Dr. Spina Interview Transcript
S: My daughter, who’s going to be a senior at Skidmore College near Albany, she’s an English major and a couple minors and she’s actually at Skidmore this summer getting ready for GREs and working a little bit and doing a summer writer’s workshop.
G: Writers meeting writers
S: Thank you guys for doing this. I’ve been on the job for how many days now? Eleven. This is my eleventh day, I’m an old pro. But I’m pleasantly surprised. There’s not a ton of students on campus but there’s a number and I’ve started interacting with them a little more of the last few days. Happy to spend time with you, and when you come back to campus, happy to spend more.
G: We’d absolutely love that. I bet it’s been a busy eleven days right?
S: It has been. I have to say, if the rest of my tenure is like this, it’s going to be a really easy job. SHaking hands and kissing babies. It’s all in celebration. Everyone’s happy because I haven’t made any decisions yet.
H: You’re honeymooning right now.
S: Absolutely, and I’m enjoying every minute of it. It’s building relationships and so on. It’s great. I’m happy to be talking to you and happy to be answering questions.
H: So we’re going to keep this lighthearted and pretty conversational. We’re sure you’ve been through plenty of Q&A sessions and maybe some of the questions have been kind of redundant so Grace and I are going to try to deviate from that. So I’ll guess we’ll just dive right in here. The president that was set with Dr. Dan’s time and maybe his greatest legacy has been his relationship with the students and I think that was really build on his openness and we just knew a lot about him and where he came from and how he came to be the person he is today, so we wanted to develop the same type of understanding with you and open that up for the rest of the students. So one question that I always like to ask people is where did you grow up? And what about growing up in that specific environment or town contributed to how you have come to see the world? How is that different than living in different places?
S: That’s a great question and I could probably answer it for three hours, but I’ll be shorter than that. I grew up in Buffalo, just like a block outside of Buffalo. Both my parents were teachers. My mom was an art teacher and my dad was a science teacher then became a middle school principal. That’s the first side note I would make. I mean, having them both as educators early on caused me to really develop relationship with my teachers. I saw them as people. As I look back on grammar school, I can still name every one of my teachers, my high school, my college, my grad school. And you know there’s some folks in particular that I just connected with that as I think about it, they really pulled me, I mean not forcefully, towards being an educator. So that’s the first thing about growing up. But then the town itself, it’s interesting. The town is a gritty town. I mean Buffalo, Syracuse, Dayton, there are similarities. They’re rough belt cities. They ll used to rely on heavy manufacturing, a lot of automotive and related products. As I was growing up, that was just starting to change. Certainly by the time I got to high school there were a lot of layoffs and gas prices were exorbitant compared to what they were. The world, for those towns, had changed. I mean Buffalo, once upon a time, was the fourth largest city in America and had almost 600,000 people. It now has around 250,000 people. So what I saw in Buffalo, kind of upfront, was a city that was still decaying, but that had a grit about it, and a resilience. We didn’t use those words at the time, but I think that becomes part of who people from Buffalo, and Dayton and Syracuse and Providence really are. They can see things falling apart around them but there’s an optimism that things around them are going to get better if you work hard. So my parents were really first generation in this country. Their parents came over to the United States and the immigrant perspective of ‘we’re fortunate to be here, we need to work hard, make a living, make life better for our kids.’ I mean that’s Buffalo. And that was my family.
G: I’ve only been to Buffalo once but you really get that idea of the history of it and how it’s changed and what’s at the core of it and how it carries with you to where you are today.
S: Yeah, I really do, and I said this just the other day, I do carry Buffalo with me, in many ways.
H: That’s interesting. Going back to your parents being first generation and having that immigrant mentality, is that something that you were aware of when you were growing up as a kid and did you, in hindsight, recognize that as something that shaped how you thought back then or is that something that impacted you later?
