Feb 6, 2019
In a recurring column for Nikkei Business Online, President Haruaki Deguchi writes about his role as the President of APU. The October 29, 2018 entry is the second of two columns guest-written by Vice President Imamura. The first column discusses selecting an outsider for the role of university president. This second piece concludes the two part series by highlighting the changes at APU since President Deguchi’s inauguration in January 2018.
In my last article entitled “The Vice-President Explains How Mr. Deguchi Was Selected as the President of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University,” I introduced the whole story of how Mr. Deguchi assumed the presidency of APU.
Why did I want him to take office as president?
The first reason was that he was a reformer of high caliber and what I like to call a “great amateur.”
About 20 years have passed since APU’s founding in the year 2000. We are known for our unique qualities and educational system. Both get attention from various media outlets. But I started to think, did the light we started shining in Beppu 20 years ago just start to reach the world? The light may have already become old, just like starlight.
What we should do now is to shine a light that will reach out several years and dozens of years to come. But I found it increasingly difficult. Why?
Everyone loved APU so much that it became cozy. That is why it may have become more difficult to try and shake up the atmosphere and enact new reforms and take on new challenges. That is what I had felt.
In addition, we were just a fresh international university when we were founded in 2000. But we found ourselves being a more experienced international educational institution years later. Despite warnings from noted international universities that the attempt would definitely fail, a group of non-experts took on a new challenge. But that founding group, even with such a can-do spirit, was bound by conventional wisdom and precedents. We hesitated to change. This is also what I felt.
President Deguchi was a compelling candidate to those founders, a group that was apprehensive of reform.
At the age of 60, President Deguchi was someone who made a great achievement in spite of the conservative world of life insurance. He was also an amateur in the educational world. He was completely free from the shackles of preconceptions.
In one of his books, President Deguchi wrote, “I founded Lifenet Insurance Company together with only inexperienced members. I brought none of my subordinates at Nippon Life Insurance Company to the new company.”
It is always “great amateurs” that break down conventional wisdom and precedents, making change happen. In this sense, President Deguchi fit perfectly with what APU wanted.
President Deguchi could fit in at a university despite his background in business.
It is important that a university’s top management have corporate manage experience, a reforming spirit, and be academically minded. A university is a house of education, research, and learning. It is also a collective of intellectuals. A university’s president is required to be academically minded to be respected as an intellectual by the faculty and staff. President Deguchi met these requirements quite well for a businessperson. He had a wide range of profound academic knowledge and had also written many books. In addition, he had even had the experience of thinking on his own and using his academic knowledge to put ideas into action.
Furthermore, the great affinity between a university and President Deguchi’s personality was key.
Occasionally, businesspeople working for private companies will say that managing a university is easy. But the reality is exactly the opposite! University management means managing an organization involving many people who can be critical at times, have sharp intellects, and dislike directions and commands from above more than anything else (I include myself in that last point).
My mentor, who used to be the Chairperson of the Board of Trustees of the Ritsumeikan Trust, jokingly said, “If you define a university as a management entity, it is just like a company where half of the employees are lawyers” (I’m sorry, lawyers). I believe that’s true. I do not know how many private company managers have taken on the challenge of managing universities and given up halfway through.
But President Deguchi has the ability to listen attentively to people, including intellectuals, with a constant focus on respect for them. He neither brags of his successful experiences nor speaks about his painful episodes. I got the feeling that he, as a businessperson, had a miraculously great level of affinity with a university’s unique community.
I recommended him as a presidential candidate for many reasons. But among other things, his personality was the greatest appeal. He is an elusive, unworldly character. But there is something charming about him and people find themselves entrapped by his character.
As we had more interviews and mock lectures in the selection process, we saw his appeal. Everyone loved him.
Three projects under the direct control of the president
So how has APU changed since President Deguchi took office? The greatest change is in speed.
One of the issues involved in university management is the long decision-making process. Many universities put importance on taking time, raising an issue multiple times, organizing a committee, having repeated discussions and making a decision by consensus. In fact, this inevitably creates an environment in which you cannot easily say, “Let me decide this, and I will take responsibility.”
But President Deguchi is far from being like that. He listens attentively to all people, but he makes quick decisions based on that feedback. This cycle is very quick.
Mr. Deguchi may take it for granted because he thinks that a leader has to make a decision in an imperfect situation with a limited amount of time. But his approach was somewhat shocking for a university’s top management.
I speculate that both the faculty and staff were considerably surprised at the rapidity with which he made decisions.
Due to this speedy decision-making, three big projects were launched in the seven months after Mr. Deguchi had assumed the presidency. In addition, the APU Startup Program, also known as the Deguchi School, also kicked off.
I had more intense days than ever before.
All these projects were proposed by President Deguchi as necessary for the future of APU. Three vice-presidents took charge of each of those projects and are carrying on with them at full speed.
The three projects are:
•The APU Future Concept
•Improving the English ability of domestic students
•A plan for achieving 100% overseas experience
I am ashamed that these three projects are challenges I also wanted to embark on for some time, but I could not get them started, so I postponed the initiatives.
Now an amateur reformer is energetically getting to the heart of these issues that I had previously shelved.
The questions Mr. Deguchi raise are very insightful, and the ones that need to be asked.
Generally speaking, people tend to dislike correct arguments. But President Deguchi’s remarks are a simple expression of his feeling for APU, not ideas to produce results for himself. That is why everyone listens to him and tries to follow him as much as possible.
In addition, Mr. Deguchi always says to the staff, “When you have to overcome an issue, you can say, ‘I’m sorry that this amateur, outsider president who does not know university management is so assertive and demanding.’ You can put all the blame on me.”
I do think that President Deguchi is one of the few top managers who, of their own initiative, are willing to take responsibility.
President Deguchi’s presence improves everyone’s point of view
I am really happy that Mr. Deguchi came to APU. Honestly, his presence here is larger than I imagined.
I am still surprised at his huge influence and I am deeply grateful to him for his efforts to give everything he has to APU.
President Deguchi goes to see classes by himself, surprising even the students. He sees to guests himself, making both minor and major decisions. Thinking that the top management’s job is to boost the public recognition of our university, he responds to requests for lecture meetings as much as possible. He gives several lectures a day at times. He also sends information and messages on social media and readily accepts appearance requests from media outlets in order to enhance university PR.
If Mr. Deguchi finds any schools and organizations that are likely to be good guides to APU, he goes there right away.
Looking at a 70-year-old man work harder than anyone else nearby, I have no right to say that I’m tired. I am sure that the faculty and staff looking at Mr. Deguchi work hard and energetically will also go through a significant change in perception.
People working with President Deguchi and APU students will naturally come to look at things from a more comprehensive point of view. They will gain confidence. These are effects that cannot be represented in numerical figures, but I think that they are extraordinarily significant.
A charming, “great amateur” who works harder than anyone else came to APU. Things are buzzing toward the 20th anniversary of the establishment of APU in 2020.
Translated by Kazuya Hirai