New Hendrix president values higher ed, Arkansas, faith… and Godzilla

When Dr. William “Bill” Tsutsui came to Arkansas as a candidate for the presidency of United Methodist-related Hendrix College, the interview took place in Little Rock. But he rented a car and drove to Conway for an incognito visit to the Hendrix campus. He saw students socializing outdoors and studying in the library. He confesses to walking behind students to sneak looks at their laptop screens: “They were all working on stuff! No Facebook, no Twitter, no shopping for parkas, you know? They are all doing what they should be doing. This is a serious place. “And I said, ‘That’s the kind of place I want to be.’ A community that takes the work seriously, that cares about each other, and for me, really is small enough to get your arms around.” A Texas native who served most recently as dean of SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities, Tsutsui has specialized in modern Japanese business and economic history during his career. Among his published works, though, he is best known for those that relate to a passion he has had since childhood—his book Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters examines the cultural impact of the world’s most famous radioactive lizard. Tsutsui arrived at Hendrix in June, and will be inaugurated as the college’s 11th president on April 18, 2015, during Alumni Weekend festivities. He spoke recently with Arkansas United Methodist editor Amy Forbus. Here are excerpts from their conversation. How are you adjusting to Arkansas? You know, I love Arkansas. It is just such a warm place here. Not just the temperature? Not just the temperature—it is mainly the people. That struck me from the beginning, from the first time I came to Arkansas, that it is just a friendly, authentic, welcoming environment. What I say to folks is there couldn’t be a better place to go to college than Arkansas. Why did Hendrix appeal to you? I’ve taught at a lot of big schools. Kansas was gigantic—if you knew all the members of your department, you were doing a pretty good job. At SMU, we were a smaller community and yet, still, with 11,000 students on campus, you couldn’t have a personal relationship with but a small number of them. And as dean, of course, the only students I got to know were the absolute best students and the absolute worst students! I sort of wanted to know that big middle, what they were thinking and what they were doing and how their education was going and what meant a lot to them. I just never had an opportunity to do so. So for me, Hendrix was exactly the right size, exactly the right place, and just the right personality for what I want…. We’re not just giving you what you get in the classroom. What we offer can’t be replicated in an online course… we offer a true holistic experience. You came to Hendrix from SMU. Do you see a difference in the role of faith on campus so far, even though they’re both Methodist colleges? Honestly, I think SMU—just the fact that you hear it called SMU a lot more than Southern Methodist University—it was a big, urban, professional school. And the heritage of Methodism, if you walk down to Perkins School of Theology you can feel it, but elsewhere on campus you really didn’t see it. What appealed to me a lot about Hendrix was that the values that come with our United Methodist heritage are really close to the surface here. We all recognize we’re doing more than teaching people facts and figures. We’re doing more than housing them and feeding them. It’s really about character and values…. Without proselytizing or twisting any arms, we can just help introduce people to a life that goes beyond work and textbook education. What about your personal faith journey? Did it play into your willingness to come here? Yeah. I went to religious schools from the sixth grade on…. So though my parents weren’t religious, I really grew up an Episcopalian, and continued to go to church through college and into graduate school. I was confirmed when I was over in England; I was very active with the college chapel at Oxford. My wife sang in the choir, so that’s another place we overlapped. Then after we came back, and especially once we went to Kansas and I was in a job as an administrator and all those kinds of things, we sort of drifted away from going to church—largely because it was very political at church. Who you sat next to was the kind of thing people talked about, and we didn’t love that. We really had enough politics at work; we didn’t need it on Sunday, too… so we stopped going. And once you fall out of the habit, it’s hard. But we’ve started up going again. We go to St. Peter’s [Episcopal Church] here in Conway. The Episcopal tradition, the liturgy and such, is so close to Methodist practice, it’s amazing. Well, you know, John Wesley was never a member of the Methodist Church—he was Anglican. That’s what I hear! Ellis [Arnold, executive vice president, general counsel and dean of advancement for Hendrix] gave me that, early on! Both of them are very inclusive traditions, which is what I like. That they are big tents, and that they welcome people at different places in their faith journeys, because goodness knows I’m at a different place than a lot of folks in our church here. And both also have a very strong commitment to service, and that to me is really impressive. I’ve talked on numerous occasions about going out to Vilonia after the tornado out there, and we went with a group of Hendrix students. There were three or four dozen of us that went out on a Saturday, spent the whole day cleaning up. And you weren’t technically on staff yet. I was not yet—I was a volunteer for Hendrix, volunteering for Hendrix! I was struck by so many things on that day—it was so amazing for me. To be struck by the spirit of the Hendrix community, to be struck by the spirit of Vilonia, but really I think what’s going to stay with me more than anything is the importance of the churches in that community to really provide a focus for relief and recovery. As I went down Main Street and saw the various activities, it was the Methodist relief that was the most impressive to me. They were the best organized, they had the largest crowds out there, and it was really something to be proud of. As far as local flavor goes, I thought of you a couple of weeks ago when I heard the Gwatney Chevrolet radio ads. Do you know about Gwatzilla? Yes! And I’ll tell you the secret—you are the first media outlet to get this: We are using their inflatable Godzilla for my inauguration…. It is now reserved. Clearly, you have a sense of how to have fun! I’m still a teenager. I’m like a 14-year-old.