On January 2, 2018, Sofia University welcomed new president, Dr. Peter Bemski. PhD(c) student and Marketing Manager, Kimberly Anne Christensen, took a moment to interview the new president and learn more about him and his plans for the University.
Dr. Peter Bemski has more than 20 years of experience in higher education, both in faculty and administration. Prior to coming to Sofia University, he was Vice President of International Initiatives, and Dean of the School of Business and Technology Management at Northcentral University. For 15 years prior to that, he served at Regis University in a variety of roles, including Professor and Chair of the MBA and Masters of Science in Organizational Leadership.
He has taken on several roles in the educational sector, including Professor, Assistant Director, Director, Dean, Vice President, and President. He brings an international vision, having lived and worked outside of the United States for many years — in Brazil, China, and Mexico. He also possesses extensive non-profit and for-profit administrative experience. He has presented a wide range of topics at home and abroad, including leadership and organizational identity.
Dr. Bemski is a native of Oakland, California. He speaks Portuguese and Spanish, and holds a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Innovation from the University of Colorado at Denver, an M.A. in English Literature from Boston College in Massachusetts, and has completed the Ignatian Colleagues Program.
Listen to the interview.
Read the transcript
“What do you think the top three responsibilities of a university president should be? First and foremost, you have to love the institution. You have to serve students well. “
Kimberly: How did you learn about Sofia University?
Peter: Before I start, let me just tell you how pleased I am to be here; I look forward to meeting everybody in Sofia. I first learned about Sofia University when I was working with a different university in China. I heard about the MBAO program there, which piqued my interest. And then I realized I had heard about Sofia University long ago when I was doing some research at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, which has some similar programs. So I went back and started looking at it again!
Kimberly: I love it! So in the end, what made you choose Sofia? Was there a particular program or methodology that felt like a good match for you?
Peter: You know I’ve asked myself how I ended up here. I think Sofia chose me and I chose Sofia, and I think I can be of service here and put some of my skills to good use. I think I can help students out, so it just felt like a good match. The transpersonal statement resonates with me, so it feels good.
Kimberly: I know a lot of students here, like myself, we had a similar calling. Just all of a sudden it’s like “wait, what is this ITP or Sofia?” So, thinking about being a president in higher education, was that one of your early aspirations? Did you get up thinking “this is something I aspire to!”
Peter: I have been an administrator my entire professional career. I think I am paying for sins I committed in a former life or something. I never was aiming for president; in fact I was thinking of retiring until this opportunity came along.
Kimberly: Thinking about yourself now, what do you think is your greatest strength as a person?
Peter: My greatest strength is well, maybe a couple things. This is both a strength and a weakness, but I trust people, I trust them until I am proven wrong. It has burned me a few times, but I have high expectations of people. I try to get out of their way, and am often pleasantly surprised. I often work well with others. Other strengths; I’m very efficient and I’m a hard worker. My colleagues appreciate the fact that my Chinese Zodiac sign for them is an Ox.
“I think building community is always important. I think respect for one another and the stakeholders throughout the university is important.”
Kimberly: That’s fantastic! So how do you feel you’ll use those strengths in your role as university president?
Peter: I think building community is always important. I think respect for one another and the stakeholders throughout the university is important. I worked for 15 years at a Jesuit university and that reinforced my belief that this is something worth emphasizing. It may be present in some more than others, but it’s there.
Kimberly: Community and respect are some of the core beliefs of Sofia University and ITP. What do you think the top three responsibilities of a university president should be?
Peter: First and foremost, you have to love the institution. You have to serve students well. And I hate to say that the third is probably being financially sustainable.
Kimberly: That’s always good. In the news you hear that so many universities are merging or going under, and people are crying. Yet Sofia is still here, so this is testimony that we are still going to be here for quite a while longer.
Peter: We’re just going to get stronger.
“Just because something worked yesterday does not mean it is going to work today.”
Kimberly: There it is! So are there particular goals that you would like to reach? Maybe (they always ask this of the president) in the first 100 days, what do you want to do? or even in the first 6 months or the first year?
