When Dr. Stephen T. Hulbert arrived at Nicholls in July 2003, he quickly became known as the university president who regularly walks his pug, Max, across campus — taking time to talk to students and observe campus happenings along the way. Now, nearly 10 years later, as he and his wife, Becky, begin their final lap with Max around Nicholls, Hulbert reflects on the decisions, crises and accomplishments that will define his legacy.
When you first came to Nicholls, you said you’d stay for five years. It’s been 10. What’s kept you and Becky here for this long?
What’s kept us here is the very nature of South Louisiana. It’s about the people. It’s about the culture. It’s about the food … and the 21 pounds, at least, that I’ve gained.
I’m glad you mentioned it. I wondered if it was rude to ask how much weight you had put on.
Let’s put it this way. I stopped counting at 21 pounds.
Well, I don’t blame you. What South Louisiana food will you miss the most in Prescott, Ariz.?
Oysters in any form. I jokingly say you all thought I came here for the Nicholls presidency; I came here for the Louisiana oysters. I love them raw, charbroiled, grilled, sautéed, in gumbo, fried, you name it. That will be a loss. There’s no question about it.
Why would you want to leave that all behind? Why retire — and give up fresh oysters — now?
Becky and I have heard for a long time, “Why are you going to leave us? Don’t you love us?” People in South Louisiana are truly unique, and we can say that after living in five distinct parts of the country. Everybody here has such a sense of resilience, a commitment to family and community, a very welcoming nature. It’s an extraordinary place to live.
But if you ask anyone why they’re here, they will say because of my family, my children, my grandchildren, my cousins, my sisters, my whatever. Well, we’re going to Arizona, where we have a niece and nephew, a great-nephew, a son and daughter-in-law, and a grandson. It’s about family. It is time for us to enjoy family full time.
How old is your grandson now?
On May 31, when I turned 69, Rowan turned 6.
I forgot y’all share a birthday. What does he call you?
It’s definitely not the banquet chicken. Becky and I have had chicken prepared in every imaginable recipe. But I will miss the sense of accomplishment in providing stewardship to a university I truly love. That sounds awfully highfalutin. But there is a wonderful sense of satisfaction in taking care of an institution like Nicholls — leaving it better than you found it.
You certainly have a laundry list of accomplishments to be proud of, but how does that sense of satisfaction balance with the burden of having to make very difficult decisions?
I could cry. I will not miss waking up at 2 a.m. and not being able to get back to sleep. I relate to people, and I’ve had to lay off people I know and care about. Sometimes I can’t discern the difference between night and day or weekend and weekday. It can be, at times, very painful. It can also be very lonely because you have colleagues who become good friends, but they never share the same burden that you do totally. It is yours alone as president of an institution. Fortunately, I have a partner in my wife, Becky, who fully understands the role of president.
And on top of that, your tenure was filled with unthinkable crises — both natural disasters and manmade budget disasters. How have you coped with that stress and frustration?
Honestly, I’ve gained 21-plus pounds. I take it out on eating. I don’t mind saying it. Fortunately, I was brought up in a family of executives, and I thought from my youngest age that I would have jobs like this. There’s been a lifelong conditioning that I will have responsibility, and I will handle it.
You were brought up in a family of bankers and corporate officers. What did you imagine you’d grow up to be?
Actually, I wanted to be a teacher. When I was in high school and college, it was the John Kennedy era, and it was all about serving the public. I thought teaching would be a wonderful career. Then I met seventh- and eighth-graders. I knew I wasn’t meant to be a teacher, but at that time I was in college and I was kind of interested in the way universities ran. So I earned a master’s degree and a doctorate by the time I was 27.
A doctorate at 27? Wow! You started your path to presidency early.
It just was a natural progression. I had thought about the presidency when I was 27 and was the president’s assistant at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania.
And for Becky, being married to a university president meant that her career would be that of the president’s wife. Was she on board with that plan from the beginning?
Well, we met in grad school in the same program, so we were already on the same road together. There was no surprise there. Also I was marrying a girl who had grown up as a “military brat” living all over the country. What intrigued me about her was she saw life as an adventure. Becky wanted to continue to move about the country, and I found that exciting. I grew up in New England in a family that had lived in the same town, going to the same church for almost 300 years. I was one of the only members of my family to leave.
Your family sounds like a lot of people around here.
Sounds like an awful lot of people around here. I can easily relate to the people of the Bayou Region.
What role has Becky played in your Nicholls presidency?
Becky has been my partner in all of this. If you talk about an ability to get through difficult times, it’s because she’s my sounding board and support base. She cares about this university as much as I do. She protects me on occasion from me being my worst enemy. She always gives me the unvarnished truth.
