Office of the President

Expert on Japanese Business to Lead Liberal-Arts College in Arkansas

This story was originally published on Jan. 6, 2014, in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

By Justin Doubleday

As he has moved through the ranks of university administration, William M. Tsutsui says the title he remains most proud of is "professor."

His newest title, however, has a nice ring to it as well. Mr. Tsu­tsui, 50, will take over as president of Hendrix College, in Arkansas, next June. He has spent the last three years as dean of the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences at Southern Methodist University.

The allure of Hendrix, Mr. Tsu­tsui says, is in its intimate community and commitment to providing a true liberal-arts education. "A place like Hendrix realizes where its bread is buttered, and that is with teaching undergraduate students," he says. The college, with 1,432 undergraduates, is known for its Odyssey Program, which requires students to complete three experiential-learning projects during their college careers.

For the career academic, whose parents were professors at Texas A&M University, the idea of being an administrator did not always come easy. Mr. Tsutsui holds a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University, in addition to degrees from Harvard University and the University of Oxford. He was a professor of history at the University of Kansas from 1993 to 2010. Mr. Tsutsui eventually became associate dean for international studies at Kansas and director of the Kansas Consortium for Teaching About Asia in the university's Center for East Asian Studies. But he says it has often been his peers who have suggested that he take on leadership roles.

Carl J. Strikwerda, president of Elizabethtown College, in Pennsylvania, was at the University of Kansas from 1989 to 2004, serving as a professor and later as associate dean. Mr. Tsutsui identifies Mr. Strikwerda as one of his mentors, and the leaders have kept in touch over the years. When Mr. Tsutsui visited Mr. Strikwerda in Elizabethtown last year, they began talking about the possibility of Mr. Tsutsui's becoming a college president.

"I said, 'Bill, if you want to do this, you're the perfect fit,'" Mr. Strikwerda says. "We need to continue to have people of Bill's intellectual caliber in leadership roles."

Mr. Tsutsui now joins a small number of other Asian-Americans who have attained a college presidency.

At the University of Kansas, he was the first Asian-American in university history to reach the level of associate dean. Respect for elders and authority is stressed in many Asian cultures, Mr. Tsutsui says. "Stepping out and owning a leadership position can be tough for a lot of Asian-Americans. That's something I really had to explore on my own."

Mr. Tsutsui, who is of Japanese descent, has confronted cultural differences since he was a child. He says people in his hometown, Bryan, Tex., would sometimes speak to his father in Spanish, mistaking him for a Latino.

The one piece of Japanese culture that Mr. Tsutsui could connect to as he grew up in the small Texas city was Godzilla. "Those movies became sort of my entrée into my Japanese heritage," he says.

His passion for Godzilla did not diminish after he grew up. While he has written many books on Japanese business and banking policies, his most popular work is the lighthearted Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2004.

Asked if he worried that writing the book would negatively affect his image as a serious academic, Mr. Tsutsui laughed. "That's the beauty of tenure," he says.

Mr. Tsutsui's wife, Marjorie Swann, an associate professor of English at Southern Methodist, will join the faculty in the English department at Hendrix.

As for his own future there, Mr. Tsutsui aims to preserve the university's traditional values while launching it into the elite division of liberal-arts colleges. He says that he will wear down a lot of "shoe leather" in promoting Hendrix on both a regional and national scale.

"You don't want to sell the soul of the place for U.S. News rankings," he says. "But at the same time, you want Hendrix and what it offers to be as recognized and valued by as many people as possible."