As young Gary Sandefur galloped his horse Thunder through the dusty outskirts of Madill, Okla., the open plains seemed to stretch forever.
Madill, a little town in rural southeastern Oklahoma where everybody knew everybody, was the sort of place where a kid who loved the outdoors could thrive. Sandefur grew up fishing with his father and hunting raccoons, doves and quails with the family coonhounds, Sarge and Jim.
His family life was happy, and he was a studious kid, the sort who relished racing his friends to solve long division problems on the blackboard in elementary school. He was a hard worker who won class citizenship awards every year until he turned 15.
As with many young people who grow up in small towns, though, Sandefur grew restless as a teenager.
There had to be more to life, he imagined, somewhere beyond those open plains.
This summer, Gary Sandefur will step down as dean of the College of Letters & Science, after nine years at the helm of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s largest academic unit. He will return to teaching in the Department of Sociology, where he arrived nearly 29 years ago with a set of values shaped by his humble upbringing in rural Oklahoma.
As dean, Sandefur increased faculty retention, boosted financial support for students, tackled diversity issues, and helped raise and steward more than $240 million in gifts from alumni, friends and foundations to advance the liberal arts mission of Letters & Science.
Before that, he served in several leadership positions across campus, including stints as director of the American Indian Studies Program (1989-92), associate vice chancellor for academic affairs (1992-96), chair of the Department of Sociology (2000), and interim provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs (2001).
Colleagues say it is not just what Sandefur accomplished in those roles, but how he did it that stands out. They point to his abilities to see and evaluate all sides of an issue and empower those working under him to share their voices.
Interim Chancellor David Ward remembers back in 1992, when he was UW-Madison’s provost and searching for an associate vice chancellor for academic affairs. He wanted someone who had the respect of the faculty, as well as a strong scholarly career and a commitment to improving the undergraduate experience. He also wanted someone with the right personality.
“One doesn't drive this like a bulldozer,” says Ward. “I didn't want loud, pushy people. I wanted people who had clear goals but who would execute them in a kind of quiet, diplomatic style. … That’s exactly what (Gary) did.”
That style would become a hallmark of Sandefur’s leadership.
Sandefur did indeed find his way out of Madill, heading north to Norman to attend the University of Oklahoma with the help of the Johnson-O’Malley Act, which provided financial assistance to Native American college students like Sandefur, a member of the Chickasaw tribe.
Still, his path was anything but straightforward. At age 18, he married high school sweetheart Kathy Wallace and in November of his sophomore year, the couple welcomed their first child. Sandefur was working 30 hours a week at Arby’s to help support his family. It was overwhelming.
He dropped out and moved back to Madill, where he found work building and installing concrete septic tanks. The work was grueling, but it recharged him mentally, to the point that he was ready to return to school.
He didn't know it yet, but he was past four tumultuous years and on his way to a distinguished career in higher education.
[pullquote]If you go through experiences like that, it gives you an appreciation for other people’s problems. I think it’s made me a better person, a more understanding person.
“If you go through experiences like that, it gives you an appreciation for other people’s problems,” says Sandefur. “I think it’s made me a better person, a more understanding person.”
After leaving Oklahoma with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology in 1974, Sandefur and his young family packed up their Volkswagen and drove west. He had been accepted into the Ph.D. program at Stanford University.
“I learned an enormous amount in my four years at Stanford, and I am so very appreciative of my mentors there, especially Nancy Tuma, my dissertation adviser,” Sandefur says.
Upon leaving Stanford, he returned to the University of Oklahoma, planning to spend his career there. But it wasn't long before a world of opportunities opened up for him, thanks in large part to his Stanford credentials.
Sandefur was an assistant professor at Oklahoma when he first arrived in Madison in 1979 on a summer fellowship with the UW-Madison Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP). Four years later, UW-Madison School of Social Work Director Irv Garfinkel offered Sandefur an associate professor position, and he joined the UW-Madison faculty in 1984.
“For the things that I was interested in, inequality and public policy, there was really no better place in the world to be,” Sandefur says.
He began to build a reputation as a world-renowned demographer whose research addressed profound challenges facing society, including family structure, poverty and the educational and economic hurdles faced by ethnic minority groups. His research helped cultivate a laser-like focus on the mechanics of the distribution of funding. In later campus leadership positions, Sandefur would return again and again to his quantitative reasoning skills to allocate scarce resources.
[pullquote]He’s just so down to earth. You talk to him and you get the feeling he would sit down and talk with you for two hours if he could — and would thoroughly enjoy it.
- Katherine Cramer-Walsh, Professor of Political Science[/pullquote]
Meanwhile, he treasured his time in the classroom with graduate and undergraduate students. Scores of undergraduates took his popular introductory sociology course on race and ethnicity over the years. He devised ways to draw them in, such as offering extra credit for one visit during office hours each semester.
Katherine Cramer-Walsh (BA’94, Political Science and Journalism), now an associate professor of Political Science at UW-Madison, showed up for her extra credit visit as an undergraduate. She fell into a long conversation with Sandefur about her father’s love of deer hunting and how the activity clashed with Native American sensibilities about wildlife.
“He’s just so down to earth,” she says. “You talk to him and you get the feeling he would sit down and talk with you for two hours if he could — and would thoroughly enjoy it.”
In 1989, Sandefur was tapped to head the UW-Madison American Indian Studies (AIS) program. To his first administrative post, the man from Oklahoma brought something from his past: country and western and pow wow music was soon twanging from his office in Educational Sciences.
The program expanded, drawing faculty affiliates from English, history and anthropology and laying the groundwork for the strong reputation it now holds nationwide. Sandefur also forged connections with American Indian staff across campus, welcoming their ideas and involvement.
“Gary nurtured a community of folks who were really interested in building AIS,” recalls Darlene St. Clair (Dakota), who worked under Sandefur as a program assistant and is now assistant professor of American Indian Studies at St. Cloud State University. “People sometimes think that to be an authority figure, you have to make people a little afraid of you. But we all had faith in Gary because he was so capable and so smart. His confidence lent credibility to what he did.”
The post marked a turning point for Sandefur. By the time he’d finished serving as interim provost in 2001, he found he had a gift for quiet leadership.
Before Sandefur took over as dean of the College of Letters & Science in Aug. 2004, the late John Torphy, the University’s longtime vice chancellor for administration and finance and one of Sandefur’s mentors, gave him a piece of advice that would stick with him over the following nine years.
At the end of every day, Torphy said, Sandefur should sit down and ask himself what he had done to advance at least one of his priorities.
Sandefur honed in on five areas: undergraduate education, research, diversity, climate, and advancement. He’s taken steps to address all of them — providing substantial support to grow the First-Year Interest Groups program, backing University programs to encourage cutting-edge research, reinvigorating the Equity and Diversity Committee to address department hiring processes and the student achievement gap, meeting with both the College’s Classified Staff Issues Committee and the Council on Academic Staff Issues on a monthly basis, and creating an Office of Advancement with strong ties to the UW Foundation and the Wisconsin Alumni Association.
“I do have a sense of satisfaction,” he says. “I feel good about the things that we were able to do in the areas that were my priorities at a very difficult budgetary time.”
[pullquote]I have never felt like Gary said an inauthentic word in his life.
— Mike Knetter, President and CEO, University of Wisconsin Foundation[/pullquote]When Sandefur took the reins at L&S, the College was at a crossroads. State support was shrinking, the College was understaffed, and faculty were in danger of being “picked off” by universities with bigger budgets — all at a time with a renewed mandate to improve undergraduate education.
Sandefur devoted time and resources to fundraising for the liberal arts. At the time, this was considered a new role for leaders of public research universities who had relied for many years on state and federal support, but Sandefur’s approach has since become a model at UW-Madison.
He blocked time on his calendar to connect with donors to articulate both the need for private gifts and the impact. His straightforwardness was an asset.
“I have never felt like Gary said an inauthentic word in his life,” says Michael Knetter, President and CEO of the UW Foundation. “Being thanked by him is even more important from that standpoint. He thinks about the deeper meaning of things. It’s not just money; it’s what it does for our students.”
Sandefur worked closely with the L&S Board of Visitors, an advisory group of some of the College’s most generous friends and supporters, to help raise nearly $850,000 for need-based scholarships and more than $780,000 for discretionary use.
He also made the case for a faculty retention fund, to keep the University’s best and brightest from being lured away by other schools after they’d earned tenure. The result was the Faculty Fellows program, piloted in 2007 thanks to the support of the L&S Board of Visitors and now used as a campus-wide model to retain top faculty and reward rising stars. All 28 Faculty Fellows are still at UW-Madison. Sandefur also worked with the L&S Board of Visitors to raise $200,000 for Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professorships, a University-wide program patterned on the Faculty Fellows concept.
In addition, Sandefur recognized the important role foundations play in protecting the College’s strengths during years of budget cuts. During his tenure, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supported post-doctoral and graduate fellowships, faculty chairs and research and made a $10 million grant (matched by the state) to build core capacity for research and teaching in the humanities.
“I think many people think that fundraising is just going out and asking people for money,” he says, “but it’s really building relationships with people over time.”
Sandefur is the first to say that being dean of UW-Madison’s largest college is not easy.
He tries to take a daily walk down Lakeshore Path at lunchtime to ward off stress. But when he eventually retires and returns to Oklahoma he will remember the joys of watching new faculty hires grow, of seeing the throngs of energetic students return to campus each fall, and of meeting and building relationships with alumni and donors all across the country.
“It’s been a wonderful experience,” he says.
— Story by Tom Ziemer and Mary Ellen Gabriel