Throughout his presidency, Larry Dietz often described Illinois State as strong and stable. Those same words characterize the man who has been at the University’s helm since March of 2014. His service to Illinois State began as vice president of Student Affairs in 2011, which was one of many leadership roles Dietz held throughout a 50-year career in higher education that will conclude with his retirement in June.
“All I know how to do is work. I’ve worked my whole life, beginning with growing up on a dairy farm,” Dietz said, recalling his southern Illinois childhood. He treasures memories from those days as well as lessons learned, including fulfilling responsibilities and finishing every job despite challenges while caring for the family’s livestock before heading off to school. More chores were waiting when classes ended.
Dietz applied the same commitment to his studies, earning his undergraduate degree with the help of scholarships. By the time he completed his doctorate at Iowa State University, he was on a higher education career path that combined his love of learning and teaching with serving others. Illinois State provided the opportunity to continue pursuing all three.Appears In
He brought to the Student Affairs vice presidency leadership experience from having served as an administrator at Iowa State, University of Missouri-Kansas City, and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. He still recalls his first impression of ISU after interviewing 10 years ago.
“I knew Illinois State University was a very special place. Everyone I met was optimistic,” Dietz said. “One aspect that attracted me was that the values of the institution were known and put into practice.”
He became more impressed once in the vice president’s role. Dietz observed what he calls a confidence and esprit de corps that provided the momentum and creativity needed to elevate Illinois State, which is exactly what was accomplished during his presidency the past seven years.
“Every day I have been here I have witnessed people going the extra mile to accomplish a goal. That commitment is in this university’s DNA. It is something very special and just one reason we should be proud.”
Many others were added to the list while Dietz was president. He is pleased by the progress made in improving facilities, including renovation of the Bone Student Center; addition of 80 acres to the University Farm; construction of space for the cybersecurity program in Julian Hall; and creation of a Multicultural Center that will open this year.
Dietz secured the release of funds for the renovation of an addition to the Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts. Milner Library renovations were approved, Redbird Plaza developed, space for the Center for Civic Engagement upgraded, and the Esports program launched in renovated space.
The University’s core values were strengthened and expanded by Dietz, who created a Campus Climate Task Force to review diversity, equity, and inclusion needs on campus. He formed the President’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council and hired the University’s first assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion.
True to his belief that you “plan your work and work your plan,” Dietz rallied the campus community and its supporters throughout a campaign initiated to bolster scholarship, leadership, and innovation. Fundraising totals were established at an historical high when Redbirds Rising concluded at $180 million last year, exceeding the goal by more than $30 million.
Enrollment remained strong with record-breaking freshman classes and increases in the number of underrepresented and international students. Illinois State maintained its ranking among the nation’s top universities for graduation and retention rates. Dietz increased efforts to attract international students, while at the same time strengthening academic options.
A cybersecurity degree program was added and an initiative to establish an engineering degree launched, both of which fit with goals detailed in an updated strategic plan—Educate • Connect • Elevate. It will guide the University through 2023.
Beyond leading on campus, Dietz chaired the Missouri Valley Conference President’s Council and has served for five years as the convener of the Illinois Public University Presidents and Chancellors. He and the University’s first lady, Marlene, partnered with organizations across the community. Their support of the American Red Cross, Easter Seals, March of Dimes, Marcfirst, and the Illinois Symphony exemplified their commitment to be engaged and contributing citizens.
With so much accomplished, it would seem Dietz navigated the presidency without obstacles. That’s a falsehood he quickly debunks.
“I felt angst and frustration, and I certainly did not have all the answers,” Dietz said, especially as the University faced unique challenges. The first was a two-year period when lawmakers failed to pass a budget.
“I never anticipated a ‘no budget’ scenario, not only for us but the whole state,” he said, sharing that he overcame that struggle with the help of the stellar administrative team serving alongside him and the University’s great reputation. He also tried hard to be flexible, adaptable, and stay grounded.
“Faith is very important to me. What is most important to me is my faith, family, and friends in that order,” Dietz said. He relied on each when Athletics staff and community leaders perished in a 2015 plane crash. The three personal pillars were equally embraced as Dietz led the University through upheaval brought on by the pandemic.
“I remember last spring being asked if we were going to close the doors,” Dietz said, affirming that was never deemed an option when planning ISU’s response to COVID-19. He praises faculty for converting classes to an online format quickly and students for adapting to the change, as well as staff for providing the support needed to complete the academic year.
Any anxiety that it would be a season of lost opportunity faded as work to advance the University continued. Dietz has spent the last months of his presidency further pursuing the engineering program; fortifying international student recruitment efforts; addressing the Mennonite College of Nursing’s need for improved laboratory space; and working to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. His top priority has always remained keeping the campus community safe and healthy.
Despite difficulties that seemed to multiply by the hour on many days, dealing with the virus did not motivate Dietz to retire. He in fact learned more about himself and found time for reflection that resulted in gratitude for health and opportunities that have come his way through five decades of serving in higher education, especially at Illinois State.
He and Marlene are now eager to see what doors will open in retirement. They look forward to more time spent with family, including grandchildren. The two will remain in the community and maintain strong ties to the University, which they will always promote as loyal Redbirds.
“I am as passionate now about Illinois State as I was the day I started,” said Dietz, who confides that his first goal is to control his calendar and take off his wristwatch. Both fit with his decision to end his time in Hovey Hall, which he departs feeling grateful for the opportunity to have served with Marlene’s help and support, thankful for great colleagues, and proud of the accomplishments made together.
“It is my hope—and I think the hope of every university president—to leave an institution stronger than when they arrived,” Dietz said. “As a community, we have done more than stay strong and stable. We have forged a new path for a bright future.”
Meet Illinois State University’s newly named 20th president, Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy.