Arnold Grobman served as Chancellor of UMSL from 1975 to 1985, during which time he helped transform the institution into the “urban university” he envisioned. Much of the current campus and curriculum, as well as the university’s role in the community, are the products of his vision.
In addition to what he did for UMSL, Dr. Grobman had a record of accomplishments that extended far beyond St. Louis. As was noted in obituaries from all over the United States, he was the author of numerous books and scientific articles, an internationally recognized expert on reptiles, a distinguished member of the faculty at the University of Florida and the director of the Florida State Museum.
A chapter in Arnold Grobman’s life that was not mentioned in any of these obituaries was his service on the board of directors of the St. Louis Public Library from 1986 to 1988. I had the privilege of serving with him during this time. To say the least, it was ironic that I was the president of the board, while he was a distinguished scholar, more than 30 years my senior, with an international reputation. He was one of the best mentors I’ve ever had.
This was an eventful time for the public library. We conducted a nationwide search that led to hiring a new executive director, negotiating his contract and finding a mutually agreeable means of evaluating him. We then held a successful tax election in which the voters approved almost doubling what they paid in property taxes for the library. We were able to do this at a time when anti-tax sentiment was rampant throughout the country.
It was Arnold who designed and led the search process. From his experience as Chancellor he knew better than most what qualities we should look for in a leader of the library.
Having been in charge of a campus in a public university system, Arnold understood the importance of communicating effectively with our constituents, as we had to do in order to win our tax election.
From his experience Arnold was able to give sage advice on the proper relationship between an executive director and the board to which he or she reports. This is always a sensitive area; and Arnold’s insights from his many years in academic administration were invaluable.
By his example he taught his fellow board members how better to relate to each other. I learned from Arnold that being a good board member doesn’t simply mean getting your way at meetings. The best decisions are made collectively and collaboratively and reflect the input of everyone at the table. Arnold always listened thoughtfully and respectfully to what others had to say. As brilliant as he was, he was willing to change his mind after someone offered a perspective that he might not have considered.
In the 24 years since I served with Arnold Grobman on the public library board I have attended hundreds of board meetings of businesses and not-for-profit organizations. I’m still applying the wisdom I learned from his example.
In the course of his academic career Arnold Grobman was directly or indirectly responsible for educating tens of thousands of students. I consider myself very fortunate to have had a semi-private tutorial from him for two years.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Tom Schlafly is an attorney in St. Louis.