Weber State University Magazine Spring 2013 : Page 14

He’s a physical chemist, professor, administrator, pilot, long-distance runner, patent holder, investigator of rocket propellants and high explosives, reader, author, food enthusiast, husband, father, and to some extent, a software programmer. He’s what you might call a modern-day Renaissance man, but with an eye-crinkling smile and a firm handshake, he’ll tell you he’d much rather be called Chuck. amy hendricks , university communications Born in Glen Cove, N.Y., Charles Albert Wight, at two weeks of age, began the journey typical of any Navy kid. His father, Charlie, who was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on the day of his son’s birth, and his mother, Dorothy, who was staying with her mother in Long Island’s North Shore region, moved from station to station before settling in Virginia, not far from Washington, D.C. There, the sailor-turned-math teacher-turned principal, and his wife, a reading and language arts teacher, raised Wight to love learning, though there was never any indication that he would become a chemist. Except maybe one. Getting up from his chair in his newly occupied and still some-what barebones office, he said, “I’ll show you.” Opening the glass door of a curio, he removed a vintage Gilbert chemistry set. “I had one just like this.” A red metal box, complete with wsu magazine | spring 2013 zac williams 14

The Chemist Who Became President

Amy Hendricks

He’s a physical chemist, professor, administrator, pilot, long-distance runner, patent holder, investigator of rocket propellants and high explosives, reader, author, food enthusiast, husband, father, and to some extent, a software programmer.<br /> <br /> He’s what you might call a modern-day Renaissance man, but with an eye-crinkling smile and a firm handshake, he’ll tell you he’d much rather be called Chuck.<br /> <br /> Born in Glen Cove, N.Y., <b>Charles Albert Wight</b>, at two weeks of age, began the journey typical of any Navy kid. His father, Charlie, who was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on the day of his son’s birth, and his mother, Dorothy, who was staying with her mother in Long Island’s North Shore region, moved from station to station before settling in Virginia, not far from Washington, D.C. <br /> <br /> There, the sailor-turned-math teacher-turned principal, and his wife, a reading and language arts teacher, raised Wight to love learning, though there was never any indication that he would become a chemist. Except maybe one.<br /> <br /> Getting up from his chair in his newly occupied and still somewhat barebones office, he said, “I’ll show you.” Opening the glass door of a curio, he removed a vintage Gilbert chemistry set. “I had one just like this.” A red metal box, complete with Small jars of chemicals labeled sodium bicarbonate, calcium oxide, and so on, the set was a gift from a friend on Wight’s 40th birthday. The original didn’t make it to adulthood.<br /> <br /> A wonderful children’s toy, it was not enough to sway Wight — who had declared a pre-medicine major at the University of Virginia — to the realm of chemistry. For that, it took doing research in a chemistry lab as part of a summer fellowship. “I really enjoyed using the instrumentation to find out new things about molecules,” said Wight, who would later change his major to chemistry and eventually become an expert in rocket propellants and explosives.<br /> <br /> As for becoming an educator, that was just in his genes. After earning a doctoral degree in chemistry from Caltech and completing post-doctoral work at the University of Colorado, Wight searched nationwide for teaching positions.<br /> <br /> In 1984, after being offered jobs in three different states, Wight chose the University of Utah (the U) . There, he rose through the ranks, becoming a full professor of chemistry in 1993. He was known for making science fun and approachable, taking on the nickname “the chem-dog” in the chemistry department, and “the science dad” at his daughters’ elementary school, where he demonstrated the magic of chemistry.<br /> <br /> Wight loved the classroom and continued to teach Honors Chemistry at the U even as he moved into administrative positions such as associate dean of Undergraduate Studies, assistant vice president of Continuing Education, Associate vice president of Undergraduate Studies and Dean of the Graduate School.<br /> <br /> “I enjoyed teaching very much. When you’re a professor, you make a big difference in the lives of a relatively small number of people … in a classroom, in a research group, in a department.<br /> Your sphere of influence is deep, but restricted in scope. When you’re an administrator, you can make a difference in the lives of many more students,” Wight said.<br /> <br /> So when the opportunity to support more than 26,000 students as president of Weber State University arose, Wight put his name in the hat. “I was ready to take the next step. My mentors and advisors encouraged me to apply, and it worked out well for me,” he said, smiling. Though he still misses the classroom.<br /> <br /> "I've thought about teaching a class, but I decided it wouldn't be fair to students. Being fun for me is not a good enough reason to do it. I'm afraid I wouldn't have enough time, and students need a professor who can make a firm commitment."<br /> <br /> That thoughtfulness and dedication to doing the best job possible is what Wight brings to Weber State as the 12th president of the university.<br /> <br /> <b>LISTEN COMPLETELY</b><br /> <br /> A long-distance runner who has completed more than 35 marathons, as well as the Wasatch Front 100-Mile Endurance Run, Wight is familiar with the old adage, “Slow and steady wins the race.” And while his first few months on the job were anything but slow — “I’ve met at least 1,000 people,” he said — he does not want to rush to consider any changes.<br /> <br /> Asked to describe his leadership style in one word, Wight said, “Well, I need two: consensus and transparency. I like to gather people, talk about ideas and come to a consensus about the direction we need to go in before setting a strong agenda. When people have asked about what new programs I’m going to institute at WSU, I have consistently said, ‘For 100 days, I’m going to do more listening than talking. Let’s find out where Weber State is in the grand scheme of things before deciding where we want to go.’”