S: Yeah, I think you know as a kid, you’re just doing whatever. I’d would say probably when I got to be, early high school was when I started to realize that not everyone in the country, like my cousins who had grown up in very different places, were different and didn’t have that kind of experience. But the other thing I’ll just say, especially about my father, my father as a kid. His father was a cement mason in Buffalo, an immigrant cement mason. And he, this is the Depression, my dad was born in 1925. The Depression hits in 1929, and no one is building buildings. So my grandfather actually made religious statues by hand and painted them by hand and sold them door to door. And just hearing stories about the Depression from my father who said once a week they would have chicken, and that would be their only meat during the week. Other than that it was homemade bread and things from their garden. I mean, even at that young age I realized that we weren’t rich from a young family, but boy we had a lot compared to what my father had in the late 20s and early 30s. And I think that’s when, I mean early high school in particular, I began to realize what you have and your path might be a little different than others… I’m all over the place. Sorry.
G: No, that’s good. We like that. That’s definitely organic. Going off with what you were saying about coming to that time in high school, how would you describe yourself as a high schooler? How did your high school self inform the rest of our journey?
S: Yeah another good question. So I went to an all male Jesuit high school in Buffalo. And at the time it was a not inexpensive high school. So I was not among the wealthy folks in high school but I connected and had a good group of friends. In general, I was with a group that was, you know, we weren’t the best athletes but we were athletes. We were some of the best students. We were involved in our churches and our community. As I think about my 5 or 6 closest friends, we came from similar kinds of families and had similar kinds of experiences, similar values. And you know, this environment of Conesious High School was really supportive, really focused on holistic education, much like UD is. And I can tell you now, that at my inauguration next April, I’d expect to have those 5 or 6 closest friends will be here. And there have been times in our life when a couple friends I haven’t talked to in 10 or 15 years, and then you see them and it’s like picking up where you left off. So really that environment in high school for me was really important. There are other people like me, similar values. It’s ok to be smart, it’s ok not to be the best athlete but to still be out on the field. It’s ok to be involved in your church. It’s ok to have strong values. For me, that high school experience was very reinforcing of, I think, of a person my parents who my parents had helped to build to that point.
H: Interesting. So you referred to sports. What kind of sports were you interested in? What peaked your interest at that point in your life? What kind of kid were you? Were you a trouble maker? Did you walk the line?
S: I was not a trouble maker. I think it’s an all Jesuit high school thing, JUG, it’s like detention. I didn’t get JUG until my senior year, I forget what I did to get JUG. But I was in a group that was kind of, as I referenced, a do-it-all kind of group. We were athletes. We took the harder classes. Were engaged, we were running the student newspaper. It was an active good group of folks. Sports wise, I tried a few types of things there. I was actually bigger when I went to high school than I am now. I was, heavier and at the time I went to Conscious, they had a New York state record winning streak in football. They really are a football powerhouse, sending people to major college football programs and the NFL. And I never played football in the local playground, and on the second day, the coach saw me and said “Ah what’s your name? Spina, you’re playing football.” So I went home and told my mom and dad, “I’m playing football at Conisious and my dad said, “No you’re not.” And I said, “Well why not?” “I don’t want you to get hurt. There’s concussions. You could blow out your knee. So I had to go back and tell people I wasn’t going to play football. So anyway, in the end, I played basketball for a year on the JV team, I actually wrestled for a year. But the sport I probably spent the most time on was track and field. I was a shot putter and a discus thrower.
H: That’s interesting. I also found great solace in track whereas in more popular sports I was not as great at. So we share that I suppose. Through that end, after high school you went to where undergrad?
S: Carnegie Mellon, down in Pittsburgh.
H: Ok, so you studied engineering. Is that something you always knew was your passion, that you wanted to be an engineer? Or is that something you kind of like stumbled into?
S: Yeah, I stumbled into it. So I was good at math, I was good at science. I’m blue collar family, I mean quasi-blue collar family. Wanted to make sure I had a good job. People early on said, “Math. Science. You should be an engineer.” But really the thing I was best at and that I like the most was history and English. But I saw myself as, you know, I can be an engineer. They drive nice cars, hold down good jobs, good members of community, so I’m going to be an engineer. So off I went to Carnegie Mellon. I mean, really at first it was really an unsatisfying experience. I really throughout my undergraduate career, it wasn’t senior year that I really got a good group of friends and did things other than study and do research. But Carnegie Mellon at the time, engineering at the time, anywhere, wasn’t really supportive. And I thought about transferring back to Buffalo, I thought about changing my major to business. But my parents encouraged me to stick with it and it’ll change. And it did, I met some professors and I started doing research.
