From a childhood spent working on the family farm to his career in public higher education as a professor and administrator, Larry Dietz has made a lifelong commitment to facilitating growth. His new role as Illinois State University’s 19th president positions him to continue a pattern of service, with his focus steadfastly on empowering students to reach their potential.
The transition to the presidency occurred in March and was seamless for Dietz, who was already immersed in the Illinois State community and connected to the student body through his role as vice president of Student Affairs.
Preparation for the position began long before his arrival at ISU in 2011, as he held leadership roles at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (SIU), Iowa State University, and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Dietz is also quick to add his upbringing on a dairy farm to that list as well, noting he learned many valuable life lessons from his boyhood days.
“A farm background teaches you a lot,” Dietz said, “starting with the value of hard work. You work until the job gets done.” That often meant pushing through distaste for a given task or fatigue. Dietz helped care for the cows, chickens and hogs early in the morning before heading off for school. There were additional chores to be done after classes ended.
“I learned responsibility, how to work within a productive unit, and to be an optimist with faith in the future,” Dietz said, reflecting on how little a farmer controls, especially the weather. Given the opportunity to purchase, raise, and sell his own cattle, Dietz had his first taste of money management and business matters as well.
“I had a terrific childhood,” he said, noting he and his older brother still own the 163 acres of land in southern Illinois that has belonged to the family since 1863. With that legacy from his father’s ancestors and his mother’s work as a first grade teacher for 40 years, Dietz weighed the option of farmer or educator and chose the latter path when he finished high school.
He completed a bachelor’s in political science at SIU, barely scraping together enough money to finish the degree. Scholarships helped, yet he didn’t have the dollars needed for law school.
“I kept waiting for my ship to come in, but it never even came close to the dock,” Dietz said, displaying a wit that is appreciated by colleagues and students alike. His draft status of 1A as the Vietnam War raged made it difficult to find work, and a medical issue eliminated his idea of joining the Marines.
The closed doors instilled in him a humbleness that remains today. “I can relate to folks with modest means and a life not yet figured out,” Dietz said. He counts those early struggles as a blessing, allowing him to discover his passion and purpose in higher education.
“I found out that if I worked at a university, I could go to graduate school for only $10 a quarter,” he said. After securing a financial aid advisor position at SIU, he began his graduate studies in higher education and student personnel.
The opportunity to take on even more responsibility in the financial aid office at Iowa State led Dietz to that campus, where he completed his master’s as well as a doctorate in higher education administration while working full-time at that university. He also began teaching while there, which further cemented his desire to keep in close contact with the student body.
“Students are the largest constituent by far of any institution and the most vibrant. We get an opportunity as faculty and staff, a special chance to help educate and mold generations of people,” he said, noting the added benefit of staying mentally young while keeping pace with students’ questions and discoveries.
“Look at what we do in education. We change lives. Who else gets to do that? That’s the reason we exist. I take that charge very seriously and I am humbled to be in a position where I am able to do that.”
Although not a professional goal when starting out, Dietz realized his desire to seek a presidency after more than a decade in Student Affairs at three universities, including ISU. He continued to teach in Illinois State’s College of Education as vice president, mentored students through his division’s leadership programs, and stood with hurting families as a university representative when students suffered through a crisis.
Expect the same dedication, effort, and commitment to personal contact from him as president.
“It’s all about service. That’s what is most important, not the title,” Dietz said. “I have always wanted to be of service to an organization I can feel good about and others value.”
Illinois State University certainly fits that description.
“People have a high regard for this institution and it is well deserved,” Dietz said. “People care about our values of pursuing learning and scholarship, individualized attention, integrity, diversity, and civic engagement.
“All we do is undergirded by scholarly creativity,” he added. “We know who we are and don’t want to be anything else but the best of who and what we are—a premiere undergraduate institution.”
The University’s strategic plan, Educating Illinois, will continue to be the blueprint followed as Illinois State moves forward while standing on the mission and legacy created by the founders in 1857.
“Teaching, learning, service, scholarship and research are at the core of our mission. That mission allows us to attract outstanding faculty and staff, and motivated and engaged students to our campus community,” Dietz said. “This basic mission has been our foundation for 157 years and will endure as we meet the many challenges that come with change.”
Stating his determination and eagerness to lead Illinois State forward, Dietz sees his duty as one he has known since childhood: work hard, stay positive and be willing to grow.
“I’ve been working in higher education for 40 years. As president I’m still the same with my values, my drive, ambitions and willingness to work for others,” Dietz said.
He expects challenges. He knows there will be tough issues and trying moments. Still, he is more than ready and able to serve with a confidence that is energizing and motivational.
“We’ve been providing quality education since 1857 and we are going to continue to do that,” Dietz said. “I have been hired to look to the future, and it’s very bright.”
Fast facts about President Dietz
- Born in Murphysboro
- Family farm in DeSoto
- Married to Marlene, owner/president of Dynamic Leadership Development consulting firm
- Two adult children living in Kansas City; four grandchildren
- Beyond three degrees, completed Harvard University’s Institute for Educational Management; completed Harvard’s Management Development Program; attended Fulbright International Education Seminar for Administrators in Germany
- Vice chancellor for Student Affairs and associate professor, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale
- Vice chancellor for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management and adjunct faculty, University of Missouri-Kansas City
- Associate director of Financial Aid and Student Employment, Iowa State University