Peter: I’ve committed to the board to have a preliminary strategic plan in place by the end of March. That will be preliminary because there won’t be time to get everybody involved. So I will have a small group put something together, and then it will evolve. So that’s the first 3 months, 6 months, year. That’s all a part of it. Because even if you have a plan in place (as you all know) the plans change, the context changes, we all change. That’s a wonderful thing, but that is an ongoing goal.
Kimberly: Maybe you can speak to the importance of a strategic plan; I don’t think that many people in the audience will know why that’s important.
Peter: A strategic plan, I mean, it’s an odd duck. I was out of the military originally, and strategic planning goes back thousands of years to Sun Tsu, among others. But everybody is a strategic planner. There is a saying in the military that it is important to plan, plan, plan, and the minute a bullet starts flying those plans change. But you have to have a starting point, and you may not go there, you may go somewhere else, but you need to have an idea that you set off and measure it along the way. For us, it has to involve everything, it has to involve curriculum, program offerings. Just because something worked yesterday does not mean it is going to work today.
“I do believe in people though, I believe that each and every person deserves to be respected.”
Kimberly: Very good. So another question: how do you hope the Sofia community views you? And maybe you can speak to how many people see themselves and say “oh I’m a pioneer, I’m a visionary, I’m an activist, I’m a networker, I’m a builder of people, I’m an expansionist.” How do you view yourself and then how do you hope the community sees you?
Peter: Well I believe in community and I believe in culture; we have a culture here and we cannot change culture. I don’t work that kind of miracle. But I can, I believe, effect how that culture manifests. That’s a lengthy conversation about organizational culture but if we have time one day, perhaps I will have it. I do believe in people though, I believe that each and every person deserves to be respected.
Kimberly: Great. I think we all want to look at the best in people, too. That’s definitely a value of Sofia – being able to see all aspects of people, you know, the whole person. So what do you think are Sofia University’s greatest assets and what do you think our challenges are?
Peter: I believe some important assets are our faculty. You’ve probably all looked at Systems Theory; organizations continue acting the way they have acted, and organizations cannot do that and succeed. There are famous ones such as Kodak. Living in Guadalajara in Mexico, I would drive every day to the university and pass this huge, blocks and blocks and blocks of empty campus. And Kodak refused to change and they said “nah, digital” and they knew about digital, and they said “we don’t need digital, we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing.”
You can’t do that in this world, so change is always a challenge. Everybody says embrace change, I say embrace change. And I do believe strongly that change threatens people. That’s our greatest challenge: to help people not feel threatened, but to embrace it.
Kimberly: A side question (because it sounds like you’ve traveled a lot, talking about being here and there), can you just tell me a little bit about where you have visited? This sounds exciting!
Peter: Well I’ve lived and worked in Brazil, in Mexico, China, and I have gone to conferences in Europe. I’ve been fortunate, I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot last year, I traveled 150,000 miles. I assured my wife that I will not travel that much this year.
Kimberly: And how has that exposure to other cultures helped you, or do you think it has broadened how you view and work with people? Has it made you closer to understanding how people work?
Peter: You know, I’ve grown up in a variety of places. So I think it’s about respect, not about right or wrong.
Kimberly: Marilyn Schlitz is teaching a class on emerging world views and you know, that’s such a fantastic way for us to understand different cultures and just really understand what people believe in. Then we are getting to the heart of seeing that everyone is human and they have the same emotions. Any quotes or authors with whom you resonate as we close this up and learn just a little bit more about you?
Peter: Well, I’ve always liked the one, and it’s mis-attributed to Einstein, he probably never said it, but it goes something like “insanity is making the same mistakes and expecting different results.” And there are many others, like a favorite author, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche who founded Shambala Buddhism. He wrote some beautiful poetry in his book Timely Rain. I recommend it to everybody. My favorite book is usually the one I’m reading, I usually read two or three.
Kimberly: So it sounds like we have a pretty good fit here. I love that your values seem to really coincide with our mission and values that we have at Sofia, and we look forward to achieving great success with you.
Peter: Thank you Kimberly, I’m excited about it.
Kimberly: Thank you for joining us on our podcast today!
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