(Dr. Spina) — I met some professors and I started doing research and so on but, you asked me
(about) my three favorite courses at Carnegie Mellon: art history, origins of World War I, and
origins of World War II, no, no statics and dynamics or mechanicals of materials or fluid mechanics, those were my least favorite courses.
(Grace) That’s funny—
(Hayley) So what interested you about those courses that made them your favorite beyond your
(Dr. Spina) The art history, my mom was an artist. And from an early age we used to hobble off
to Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo which is a great art museum really focused on modern
art and, you know, I can remember a hundred times telling my mom looking at abstract art
“Mom, I could do that why is it hanging in a museum” and she would say, “Well because it’s the artist’s interpretation, he or she can draw incredibly but this is the path they moved in” so, I get to college and Carnegie Mellon actually has a really good art program, and I decided to take art history and it was really just a fascinating, fascinating course. I was like one of two engineers in a class of about eighty, so I was kind of a novelty. But it was just fascinating to learn about artists and what motivated them and how their careers evolved over time. And the history course, I mean it just, if you ask me the question how did you get to a position where you can go to grad school and so and so forth, any level of intelligence I had was really from reading. I read a lot early on, in particular, I read history. I just loved, especially post World War II history. But the origins of World War I and origins of World War II, were just really a lot of fun. Just seeing how these two wars were kind of stumbled into in some ways, and ways that had profound impact on all of our lives.
(Grace) You said you loved reading, whether there any books that really stuck with you? Either
anywhere from elementary school through college and onward, that you really loved in particular?
(Dr. Spina) Yea, so here’s two books, two end of the spectrum. My father who’s still alive at 91, and very good health, a reminder in time to time, that the first book that I read, and I forgot how old I was but it was before you’re supposed to be able to read, was Go Dog Do. I loved it so much, they read it so much that I literally memorized it. Word by word, page by page, so Go Dog Go should be on the list for favorite books. And the other was, so I said I like history, I like World War II and post-World War II history. For me, as a kid, so you know ten, eleven, twelve,
thirteen, reading about World War II it was kind of romantic right? Because you read about Audi
Murphy and how he saves thirteen comrades and this guy falls on a grenade and it’s like, heroic, and boy isn’t that great? And I was home, I think with Scarlet fever or, something, when I was seventeen, I was reading a book by William Manchester, Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of my war in the Pacific. He snuck into the Marines young, and he was I think on Tarawa when he was seventeen, and there was this one picture in the book of these pilings from a pier that are still there from World War II. And he described in just exquisite detail how he in his company were literally hiding behind these pilings as Japanese gunfire-machine gunfire was strafing the beach. And he was the age that I was. I tried to picture myself 7000 miles away from home, which I couldn’t do, on my own, which I couldn’t do, behind a piling having people shoot at me, and all of a sudden it dawned on me, there was nothing romantic about war. So I remember my dad came home that night and my dad fought in the European Theatre in World War II, Battle of the Bulge and some other battles. He was always reluctant to talk about the war because he hated it.
And I said, “Boy dad, I guess war is not romantic, is it?” And for the first time, we actually had conversations about his experiences in the war. So, for me I have this really close bond with my father. That was– so you ask about books that have an influence, that’s one.
(Grace) Well, we’ll have to add both those books to the reading list for the UD kids right?
(Hayley) Absolutely. So, you mentioned your relationship with your father and your relationship
with your mother as well. What do you think are some of– Grace and I had a conservation before
the interview about values. And sometimes the conversation around values can be very nebulous
and hard to condense down to two or three sentences. So I guess we’ll start with your parents and you already mentioned that they instilled in you the value of hard work but, what are some other things that you took from your parents? Maybe lessons that they didn’t teach you. Make a point to teach you but, some things you maybe gleaned from them just from observation.
