as the only country with a nuclear weapon. That’s how profound quantum is. I’m going to hit this one most aggressively. We have got to figure out how Norwich is going to get to influence that community. Quantum is not a new way to do computing. It’s a totally different way of doing computing. If you look at things like the prediction of a coin toss, a regular computer can predict a coin toss 51% of the time, because there’s a probability model that throws it. But 51% is still not very good. A quantum computer can predict the outcome of a coin toss 99.7% of the time. How do you ask? Because it’s a completely different way of computing.
Are we going to build the quantum computer in Northfield, Vermont? Probably not. But we can get involved with the coding, with some of the engineering challenges. And we can send our students and faculty to spend time with Google or IBM, or other parts of private industry that are developing machines, because they want to host students and faculty from universities so they can get some fresh ideas in. So that would be the area I’d probably very aggressively start looking at early.
Any parting thoughts?
Just that the level of humility and honor that I’m feeling for being selected as the 24th president of Norwich, I don’t have words for it. I have not been this excited to do anything since I first put on the uniform 30 years ago. It’s been a long time since I felt this level of infusion of energy.
I’ve had a lot of jobs. I’ve commanded at every level in two services, been in combat zones during very dangerous and very important missions. Caring for my people has always been a priority, whether deployed or during some very tragic events, where I had to bring remains back to families. Those kind of things have always been my calling—roles that demand passionate attention, ones I knew I must never fail at. But as I’m transitioning to take this role as president of Norwich, I literally have not felt this passionate or excited about anything except the time I rode the bus from the recruiting station to the airport to get dropped off at Fort Knox, Kentucky. I’m that excited to take over this post. I’m looking forward to working with everyone.