Archive for Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Lambert is at the ‘heart’ of Baker

August 20, 2003

It's 5 a.m. and much of Baldwin City is sleeping when Dan Lambert begins his day at the Baldwin Athletic Club.

Elliptical machine, stationary bike and treadmill -- a healthy start to a power-packed day for Baker University's president.

It's a typical morning for Lambert, 62, when he isn't traveling across the country on university business. Private time with his wife, Carolyn, and their English setter, Abbie, is sometimes scarce. Their home, Collins House, is an official Baker University residence and the adjoining reception area is the site for numerous university lunches, dinners and special celebrations, leaving Lambert always on the job, even at home.

"As I grow older, I understand the most important thing in life is family," said Lambert, who has two children and a young grandson. "I'm sorry I missed opportunities to be with my family more. That's one of the sacrifices people make in leadership."

During his 17 years at the helm, Lambert has made an enormous impact on Baker -- the university's endowment has grown from $11 million to more than $30 million, Collins Library, Harter Union and the campus grounds have undergone millions of dollars in renovations, and Osborne Chapel and the new student apartments are signature additions. But those are just the visible changes. To many alumni and staff, Lambert is the heart of this growing United Methodist school.

"He is never demanding yet leads in a manner that inspires people to support him," said Don Parker, Baker alumnus and former university trustee who has known Lambert for almost two decades. "He's just got a very unique quality that draws other people to him."

The university calls

By 8 a.m., Lambert is already making calls to the East Coast or heading to the first of many meetings for the day. There are the regular appointments with university officers, the administrative council, the Board of Trustees and the executive committee.

A real challenge -- and blessing -- of the job is the chance to continually change "languages," as Lambert calls it. While one meeting might involve university finances, another might discuss Baker's adult degree programs and yet another might involve the community about a possible skateboarding park.

"By the time the day's over and I've had eight or nine appointments, I've had to change languages eight or nine times," he said.

Lambert still finds time to meet with faculty and drop in on students eating in the cafeteria or studying in the library. If it's a working lunch, he might grab a turkey sandwich from Mr. Goodcents.

By afternoon, Lambert might be headed for meetings with alumni, donors or trustees, often in Kansas City.

Twelve-hour days are "pretty typical," Lambert conceded.

"I think I'm more efficient than I was 17 years ago, and I have a better idea of where the time needs to be spent," he said.

The improved campus facilities and increased endowment are a direct result of Lambert's efforts to meet with alumni and other potential donors to build relationships with Baker. While he has traveled less in the past several years, Lambert said it was beginning to pick up again as Baker begins its next fundraising campaign, recognizing the university's 150th anniversary in 2008. He sometimes travels from coast to coast meeting with alumni, trustees and volunteers -- often on evenings and weekends.

"Good personal relationships are probably the single most important factor in Baker's success," he said.

Lambert, who grew up in Kansas City, Mo., said one of the many lessons he has learned as a university president is to find good people and trust their abilities. He said that often means bringing in people who can compensate for his weaknesses.

"The person who sits behind this desk probably presides over more victories and defeats than he is responsible for," he said. "Effective leadership offers the opportunity for everyone at one point in time to be a leader and make something good happen. I like to think I work hard to create that kind of environment."

Putting people first

Edrie Swanson, Lambert's executive assistant for 17 years, said the president makes a special effort to attend all campus events, even though he can't always stay for the entire game or performance.

"Anything the students are doing -- plays, games, band or orchestra concerts -- he tries to be there," Swanson said. "I don't know many presidents who would do that. It's a 24-hour a day job."

And unlike many leaders, Lambert commands respect while remaining soft-spoken and reflective. Swanson said Lambert sees the whole picture, yet allows his colleagues to use their own ideas.

"He listens to what people have to say," Swanson said. "I've seen people come in angry at the university and they come out Baker's best friends. He has a way of getting through that tough shell."

The ability to reach out to people extends to personal handwritten notes Lambert often sends to employees, trustees and friends of the university when he reads about events or good news related to them in the newspaper. Swanson said Lambert also personally signs every birthday card that goes out to employees and pens the more than 250 business letters that are sent from the president's office each month.

"I've never been around someone who's that thoughtful -- and not for any personal gain, just to be nice," she said. "People have asked 'How does he have time to do it?'"

Baker's First Lady

Lambert calls his wife, Carolyn, Baker's "chief volunteer." Before moving to Baldwin City, she taught children with disabilities for 17 years. Carolyn had planned to take two years off to help with university duties, but decided she really enjoyed her new role and decided to keep working toward her husband's vision for Baker. Now she's hostess to a myriad of events at Collins House as well as many on campus. She is often asked to consult on projects or renovations when it comes to decorating or planning. She also attends nearly all social events representing the school.

"She's part of the team and not paid for it," her husband said. "We felt it was something the university needed."

Carolyn said she has enjoyed meeting faculty, staff, students and trustees through the years. She credits her husband with fostering the family-like atmosphere on campus.

"It's certainly not the place it was when we came," she said. "He totally gives himself to the job. He has a sixth sense about what should and shouldn't be done. It's just a different atmosphere and a different place now."

A sense of community

While Lambert said he was proud of his accomplishments to the physical campus -- the renovations, landscaping and new buildings, he hoped his legacy at Baker would be focused on leadership.

"Those things will pass. It's the history of relationships that really endures," Lambert said. "I hope people remember how committed I was to building and maintaining community. That sense of community sets us apart from other schools. I would like to think that I was instrumental in building up that very important dimension of the Baker experience."

It's nearly 5 p.m. when Lambert, with briefcase in hand, steps out of Constant Hall for the short walk home. There's still a dinner meeting with a potential donor in Kansas City on this evening before the day begins at 5 a.m. tomorrow at the gym. Despite the long night ahead, Lambert stops briefly in front of Collins Library, studying some weeds near the sidewalk. He bends down and yanks them out, tossing the offending greenery aside, before continuing on his way. He never misses an opportunity to make Baker a better university.

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