President Fulfilled His Goal to Pay It Forward
May 21, 2021
This summer, John R. Broderick will retire as president of Old Dominion University. His 13-year tenure is twice as long as the average college presidency.
The new spring issue of Monarch magazine features a 13-page section commemorating his and First Lady Kate Broderick's significant legacy at Old Dominion. It begins with this Q&A, which covers his challenges as a first-generation college student, his personal touch at Old Dominion and his post-presidential plans.
You started your career as a journalist. What headline would you give to an article summing up your presidency?
I was always taught to let somebody else describe the moment. After I announced my retirement, The Virginian-Pilot wrote that my departure will be "A substantial loss for ODU."
You were a first-generation college student. What hurdles did you face, and how did you overcome them? How did your experience influence your focus on social mobility, diversity and inclusion here?
My father was an electrician, so when there was construction in Connecticut, he did well. When there was a stoppage, he didn't. As a result, several times in college my financial aid forms were totally inaccurate. I had a kindly education professor by the name of Larry Durham at Northeastern. I confided in him that I was going to drop out. He knew the financial aid director and walked me over there to tell my story. His intervention saved me. I ended up getting a scholarship and loans, plus a campus job. I vowed then I would do the same for others. I feel comfortable that our initiatives in student success have achieved that moment for many, many students.
What was your most satisfying achievement at Old Dominion, and the goal you're most disappointed in not having reached?
Probably shaking hands with thousands and thousands of students at commencement, including three sons, two nephews and a niece. For so many of our students, graduation is a remarkable journey, completed sometimes against great odds. To see smiles and tears at those moments reminded me of the important work we do at ODU because we do change lives for the better. I don't have major disappointments, though we all know upon reflection we could have done some things better. I always wished we had the resources to help every deserving student get across the finish line sooner.
How have you changed as a leader and as a person since you became president?
Not much. For the most part, I hope people would say, "He treated me like I wanted to be treated." Everyone on this campus is critical to what we do. I try extremely hard to know the names of as many people as possible, as well as something about them. Nobody will know all 3,200 names, but I bet I know more than half.
What insights have you gained as to the role of athletics and the lives of student-athletes?
I have tremendous respect for them because they must possess incredible time management skills, while excelling in competition, the classroom and in the community. I served on several NCAA national committees over the years, and I always was pleased to share what our young men and women were doing with their opportunities at ODU.
How have you balanced University obligations and family life in the past 13 years?
Don't get me wrong. Kate and I compromised anniversaries, birthdays and sometimes vacations. But we never lost sight of the importance of our family and friends. We rarely missed a day of exercising together, whether it was running, walking or bike riding, which always helped clear our minds. Having grandkids, including a 1-year-old, never allows you to forget what happiness should be based on. We also have some wonderful longtime friends.
Being a university president is a relentless job. How did you cope with the constant headaches and personality issues?
For the most part, I have been surrounded by outstanding people both as employees and as human beings. There is no question that headaches are a part of the job; however, the irritants are easily outweighed by the moments where I have learned, discovered, laughed and enjoyed time with both ODU and community people.
What's been your biggest disappointment during the pandemic?
The inability to interact with faculty, staff and students, especially with this being my last year. I have met so many people over the years simply by attending campus functions and events or walking into buildings to say hello to folks.
What will you miss most and least about living in the President's House?
The view of the Elizabeth River, especially the sunsets. What I won't miss I will save for a future interview.
What will your role be at Old Dominion after you retire as president?
I will serve as the Board of Visitors Distinguished Lecturer for several years in the Darden College of Education and Professional Studies. I also plan on contributing to future State of the Commonwealth and State of the Region reports. There could also be a closeout project or two I may be asked to work on by the Board of Visitors.
What are some fun things you and Kate plan to do that you didn't previously have time for? Any new hobbies?
We have always enjoyed biking and walking, so now we will get two chances a day, instead of one. We also plan to take up yoga. We like hiking and look forward to returning to areas from Maine to California, where we enjoyed the exercise and the views in the past. We also hope after COVID to visit friends in Spain, Ireland, France and Italy.
What's your top piece of advice for your successor, Dr. Brian Hemphill?
I have no advice. He is a professional, and the board is deeply committed to his success. Should he ask for my assistance, I will be pleased to help. I will add that (former President) Jim Koch was a terrific resource for me over the last 13 years.
To read the commemorative section on President Broderick and First Lady Kate Broderick, as well as other articles, in the spring issue of Monarch magazine, go to www.odu.edu/monarchmag