(Dr. Spina) Very clearly, to treat people with respect and to treat them well. Time to time, my
dad would take me into school with him and, there was a short period where my mom was a
substitute part teacher at the school I went to. So, I was able to see my parents at work, which a
lot of kids don’t. Just watching the way they treated others and the way others held them in high regard, is something that sticks with you. So beyond hard work, treating people with respect,
treating people well– I’m gonna say at whatever role they were playing. So whether it was the janitor in the school, or whether it was the vice principal. I saw my father treat them the same
way and value them. So that’s something that– as I think about my leadership style to this point and what I want it to be at UD, that’s at the center of it. Everyone who works here is important and I want to treat them all the same, with respect and treat them with dignity. So, that’s an important lesson. We were raised in the Catholic church and went to Catholic elementary school for eight years, and then onto a Jesuit high school for four. So, the church and its lessons were at the center of the family– religious family. Both my parents volunteered, Sunday school or, confirmation class or, so on. So that was kind of always at the table as well.
(Hayley) Interesting. So, many of the students at UD have gone through maybe life long or even
some amount of Catholic school before coming to UD and, a lot of people come to the table with
a lot of very similar values as you have expressed. But not everybody comes away with the
same type of lessons from a Catholic education. So, what other factors in your life have– or other
experiences have affected or, strengthened those values that you have learned through the
Catholic church? That’s kind of a weird question but—
(Dr. Spina) No– I get it. Let me– I need to reflect for a moment. I left Canisius and went off to
Carnegie Melon and went off to Princeton and, you meet all kinds of folks in the world, right?
Some who are Catholic and some who aren’t. Some who are practicing and some who aren’t. Some who are not religious and some who are. And I think to your point, I’m here as a Catholic president of a Catholic-Marianist university so, [Catholicism] is central to me. But you also learn there are folks who are not Catholic who have good values and that was important for me to understand. Not just Catholicism nick people– respectful of others, living a life that contributes positively to society. But, you also meet folks who are not very nice people, in one way or another. And watching the way people who aren’t contributors and who don’t have strong values that they live on day to day basis, those negative lessons for me. Sometimes it was a boss that I had, part-time job in high school or a summer job in college, I mean those lessons are some ways more powerful than the positive lessons. You see someone who is not a good person, in whatever way, and you see them try to be a leader and you see how, you’re just there for the summer but, you see how that individual is regarded in the office– I mean that’s like “Wow, huh. I get it.” There is value in having strong values and living as best you can aligned with them.
(Hayley) So what was your first job, you– well what was your first job just to have some extra
spending money and then what was your first professional job after school?
(Dr. Spina) Guess what my first part-time job in high school? You each get one guess.
(Hayley) A pizza boy.
(Dr. Spina) No.
(Grace) I’m going to go, traditional grocery bagger.
(Dr. Spina) Oh no…McDonald’s!
(Hayley) Oh! So it was food service.
(Grace) The classic.
(Dr. Spina) Quick story. So I started working in McDonald’s and, I worked hard and I became a crew chief and, I worked hard and I became an assistant manager and then, it was a McDonald’s owned franchise– McDonald owned store. At some point it was bought out by a franchisee and I’ll never forget, probably January or February– actually in the Spring before I was going off to college the owner came to me and said, “Eric, rather than going to college I’d like you to stay here and continue on a management track and, we’ll send you, in a couple of years, McDonald’s university. Here’s how much you can earn.” I was polite in response but I was thinking “you know…no.” So, my choices were McDonald’s University or Carnegie Melon University. I think I chose wisely.
(Grace) Now when’s the last time—
(Hayley) We think too.
(Dr. Spina) Not that it wasn’t going to be fun at McDonald’s University but, I wouldn’t be here talking to you guys.
(Grace) Very true.
(Hayley) Interesting so—
(Grace) When’s the last time you’ve been to a McDonald’s then?
(Dr. Spina) It’s been a while. Mostly, traveling with the family, we’re hungry, it’s 2 o’clock, we haven’t had lunch. I mean, within the last year but I don’t as often as I used to.
(Grace) Alright, Hayley you’re good now.
(Hayley) Ok, oh wait– what was your first professional job then, after school?