Well, Skipper Dean did at the University of Montana-Western.
You had another campus dog before Max?
Skipper Dean lived with us for 13 years in Colorado, Rhode Island and Montana. I have used Skipper Dean and Max because it is very hard for undergraduates to speak to the president of the university if they know he’s the president. At any university, no matter the size, the majority of the students don’t interact with the president. If you’re walking a dog, students stop to pet him, and you talk. I’ve had students on this campus pet Max and look up at me and say, “You must be the president.” I say to them, “What am I, chopped liver? You know my dog, but not me?”
How old was Max when you arrived in Thibodaux?
He was about a year old. Max was born in Montana, but his whole life has been here. Although I will tell you if there’s a very cold day in February, Max Hulbert goes out that door and says, I like this. You get to the middle of July, and his smashed-in face cannot take the heat and humidity.
I remember when you, Becky and Max first moved onto the Nicholls campus — right in the middle of Tropical Storm Bill. Back then, you were quite unprepared for the weather. You didn’t even own an umbrella.
I jokingly say I knew a lot about Nicholls before I came here, but you folks didn’t tell me a damn thing about hurricane season. I knew more about earthquakes in Montana. The last thing my predecessor did before retiring was to close the university. We woke up the next morning, and I brought Max down in my hands. He was a little thing. And I walked out on the stoop of the Alumni House, where we were staying temporarily. There was no lawn, just water. Poor Max, I put him down on the patio, and he looked and turned around and walked back inside.
Not the most welcoming experience for a group of Northerners.
No, but then about an hour later, we came out, and there was this ruckus going on — coeds in shorts and T-shirts, no shoes, playing mudball in the water. It was beautiful. I was thinking, “It sure is a very different culture here.” But it was also the attitude of people that impressed me, “Hey, the storm has passed; let’s get together and enjoy.”
Well, you can certainly say you gained a tremendous amount of hurricane experience during your tenure. What did you learn from the aftermath of Katrina and Rita?
If there’s anything I’m proud of, it’s to have been here during the aftermath of Katrina and to see the resilience and giving nature of the people in this region. There was no state government to step in, and the federal government clearly wasn’t prepared. How did we survive and take care of 12,500 people during the course of 50 some-odd days? We did it because the nature of our people is to help out. As people’s freezers thawed, they took out shrimp, crawfish, you name it, and they made jambalaya. They came here and fed people. I had never experienced anything like that, and it was part of the reason why even under the worst circumstances you want to live here. These are wonderful people who care about and take care of each other.
They even care about and embrace Northerners — Yankees, if you will?
Cajuns say that they don’t necessarily like outsiders — Yankees, or anything else — but they meet you and they’re warm; they meet you twice and they try to figure out some connection with you.
But you know, there’s still a group of Nicholls alumni who think of you as the Northerner who came in and took away the Colonel mascot. What’s your take on that?
Get a life! Honestly, get a life. If your love of Nicholls is so shallow that the loss of your Colonel mascot, a cartoon character that was created after we lost our wonderful ROTC program and the cadet colonel, then I’m sorry for you. You have a right to your opinion, but your love of Nicholls should be for everything Nicholls stood for while you were getting your degree and what it stands for today — opportunity.
The Colonel mascot that I found in 2003 was a pathetic caricature of Yosemite Sam and the Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. It was notreflective of the vibrant university that Nicholls had become. It was hurtful to some members of our community. I have no problem with the decision, and, by the way, it was the least consequential of hundreds of decisions I made. It gave me no sleepless nights.
I’m guessing the state budget cuts gave you the most sleepless nights?
One of the reasons I know it’s my time to go is I’ve developed a level of anger with Louisiana government that is almost unmanageable. I can’t be of value much longer because when I speak, I speak in anger. I know when to control it, but I’m getting to the pointwhere I don’t want to. We’ve had one budget cut after another to the point that we’ve lost track of the numbers. No one from Baton Rouge has taken the time to ask: What is this doing, how is this affecting people, can we mitigate this? We’re just in a freefall of one cut after another without anyone showing the least bit of concern about what’s happening to students, and that is a tragic lack of leadership and stewardship.
Are you concerned to leave Nicholls in someone else’s hands during these trying times?
There has been no good time to choose to leave. I waited to announce my retirement in April because I wanted to stay through the legislative session and help provide as much stability for Nicholls as possible. By doing it that way, I was still able to play a role in the decisions that needed to be made before the new budget comes up for July 2013.
But as I said when I came here in 2003, a president who stays longer than 10 years is not adding value to the institution. The members of the university community become accustomed to the style of that president. They learn how to adjust to it. I happen to think that transitions in leadership can be exciting times of opportunity even in the most difficult and challenging times. It’s a fresh set of eyes; it’s a fresh perspective on how to lead a university. I think Nicholls will gain immeasurably by a transition of leadership.
