John A. White, Jr.
Class of 1966, MS
With John White’s vision and tenacity, the University of Arkansas found itself moving towards the billion-dollar club, long before many of its peers, and even some higher-ranked academic institutions. On top of adding more than a dozen new buildings, Dr. White increased the Fayetteville Razorbacks’ nest egg from a mere $119 million to an endowment of more than $860 million.
“The university changed dramatically in 10 years. We created an honors college, more than 2,000 scholarships and fellowships, and 135 endowed chairs and professorships,” says Dr. White, who recently stepped down as chancellor and returned to the teaching faculty as a distinguished professor of industrial engineering.
When the university first asked Dr. White to apply for the position of chancellor in 1997, he declined, saying his job as dean of engineering at Georgia Tech suited him just fine. But the search committee at Arkansas was persistent, and John’s wife Mary Lib finally persuaded him that he should at least consider serving his undergraduate alma mater. He acquiesced, but in his interview he told the selection committee that they would have to convince him that the commitment to increasing the quality of the institution was strong enough for him to leave Georgia Tech and return to his native state to grasp the reins of his undergraduate alma mater. They did.
When Dr. White subsequently recruited the vice chancellor for university advancement who would manage Arkansas’ capital campaign “he said I was crazy to think we could raise a billion dollars,” the engineer recalls. “I believed it was possible and knew that our story would be persuasive to donors. I had observed that the best students at the University of Arkansas were as good as the best students at Georgia Tech. We just needed to increase the number of high-ability students. I have no hesitation to ask for money to improve students’ lives.”
The billion-dollar capital campaign, launched the year after Dr. White arrived and concluded seven years later in 2005, included a $300 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation, the largest single gift to a public university in the history of American philanthropy at the time.
As accomplished as Dr. White is, he readily admits “timing is everything,” and he acknowledges that he was unsure of moving into administration from his faculty position. “My strength is in my vision and passion. I surrounded myself with good administrators. My calling was to lead the charge,” he says.
Born in his grandparents’ rural home in Portland, Arkansas, he came from a family of teachers. Both of his parents taught school – his mother after she paid her way through college by bringing the administrators jars of honey in exchange for her education. His sister became a teacher, and he married a teacher. His great, great, great grandfather was an inventor who Dr. White says flew an aircraft before the Wright Brothers. “He just did not keep it in the air long enough to qualify,” he adds.
“My parents and Paul Torgersen (president emeritus of Virginia Tech) have served as my role models,” because of their commitment to teaching, Dr. White reveals. People still approach Dr. White today to say how “incredible” his parents were as teachers. And when Dr. Torgersen was the Virginia Tech president, he still taught a class each semester. “I decided when I became chancellor, I would also continue to teach. It sent a strong message to the faculty about the importance of teaching and, selfishly, it was the best three hours of my week,” Dr. White smiles.
He had been working as an engineer for Tennessee Eastman Company when an opportunity to attend graduate school at Virginia Tech came along. Its industrial engineering department needed instructors immediately as the Southwest Virginia National Guard had been mobilized in 1963 due to the Berlin Crisis. Herb Manning, the head of the department of industrial engineering at the time, approached Buck Newsome, Dr. White’s boss, asking if he knew of someone who would help him out by teaching during spring quarter. Mr. Newsome recommended his employee and the rest, as Dr. White says, is history. “I often wonder what my life would have been like if Buck had not recommended me to Herb,” Dr. White adds.
After earning his master’s degree under the tutelage of Wolter Fabrycky, now a professor emeritus, he went on to get his doctorate from The Ohio State in 1969, and then returned to the Virginia Tech faculty to teach. He moved to the Georgia Tech faculty in 1975, where his research thrived. In 1982, he became the director of the Materials Handling Research Center, a National Science Foundation (NSF) Industry/University Cooperative Research Center. Considered the most successful start-up center at the time, Dr. White met his five-year goal for attracting industry partners within six months of the NSF designation.
Dr. White also started a logistics consulting company, SysteCon, in 1977, and was able to enlist many of his clients to support Georgia Tech’s Materials Handling Research Center. He sold his company in 1984. That same year, Dr. White was named a Regents’ Professor. In 1987, he was elected to membership in the National Academy of Engineering. In 1988, he was named the Eugene C. Gwaltney Chaired Professor of Manufacturing at Georgia Tech.
In 1988, he made a transformative career path move. Calling them “the most significant years of my professional development,” Dr. White took a sabbatical and went to Washington, D.C. as the assistant director for engineering for NSF. “My eyes were opened. I had been a traditional faculty member with my head down, not looking at the global picture and national issues,” he says. Attracting women and minorities to the field of science and engineering became a high priority for him. As a result of his work, he was given the Distinguished Service Award from NSF in 1991. The National Society of Professional Engineers named him the NSF Engineer of the Year that same year.
After spending six months as the acting deputy director of NSF, he returned to Georgia Tech in 1991 as its new dean of engineering. His NSF tenure caused him to concentrate on increasing the participation of female and minority students and faculty at his esteemed institution. He also pushed for a strong research agenda.
His reputation in Atlanta landed him on the “Best and Brightest” list, a roster that drew the attention of the organizers of the famed Renaissance Weekend, a private retreat for innovative leaders and their families. There, he met Bill and Hillary Clinton, who continued to encourage him to return to his home state and nominated him for the position of chancellor at the state’s flagship university. Dr. White’s roots as a native of Arkansas were resurrected, and led to his return in 1997.
Dozens of awards line his resume. A few are: the 2006 John L. Imhoff Global Excellence Award from the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE); the 2005 Humanitarian of the Year Award from the National Coalition for Community and Justice; and several Fellow Awards, including ASEE, Institute for Operations Research and Management Sciences, and Institute of Industrial Engineers. He has served two terms as a member of the National Science Board from 1995 to 2006. In 1994, he won the Frank and Lillian Gilbreth Industrial Engineering Award and the Society of Women Engineers’ Rodney D. Chipp Memorial Award.
He is the co-author of five texts, hundreds of papers, and is a popular invited speaker at national and international meetings. He currently serves as a member of the Board of Directors for J.B. Hunt Transport Services and Motorola, Inc. He has previously served on the Board of Directors for Eastman Chemical Company, Logility, Inc., Russell Corp., and CAPS Logistics, Inc.
He holds two honorary degrees from the Katholieke Universitiet of Leuven in Belgium and George Washington University.
The Whites have a daughter, a son, three granddaughters, and a grandson.
Class of: 1966
Year Inducted into Academy: 2011