Submitted photo
Submitted photo

From early on in his academic career, Mark Nook hasn’t shied away from taking on increasingly prominent roles at the encouragement of mentors who recognized his leadership traits. 

Nook, a native of Holstein, Iowa, was chancellor of Montana State University-Billings for the past two years before being selected as the University of Northern Iowa’s 11th president. He began his new role on Feb. 1. 

Earlier in his career, Nook was the senior vice president for academic and student affairs at the University of Wisconsin System. Before that, he was provost and interim chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and worked in a variety of roles at St. Cloud State University. He has an undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics from Southwest Minnesota State University, along with a master’s degree in astrophysics from Iowa State University and a doctorate in astronomy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

I caught up with Nook recently while he was in Des Moines for a visit to the Statehouse. (Full disclosure: My oldest daughter is a UNI senior who will be graduating in December, and her sister plans to transfer to UNI when she graduates from DMACC). 

For Nook, who has held senior administrative roles at several Midwestern universities for the past dozen years of his 33-year academic career, the shift toward the leadership track began subtly enough. 

“I do talk about myself as an accidental administrator,” he said. “It was in my first year at St. Cloud State, and it was in the first month or two that the department chair came to me and said, ‘Mark, I can’t make the dean’s council meeting; can you go?’ ”

When Nook suggested sending one of the faculty who had been there longer, his boss told him, ‘You don’t understand — you’re going to be the next department chair and a leader on this campus. You need to start to engage. Those other people don’t have leadership skills; you do.’ That pattern would repeat itself, with subsequent invitations to fill positions as provost and chancellor and then a senior vice president vacancy at the university system level. 

“I guess people have seen leadership skills and talent and asked me to move into those roles, and I’m not one to turn away from a challenge,” he said. 

Nook’s track record for working with economic development and community organizations — particularly in his most recent role as chancellor of Montana State University-Billings — indicates that he may get some traction in bulking up UNI’s influence on a statewide level. Among his accomplishments, he organized Billings Now, a consortium of local leaders that developed an economic development vision for that region.  

“I like to say that UNI is a comprehensive university; it’s not a regional comprehensive university,” he said. “If you’re going to call us regional, our region extends to at least every inch of the state of Iowa, clear out to the borders. We need to recognize — and make sure that everyone else recognizes — that our impact is much bigger than the Cedar Valley.” 

Here’s a summary of other things I asked Nook during his visit: 

How have your initial weeks at UNI been? 
I think as I came in, people realized that I have a pretty strong background in economic and community development and community partnerships. I always listen closely when I get to an institution, so that we can build the programs that best serve the region that we serve, and again, that’s the state of Iowa. 

When I do that, I always think about what kinds of jobs are going to be open, what kinds of training will be needed, what kinds of education, skills and ways of thinking will be required, and then start to build those programs. And then to ask, where can we drive the culture, and what’s the role of UNI in continuing to drive the social and cultural aspects of the state? How can we positively impact the quality of life here in Iowa? It’s also educating them to be great members of their community and to get involved beyond their worklife. 

What other areas do you expect to emphasize in your first year? 
As you look at the strategic plan for the university, which was just approved by the regents in September, one of the goals is under inclusion and diversity. (That’s) making sure that we are not only trying to increase the diversity of our campus, but that you’re also giving everyone an equitable chance to be successful. So we will work towards making sure that all students have the same academic success opportunities and record (in achieving that). 

Another aspect we will be working at, and have been for some time, is sustainability. If you can make gains, whether it’s in saving energy or reducing what’s going to landfills, those have long-term economic upsides. How can we gain some efficiencies and save some money? 

A bill was introduced by an Iowa legislator to end tenure at state universities. What sort of a discussion do you see about tenure at UNI?  
Tenure is absolutely not negotiable on a university campus. Tenure is the heart and soul of a campus, and if were to lose tenure as something that we could offer faculty, we would not only be at a competitive disadvantage for recruiting the best faculty, we would be damaged to the point where we could not say anything about the quality of the education. 

It is a protection of academic freedom that allows faculty to take on difficult subjects that sometimes push people politically, to take on subjects that test sometimes the social structures. They’re why universities were created, to take on those questions. Tenure is not a lifetime protection for a faculty member to be incompetent. There are ways to move on incompetency. But tenure is extremely important for us to be able to recruit and retain the very best people, and without it, any institution in the state of Iowa would be at such a competitive disadvantage it would be horrendous to even think about. 

Do you see enrollment growth on UNI’s horizon? 
One of the things I’m looking into and asking questions about: What enrollment makes sense given the facilities we have? And if we get to a certain point, what resources and facilities are needed to get beyond that point? What I’m trying to identify is the sweet spot in enrollment. We’re currently at about 11,000; we’ve pushed 14,000 in the past. Where between 11,000 and 14,000 is the right place for us? … What drew me to UNI was this sense of community. I think we do have a need to increase our size a little bit. But we also need to consider a plan for getting there that’s sustainable and doesn’t cripple us. 

Do you think satellite campuses are a possibility, particularly in conjunction with a downtown Des Moines campus? 
I haven’t had a discussion of that with the regents or the faculty and staff or with my colleagues at Iowa and Iowa State. I’m open to that discussion — we’ll just have to see where it goes. I think what’s most important if it’s something that looks like it makes sense for the state, regardless of where it’s located, that we have a way to make sure we have the high quality of education happening there and that it doesn’t take resources away from the campus, that we’re not simply shifting things to another place. 

What do you see as your leadership style? 
I think if you talk to other people I’ve been around, I’m very approachable and very down to earth, are terms that they use a lot. I also like to engage students and faculty as I walk around campus, whether they know who I am or not. Recently I surprised a couple of our student ambassadors who were giving a parent-student tour. (Addressing the parents and prospective students), I welcomed them to campus and told them I got to select UNI as well. That was really fun and that’s the kind of engagement I like, when I can be spontaneous with faculty, students and staff. I do the same thing in the community. 

Having started your career as an astronomy professor, is astronomy a hobby? 
It’s not really a hobby, but I still love the night sky. I don’t look to get a telescope out and go searching for things, but I love to get out and just walk around and enjoy that night sky. My favorite time, and this is sick, is when it’s 20 below or more. There’s a stillness and clarity that doesn’t happen until you get there because a lot settles out of the atmosphere. Plus you get ice crystals in the upper atmosphere that make the stars twinkle. 

Other things you enjoy in your off time? 
My wife (Cheryl) and I enjoy the outdoors; we like walks and hikes, especially when our family was young. We enjoy wildlife watching. I like to fish; I’ve done a little hunting. I used to be a canoeing instructor and I just enjoy being in the outdoors. The one thing we’ll probably miss the most is that in Billings we were two hours away from Yellowstone, so we could get in the car and spend a day in the park and be back by 10 at night. We drove to Parkersburg the other day and watched about a half dozen bald eagles in a cornfield.