(Dr. Spina) So, right after undergrad I went right to Princeton. I graduate in end of May and was
Princeton by mid-June. So you’re an engineer, so I was a graduate assistant or a fellow there so they pay you but, I don’t regard that as a job. After two years, I wasn’t sure I wanted to get a PhD so I went and got a job in Washington at a company called Analytical Services or, ANSER. That does space launch consulting for the Air Force. So—
(Grace) That’s really cool.
(Dr. Spina) Yea, very close to the Pentagon. So I spent a lot of time at the Pentagon. So, that
really was my first job which was, for a while it was neat, but, after I’d been there three months the first space shuttle accident, the Challenger, explosion occurred. And that had a direct impact on what I was doing because, I was responsible, with some others, for thinking about how certain defensive satellites needed to get to orbit. And when the shuttle crashed, and it was clear that a shuttle wasn’t going to fly for a while, we had an issue on our hands. So, it went from light and fun, you know “We’re working on space stuff” to, “Hmm” there are issues we need to deal with. But, I did that for about a little over a year but, I really missed grad school. I realized that I wanted an academic environment so, I left and went back to Princeton.
(Hayley) That’s really cool. So do you still keep up with all that today? NASA related news and space exploration and things like that?
(Dr. Spina) A little bit, you know, it’s in my blood. I’ve had a number of friends, two relatively, famous astronauts, Eileen Collins, who was a Syracuse grad, the first woman pilot, the first woman commander and then, Steve Robinson, who did a particular space walk in the accident after Columbia crashed. I keep in touch with them and neither one is an astronaut any longer but, you talk to them every so often, you wind up talking about space stuff.
30:00 – End
H: So do you still l keep up with all that today, like NASA related news and space exploration, things like that?
S: A little bit, it’s in my blood i’ve had a number of friends, two relatively famous astronauts: eileen collins syracuse grad, first woman pilot, first woman commander. And then Steve Robinson, who did a particular space walk and the accident after Columbia crashed i keep in touch with them every so often, neither are astronauts anymore, but I get with them and you wind up talking with them about space stuff.
G: That’s interesting, my brother James just finished an internship last week at Goddard Space Center so when I told him about you and your background, he was like ‘That’s so cool!’. You definitely have some fans.
Cool. They do some really interesting things at Goddard in terms of space exploration.
So, how did being in the science community, kind of a hard turn, affect your faith in any way? Did it change at any time because of your occupation or was that kept separate and compartmentalized?
S: That’s a great question, you guys are really good. I’m going to think about that for a second. It was, in a way compartmentalized and in another way not. I believe in faith and reason; faith and science, I don’t think they’re incompatible. There are some scientists who will take out a pad of paper and pencil and try to prove to you that God doesn’t exist, but um, I’m in the world and I see incredible scientific things and incredible non-scientific things. I can maybe not take out a pad, but I will still try to convince you that God does exist. Yeah, I mean, maybe I’ve never deeply analyzed it as others.
G: That’s definitely what the Marianist education, especially at Dayton, tries to do is try to explain that they are compatible and complement each other when you get into the meat of it all.
S: I agree
H: More on the Marianist approach to education and something that I really appreciate about it is best summarized in a quote by the Provost who preceded Dr. Benson, and I paraphrase, that the undergraduate education should enable students to answer the question: “What does it mean to be human?”. Would you say you take a similar approach to education? Or, more broadly, what are some of the most important things you think we should be taking away from these four years?
S: My hope for students, undergraduate students when they leave Dayton, and anywhere, it’s not about the material, right? In some disciplines, the half-life of the knowledge you get is four or five years; like computer science and engineering, there was a period where the half-life was three to four years — so, I tend to think about the value of UG education more abstractly than get a job, it’s important that we prepare students to be employable and to be responsible ans so on. But for me it’s about getting someone in the position where they’re ready to contribute to society in a positive way and to be a productive citizen; to be a leader, a leader in the nuclear family or in a faith community, a leader in whatever, a community organization; to be a professional, who hopefully is going to get a job that contributes to the betterment of society. I actually like the sense of learning what it means to be human, learning how we relate to the world; about poetry, about nature and you know as humans, what are the lenses we look at that through and what does that mean for us living here on this earth whether it’s 22 years or a 102 years. What do we leave behind of significance, what are the things that really matter to us, I like that abstract, I think about employability. UG is about learning how to learn and about yourself in relation to the world which is complex and amazing, but sometimes a difficult place.
H: Do you have any more long-form questions Grace? Because through the interview, I’ve thought of some more rapid-fire questions, maybe not so much rapid-fire as more moderately paced, less involved haha.
S: My answers are very long, I’m sorry.
G: How about, UD students are often in the environment the Marianists have created, this beautiful, almost perfect place, which is sometimes seen as a bubble and coming into this role as president, what challenges do you think UD faces
S: Yeah, so it’s we reflect on something I heard yesterday, which is apart of this, this place is called ‘The UD Bubble’ and i think a bubble is not a good thing to live in. It’s good that there’s a UD community we are really connected to and comfortable in and so on. But you know, everything I’ve seen here, people don’t live in a bubble; they’re connected to the world, they’re overseas, they’re connected to the local community. So people really feel we’re in a bubble and they want to be in a bubble, that’s something we need to really work on. We need to connect for the benefit of our students, as well as for the benefit of society. You know we’re going to start a strategic visioning exercise in the coming year where I’m going to listen a lot, learn a lot about the past and the present, but also where the university should be in not three or five years, but twenty or twenty-five years, where do we really want to go. It’s going to be an authentic process, we’re going to work at it together: students, faculty, alumni, community members. One thing I know, or two things: we’re at a private university that’s not inexpensive and the concern here, and it’s all private universities, are affordability and accessibility to, what clearly is, a great educational opportunity, and if everyone can’t access it, that’s a problem and one other thing I expect to be in our vision is the question of diversity, I think we’re not diverse a campus as our values really call for, as well as the values I see people here living. It doesn’t just mean race, and I do mean race, but I also mean gender, I mean nationality, I mean geographically, you name it. I’m an engineer and I think about designing a product, the more people you have around the table designing something, you’re going to get a product that you can sell to more people. Those are two things that we need to work on a little bit
G: I interviewed Dr. Burnley and he echoed your statement about diversity not being held exclusively to race but being about a bunch of things, it doesn’t necessarily help only students we’re bringing in but it helps everyone and how everyone benefits from it: staff, faculty, students, and the community. You’re definitely on the same page there.
S: I agree, and it’s from the board room to the student body to the faculty to the staff. We need to be more diverse across the board.
H: I thought of a lighter few questions as we have been going along. This first question is probably one of my favorites to ask people: what is something you believe to be true that most people think is false?
S: Huh. That some day, the Buffalo Bills will win the super bowl [laughter].
H: Well, I guess I didn’t specify that it had to be realistic [more laughter]… I’m kidding, I’m kidding.
Now, I also like to ask, what three books you would recommend everyone read read. You already said two, but are there any other books you’d suggest?
S: I like this question, there are a hundred different books I could say. Let me give you one more, a history book, it’s called The Wise Men about twelve friends and the world they made, which talks about a number of public servants, just before or just after WWII who kind of aristocrats, came before blue blood families, a quintessential American story in terms of the families really instilling these values into young men that they should really contribute their lives to making the country better. Then it followed them through all the cabinet posts and all the different roles they played. It’s a really compelling book about the generation that shaped the world to day for the good and bad. In terms of a novel, I’m going to give you something totally different, I’m pretty sure this is the right title: At the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Which is a really neat story, it begins in WWII then flashes forward to more or less present day. IT’s about a Japanese immigrant family who were brought to a concentration camp, and it’s a really interesting story; part about love, part about country, really, for me an incredibly moving book. I tend not to be an emotional person,but at the end of that book, it was really an emotional experience. So that’s something totally different.
H:Well, we have quite the robust reading list now.
S: It’s not a long book, if you have time, it is truly memorable.
G: Describe your upcoming adventure at UD in six words.
S: Ooh, I said something the other day that was pity, how about, “Eric and UD: A Love Story”
H and G: [gush]