What’s the most crucial thing for your successor to understand about Nicholls?
First and foremost, respect and trust the people and the culture of this region. My biggest concern is whether my successor will value the culture that is the Bayou Region and the role that Nicholls has had in this region over the years. New presidents tend to come in and feel empowered and want to make changes based on their past experience.
This region has determined what Nicholls is by its needs. Yes, we need to continue to move forward. But if you think about our new initiatives, each one is designed to meet the needs of the service region. It would be tragic to disrupt things and say, “That isn’t Nicholls; Nicholls should be this.”
Anything left undone on your to-do list?
You can’t help but think about the future. We have some exciting programs underway at this university. I think the opportunities in petroleum services and maritime management are clearly some of the most exciting ones. The future of Nicholls Online is an exciting opportunity. I’d love to see the whole health area mature even further. We have a master’s in nursing now; why not a doctorate in partnership with other institutions? Culinary needs to have greater partnership with our own dietetics and business programs, and we need to be embracing culinary’s role in the hotel-restaurant industry. If I had years ahead of me, I would also be challenging this university to truly engage undergraduate students in service and research.
What do you think will surprise the next university president?
Change is occurring so quickly that new people coming in will have to be extraordinarily creative, and they’re going to have to work to maintain a traditional university and a university that is electronic, that reaches out to people in different ways than we ever have before. And they are always going to be faced with financial challenges.
So what’s your advice?
I would say, put yourself aside. Put the university first as a steward. Make your decisions around the future of the university and it being there to serve the region. If you do that, I think you’re going to be satisfied, and you’re going to leave this university with a sense of accomplishment and success.
So what will the transition from president to retiree be like for you?
For a lot of people, it is hard to understand what it’s like to be a university president. From the moment you start the job until the day you end it, you live that job. People ask me in town, “Do you fish? Do you hunt? Do you play golf?” No. Becky and I watch Nicholls tennis matches, go to basketball games, recitals and all the rest. We participate in events, whether they’re dinners or festivals. So in some ways we’re starting over again and allowing ourselves to do things we used to do 17 years ago before our life became dictated by a university calendar. This is going to be about what Becky and Steve Hulbert want to do, not about what a university president and his wife should do.
Well, what do you and Becky enjoy doing in your downtime?
We watch the Food Channel and HGTV. Then we try some of the recipes we’ve seen. I like to barbecue and grill. I’m going to love the fact that I’ll be in Arizona, where the weather permits grilling throughout the entire year. No mosquitoes.
You’ll be cooking your own meals now, something you didn’t have to worry about as president. What presidential perk will you miss most?
My answer is almost the opposite of what you’re looking for. I’m going to enjoy regaining privacy. What we treasure is privacy, and there is no such thing in a university presidency. There’s always somebody at the house from full-time staff, landscape crews, plumbers, electricians, crews delivering supplies, food services setting up for parties or events. You’re never alone. The one thing I’m going to enjoy is the private time with Becky and Steve Hulbert together enjoying life.
Fortunately, Becky does a lot of cooking. But yeah, you become very accustomed to being taken care of.
What do you envision retirement looking like?
I envision a heavy amount of travel while we can still do it.
Any places in particular?
Becky and I have been on about 18 cruises together, so there aren’t a lot of places that we haven’t been, but we look forward to getting back to Istanbul, Turkey because that’s one of our favorite locations.
Any books on your shelf waiting to be read?
I have a collection of probably 350 books related to the life of Abraham Lincoln. That’s my hobby. I have read about 80 percent of them, but I would like to spend some time studying them in depth.
Do you think you’ll stop working entirely?
I would hope to work with the Registry for College and University Presidents, which in the simplest terms is a temp organization that places presidents and vice presidents in assignments on two- and four-year campuses where there is a need for an interim appointment. I also intend to do some consulting with regard to crisis management, assessment and accreditation, and NCAA athletics administration.
What emotions do you think will be going through your head as you, Becky and Max drive away from campus, one last time?
It will be very painful. We really feel a love for this university, its people and this region. It’s going to be enormously difficult. We are going to enjoy retirement. But we are not going to enjoy moving away from here. I remember the day in February of 2003 when we were offered the Nicholls job before the Board of Supervisors of the University of Louisiana System, and Becky literally broke down sitting before the board and cried. I held back. But I can tell you Becky and I will cry a good deal more when leaving. Fortunately, we have wonderful friends here, so we look forwardto our return visits.
— Written by Stephanie Detillier, publications coordinator
This article originally appeared in the spring 2013 issue of The Colonel alumni magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.