John Sellars, Graceland University President 2007-17: interview by Keondrea Richards ‘17
Richards: So, we’re gonna kinda lighten up the mood and start off with some fun.
Sellars: Yeah, this is kind of like the three Christmas ghosts… and the one that you look forward to the least. (laughs)
Richards: Alright, let’s start off with… favorite season.
Sellars: Favorite season… Spring. I love spring: new life and the newness… the flowers coming out… the trees… they’re just beautiful. I like spring.
Richards: Coffee or tea?
Sellars: Yes. (laughs) It depends. Sometimes I drink coffee, and sometimes I drink tea. So, a little bit of each.
Richards: Biggie or Tupac?
Sellars: Biggie or Tupac?
Richards: Notorious BIG? No? Okay, we’ll skip that one.
Richards: Um… morning or night person?
Sellars: Morning. I get up really early in the morning. Oh, I’ll walk around campus at 5 o’clock in the morning, and I’ll take my dog and I check on all the trees and the buildings… I just love that time.
Richards: Favorite food.
Sellars: Hmm… (thinks) I don’t know. I don’t know. I just like a lot of variety in food. So, I like Italian, Mexican food – love Tex Mex, Chinese food… It’s hard to decide.
Richards: If you had to eat the exact same food for a year straight – what would it be?
Sellars: It would probably be something with chicken in it.
Richards: Mine’s pizza. I feel like I could eat pizza for days. Alright, Coke or Pepsi?
Sellars: Probably Pepsi. Yeah.
Richards: Cats or dogs?
Sellars: Dogs. Yeah, I have two grandchildren that are allergic to cats. So, it’s gotta be a dog.
Richards: Must see movie.
Sellars: Schindler’s List. It’s wonderful.
Richards: Okay, and favorite song.
Sellars: It’s gotta be White Christmas. My wife says I hum it all the time. Bing Crosby. She says for some reason I have this quirk of humming when I work at home… and it’s always White Christmas. Why? I have no idea, but I do, and it drives her insane. (laughs)
Richards: Would you like to hum it for us now?
Sellars: No, that’s okay. (laughs)
Richards: Okay, so let’s get just a little more in depth… What has been your favorite way to engage Graceland students on campus?
Sellars: I like to visit with students kind of informally. I think it’s really nice if I’m in the Shaw Lobby or in the Commons, that’s one of my favorites. I’ll go over and I’ll pick a different table about every day, and that gives me a chance to sit and visit with the students.
Richards: I bet they enjoy that.
Sellars: Well, I do. (laughs) I learn a lot that way, too.
Richards: Over the last 10 years of your presidency, what would you say have been the greatest changes within the student body?
Sellars: Probably a couple. One is fewer international students. So, that’s a big change. And another is really more Iowa students. If you look back 10 years ago, we had a few Iowa students, surprisingly, but the majority of students were not from Iowa; they’re out of state. In fact, the vast majority.
Richards: It seems like everyone is from Iowa now. (laughs) So, my next question is, how have you seen the faculty change over the same time period?
Sellars: I think that what we’re finding is that we’re really at that point… because of retirements – we’ve had a number of faculty retire – and we’ve really been able to get some just outstanding young faculty. So, for me, that’s really exciting; to get new faculty in, new blood, new ideas… And I would say our faculty are better prepared now than they were 10 years ago, because we’ve been able to get more faculty from prominent PhD programs.
Richards: I can see that. I think the majority of my faculty are younger professors.
Sellars: Yeah and, of course, my difficulty is when I meet some of them and I think they’re students, because they seem so young. (laughs) But, they’re really a terrific group.
Richards: So, based on your perspective over that time, what predictions do you see happening for Graceland’s future?
Sellars: My sense is we’ll become more and more of a regional institution. We’re getting more and more Iowa and Missouri students, and then students like yourself, who maybe have a tie from another area. And then with faculty, I really see that trend, as we look down the road, we’ll continue to get faculty, I think, that will bring new ideas; new complexities to the university, and that’ll be a good thing.
Richards: So, with graduation coming up, what advice do you have for graduating seniors?
Sellars: Well, one is: start looking for jobs, if you haven’t. (laughs) Graduate school… I hope you’ve already applied. (laughs) And, you know, take a deep breath. It is a real stressful time period, but it’s also, I hope, one of adventure and newness, and to think about what they’re going to learn after they graduate. It’s interesting to me when I’m in alumni homes, I will visit some alumni and you look at their bookcase, and all their books are new, and you can tell that they’re always reading and learning something new. Some I look at their bookcase, and they’re all Graceland books from 30 years ago. (laughs) And so, continue to learn and to grow, because life is dynamic and it’s really a new beginning. And when you graduate from college, it’s really a start, and you’ll continue to learn the rest of your life.
Richards: How does your advice differ for incoming freshmen?
Sellars: Well, incoming freshmen; what I usually share with them is enjoy the experience, but also use it as a broadening experience. So, if you see that we have a guest artist or a guest speaker on campus, take the time to go over and meet that person. Get to know them. Cause it will broaden you. And it would also be helpful to keep a journal of your thoughts and your ideas. And you’ll be surprised over time how that will really expand you. So, make yourself available for things that maybe you feel real uncomfortable with. Maybe you hear there’s a faculty member that has a viewpoint that you would not agree with, and my suggestion would be take [their class], because there might be something in there that would change your life. I have often had seniors say, “I wish I had taken this or that while I was here. Because I didn’t take that professor until my very last semester, and now I’m thinking how rich it would have been if I would have taken them earlier.” So, be willing to explore and make it fun, and see it as the beginning of your whole life’s journey. This is just the first few steps in that journey.
Richards: So, what does life after Graceland look like for you?
Sellars: I was gonna ask you. (laughs) No, you know, I don’t know. It’s been such a part of me for so many years… and higher education’s been such a part of me for a lot of time… I’m actually gonna take the advice that I just said to you for freshmen. And that is, I want to explore things that I haven’t been involved with before. I’ve been threatening my wife: I may even take a cooking class. She may veto that. (laughs) But I want to really explore some things and do some things I haven’t had an opportunity to do.