Honoring Van King

On May 4, I had the pleasure of honoring Van King, Founding Dean of the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, who will be retiring next month. Below is a copy of my remarks, delivered at the university’s Board of Trustees Meeting.

***

You should always be reflecting on your learning.

This is Van King’s perennial refrain shared with me throughout his four years at Queens University of Charlotte.  What have you learned?

When Van first arrived at Queens, this seasoned newspaper man spent time learning the world of academia. If asked, he might recount a story from his first month at Queens when he saw a longtime professor sitting on a bench in the academic quad.  Approaching his new colleague, Van called out, “What are you doing?” Norris Frederick looked up and replied, “Reading a book.”

In an environment full of teachers and thinkers, Van, the fast-paced newspaper publisher and media innovator, knew he had found an exciting place to live and work, and a new type of challenge – a challenge that, I imagine, could have been at once desperately frustrating and wildly enthralling.

After a meeting earlier this week, I asked Van why he shared a particular story he told during a staff meeting. He simply said, “When I was talking, I was teaching.”

You see, in a university full of teachers, Van fits.

So, Van, I borrowed your question and I polled the people who work closely with you everyday, and I asked them to share with me an answer to the seemingly simple question: What have you learned from Van King? Here are their responses in their own words:

“Van taught me that an open, supportive, and collaborative culture – could also be rigorous, challenging, and incredibly productive. Before I came here, I thought those two things were mutually exclusive but he (and my colleagues in the Knight School) have taught me that they can (and do) co-exist …The Knight School has been – and is – on a journey. As our leader, Van has set the tone and led the charge. I’ve only been here for a year – and in that year, I learned one thing: I’d follow him anywhere.”

Another colleague says:

 “I learned a lot about myself.  His feedback was not always something that was easy to hear but upon reflection, it was quite helpful. I [came to appreciate] his honesty in what he thought were my strengths and weaknesses.   His advice will be invaluable as I continue with my career.”

A third colleague writes,

“I have learned that it’s okay and important to bring your whole self to work–that’s it’s ok and important to talk about family and the joys and challenges we’re all experiencing at work and at home.”

A fourth shares,

“What I’ve learned from Van? People matter… He cares for the whole person. I’ll never forget my first evaluation. I had not yet even completed a full year at Queens so we met just to talk about my experiences thus far and plan for the next year. At one point, unsolicited, he asked me … “Have you ever read Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail? I told him I had but it had been several years. That question sparked a conversation about values, and perspective, and remembering what is important in life. His only “requirement” for me that day was to re-read Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I will fondly remember that moment because it goes to the core of who Van is: An excellent leader.  A visionary leader. A leader who cares about people, their character, and their values. Needless to say, I had done my homework the next year when I sat down with Van for my evaluation.  I had re-read the Letter. And I think I will every year, whomever is on the other side of the desk.”

As for me, I’ve learned more than a few lessons about the intersection of visionary leadership and personal integrity. In my role in the Knight School, I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating closely with Van. My sometimes “behind the scenes” knowledge of Van confirms for me that, in every circumstance, a true leader acts with integrity. I’ve noticed that considers each person, he recognizes the value that each person brings to the conversation, and he affirms that value, even in times of disagreement. I have watched him change an opinion when a stronger argument is shared, and hold firmly to a decision for which he possess an unwavering conviction.

I’ve learned the value in finding the big things to do and also the value in deciding what not to do.

And watching Van interact with his wife, children, and grandchildren has reinforced for me the value of successfully balancing family, faith, talent, and vocation.

Van’s record of success at Queens is undeniable, from the establishment of a school of communication and an organizational culture to the realization of a relationship with Knight Foundation that brought honor to Queens and to the family of James L. Knight, for whom our school is named.

But here in the Knight School, Van King has been a teacher of teachers, who unabashedly reminds us all to consider what we are learning.

Van, on behalf of all my colleagues in the James L. Knight School of Communication and our friends around the university, I thank you for your service to Queens and for being a man of integrity who challenges us all to remember, everyday, what we are learning.

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