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April 18, 1997
Goal-oriented Austin brings success to whatever he does
By Peggy McCarthy, '72
It was always clear to his younger brother that Philip Austin was going to be a success in whatever he chose to do in life.
"He's very goal-directed and very serious," says Michael Austin. "He's been that way since he was little."
He points out that Philip Austin was elected student body president at Casselton High School in North Dakota, that he was commended by the ROTC at North Dakota State University, and as a U.S. Army Captain in Vietnam was chosen to work for Gen. Creighton Abrams. "Wherever he's been, he's always excelled," says Michael Austin, a lawyer who lives in Cave Creek, Ariz.
Clara M. Lovett, who worked for Austin at Bernard Baruch College in New York City, agrees. A history professor when Austin was hired as provost in 1978, Lovett recalls thinking, "Oh my goodness, he is young and he looks younger than he really is. The senior faculty is going to push him around all over the place."
Lovett left the college for a year and a half. When she returned, she was pleasantly surprised: "I found he had established himself very successfully, and he had a lot of the faculty eating out of his hands."
Austin tapped Lovett to be assistant provost. He became her mentor. She is now president of the University of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff.
"I learned a great deal from him in terms of how you put together a team to make things happen," Lovett says. "I learned some political skills that I didn't have as a faculty member - working through problems, being patient with people." But, she acknowledges, "I'm not as good at that as he is."
John Snider, dean of the College of Continuing Studies at the University of Alabama, has a unique history with Austin. Snider worked for him both at Colorado State University, where Austin was president, and the University of Alabama system, where Austin was chancellor overseeing three campuses. Snider was Austin's executive assistant in Colorado, then became vice chancellor for academic affairs. He praises Austin's ability to "think on his feet faster than anyone I've ever seen. He can be in a situation with faculty, legislators or students and is just fantastic coming up with articulate, thoughtful responses."
Snider and Austin also spent time together with their families, enjoying water sports and riding in Austin's pontoon boat on Lake Tuscaloosa in Alabama. Snider represented the University of Alabama at Austin's inauguration as UConn's 13th president.
Some college administrators took jobs where Austin worked largely because of him. "One of the reasons I came to Colorado State was because Phil was the president," says Keith M. Miser, vice president for student affairs at Colorado State University. "I think he is one of the strongest institutional leaders I have worked with."
Andrew A. Sorensen had a similar motivation. "One reason I agreed to be president of the University of Alabama was because of Phil Austin's vision of higher education, his understanding of what we need to do and where we need to go in the United States, and his winning personality," Sorensen says. "I became the president of the University of Alabama on Monday morning July 10th, had a meeting with him at eight o'clock, and at nine o'clock, he held a press conference and announced he had accepted the presidency of the University of Connecticut.
"So, " Sorensen joked, "the people of Connecticut owe me a great debt because I drove him out of Alabama."
Winton M. Blount, a former U.S. Postmaster General, was president pro tempore of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees and aggressively recruited Austin for the chancellor's job. They skied together in Colorado and had long conversations. When Austin arrived, "There was a lot of discord" among the university's campuses," Blount says. "Phil stepped right into that and it wasn't very long before he had everybody reading from the same page."
J. Claude Bennett, former president of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, recalls that Austin, who hired him, "exerted leadership and put pressure where it needed to be, but never made it feel like he was trying to take over your institution." Bennett is now president of Biocryst Pharmaceuticals, in Birmingham, Ala.
Henry J. Hector, executive director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, says Austin is "a superb negotiator." He calls Austin "the kind of person that a person in my job likes to work for because he's civil at all times and he listens carefully."
At Colorado State University, when a professor was killed in an airplane accident, Austin helped the community cope, says Kathleen Byington, president and chief executive officer of the Colorado State University Research Foundation. He led a memorial service that "showed how much he cares about people, how warm he is," Byington says.
When Austin, 55, interviewed for the UConn presidency, search committee members found that he "knew a lot about UConn and the state," recalls Peter Halvorson, a professor of geography who served on the committee. "The kind of preparation he did showed us how he would approach the job here."
Austin always did his homework, his brother said. Their late mother, Angela, insisted on it. Her husband died when her sons were young boys and she was very serious about having them meet their responsibilities.
"She was a tremendous influence on both of our lives," Michael Austin says.