Midwest Roots Go West
Standifird grew up in a middle-income family in Evansville, Ind. His father was a service technician for consumer goods giant 3M while his mother played a traditional role. The family vacations were road trips in a red station wagon, a pastime Standifird still enjoys.
Math and science were early interests, which led to Standifird’s pursuing chemical engineering at Purdue. He also served as student body president in his senior year. That’s where he got hooked on organizational complexity and understanding organizational life.
While working for oil giant Amoco in Chicago as an engineer, Standifird earned an MBA at Northwestern University and caught the higher ed bug. Having decided he wanted to study organizational theory, one of his advisors told him the place to earn a doctorate was the University of Oregon.
“I didn’t anticipate that,” said Standifird. “I thought I’d be at a Big Ten school ... I had to pull out a map and figure out where Eugene, Oregon, was. I had no idea.”
Those studies took him to the West Coast for almost two decades. After earning his degree in the early 1990s, he taught management at Western Washington University in Bellingham for four years, during which time he looked for an opportunity to study organizations and economic communities experiencing significant transformation.
Hong Kong — and its transition from a century of British rule — was one possibility, but a colleague convinced him Warsaw, Poland, was the place to see radical organizational change. Standifird said the experience led to his own transformation.
“I had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, with learning a completely different culture and operate in a completely different environment. It made me far more adaptive than I would have been otherwise.
In 2003, he headed south to a teaching position at the University of San Diego’s School of Business. Six years later, he was its associate dean. After two more years in California, Standifird, now married with a family, moved back to his hometown and became dean of the Schroeder Family School of Business Administration at the University of Evansville. The short stint (three years) at Evansville led to his role as dean of Butler University’s Andre B. Lacy School of Business; he remained there until he got the call from Bradley.
However, becoming a university president wasn’t one of his long-term goals. What intrigued him was the idea of building human potential.
“I don’t know that (becoming president) is something I set out to do specifically,” said Standifird. “I’ve had great mentors throughout my career and one was always clear about being very intentional about who you are and what you want to accomplish.
“I spent a fair amount of time thinking about the impact I want to have. So, what drove me from being a faculty member, which is arguably one of the best jobs in the world, to being an administrator is this idea of building institutions that build human potential. That’s something to be excited about.”
He takes inspiration from the university’s founder, Lydia Moss Bradley, and considers her emotional struggles analogous to what the Bradley community is facing today.
“We’re all experiencing things, none of us have ever experienced in our lifetimes and it’s okay and completely human to have those experiences and emotions, to have those challenges,” said Standifird. “But it shouldn’t stop you from moving forward; that’s the heart of Lydia’s lesson.”
So, what does Bradley’s new president do for his own mental wellbeing? The self-described nerd said his hobbies include reading (the Stoic philosophers and books on leadership are favorite topics) and landscape/nature photography. That’s when he’s not serving as the family DJ for his young daughters’ dance parties. Back in the day, Standifird was an avid motorcyclist.
“You can’t ride a motorcycle and not pay attention; the consequences are too significant. What I like about it is it really forces me to be in the moment ... Photography also forces me to pay attention to details that could be missed ... That’s an important part of this job, too.”
Of course, if he could, the first thing Standifird would do as president is end the pandemic. Instead, he hopes to create at Bradley a greater sense of hope and optimism, or what he called pragmatic optimism, the potential for seeing things the way they could be.
Although some might call that too daunting a prospect, given how the world is still reeling from its own radical transformation, Stephen Standifird will make sure to pause and reflect, all while keeping his face toward the sunshine.