<br /> <br /> <b>PRESIDENTIAL TRAITS</b> <br /> <br /> For those who are close to Wight, that comment makes perfect sense. A good listener is, in fact, just how they describe him. <b>Peter Armentrout</b> has known Wight since their graduate student days at Caltech. They took separate career paths, but both eventually landed at the U, where Armentrout is a distinguished professor of chemistry and a Cannon Fellow. He and Wight were co-presenters of the U’s annual Faraday Christmas Lectures, and the two remain running partners and friends. Armentrout has even acted as a pacer for Wight in 100-mile ultramarathons, running alongside him for 15 miles, serving as a motivator.<br /> <br /> “He’s faster than I am,” said Armentrout, who has never competed against Wight in an ultramarathon but has competed against his friend In regular marathons. “I’ve never beaten him.” In all seriousness, Armentrout said, “Chuck is one of those people who is able to listen first, to find out what the situation is, what people are interested in, what their goals are, and then amass that information, synthesize it and put it into a plan.” <br /> <br /> Armentrout also cites Wight’s ability to “adapt well to the unanticipated” as another trait that will serve him well as president, recalling a Faraday lecture where the unexpected happened, or rather, didn’t happen. Paying homage to famed 19th century scientist and gifted lecturer Michael Faraday, the two would dress in Victorian-era tuxedos, complete with tails and top hats. The presentations — featuring small but impressive explosions — were wildly popular and often sold out. One year, in front of a packed house, Wight forgot an ingredient in his last explosion.<br /> <br /> “It came to that point in the presentation, and he stepped toward the set up and realized he had forgotten to pour a liquid on top of the salt. Without it, the explosion wouldn’t happen. A slideshow was going along with the presentation, so he couldn’t just completely ignore it and be done. So he looked at me, looked at the audience, shrugged his shoulders and with a smile simply said, ‘Well, I forgot!’” Everybody had a good laugh. Being able to roll with the punches made him a good colleague, and it will make him a good president too,” Armentrout said.<br /> <br /> Even those meeting Wight for the first time have commented on his listening capabilities. WSU student body president <b>Andrew Gardiner</b> served on the presidential search committee. “There aren’t many people who, when being interviewed in a group setting, can listen to what you have to say and make you feel like you’re the only person in the room. He can do that, and that is what I like about him,” said Gardiner, who was also impressed by Wight’s sincerity.<br /> <br /> “After the announcement was made that he was going to be president, I went up to him and said, ‘Congratulations, President Wight,’ and he said, ‘Thank you, Andrew, but call me Chuck.’ He’s warm and welcoming. You don’t feel like you’re talking to a scary university president; you feel like you’re talking to a friend, someone who has your best interests at heart,” Gardiner said.<br /> <br /> <b>A GLIMPSE AHEAD</b><br /> <br /> To date, Wight’s listening tour has made stops in the community, with the mayor of Ogden, the presidents of the local applied technology colleges, chambers of commerce and others. He has visited the state Legislature and met with the state Board of Regents. He has met with university trustees, vice presidents, deans, chairs, many faculty and staff, and students, as well as alumni and donors.<br /> <br /> Wight suggests that he will unveil his agenda for the university during his formal inauguration in October. Until then, he has hinted at areas on which he’d like to focus: access, excellence and cost. “Otherwise known as the Iron Triangle, these are the things that keep most university presidents and provosts awake at night,” he said. “We all want to increase access and excellence and decrease cost. All three of those pressures threaten to collapse on a university, and it is up to presidents and provosts to push against all three sides to expand what we can offer and do.” <br /> <br /> Admittedly, this job is different than anything he’s ever done, but Wight is confident.<br /> <br /> "If you're passionate about something, you'll work hard to do it well. I am passionate about education." <br /> <br /> <b>AT A GLANCE</b><br /> <br /> <b>New president:</b> Charles A. "Chuck" Wight, former chemistry professor and administrator at the University of Utah<br /> <br /> <b>Wife:</b> Victoria Rasmussen, who enjoys a career at the Utah Education Network<br /> <br /> <b>Children:</b> Linda, 29; Jennifer, 27; and Heather, 24<br /> <br /> <b>Something That Makes Him Smile:</b> Thinking of a game he used to play with his daughter Linda. "Any time she was grumpy or sad, I'd point to her stomach and say, 'There's a smile in there. It's going to bubble up and appear,' and she'd smile every time. Sometimes she'd get annoyed that she couldn't stop it," Wight said, laughing. <br /> <br /> <b>TAKE TO THE SKIES</b><br /> <br /> When Wight received Microsoft’s Flight Simulator as a gift from his brother, he was captivated. So much so, that he became a pilot not just on the computer screen, but in real life. “Flying a real plane is a lot easier than flying Microsoft’s Flight Simulator,” he said, only somewhat jokingly.<br /> <br /> Today, Wight co-owns a small plane, a single engine Mooney, and is a volunteer pilot for Angel Flight West, a charitable organization that arranges free medical flights for those in financial need.<br /> <br /> “Being in the air is very exciting, but flying missions for Angel Flight West has truly lent an amazing perspective,” said Wight, recalling one passenger in particular who made quite an impression.<br /> <br /> “She was a young woman, probably in her 20s, and she was dying from cancer. Even though she had a terrible prognosis, she had the most tremendous outlook on life. She was trying to make the best use of her last days on this planet. She was the most incredibly upbeat and optimistic person you could imagine. Getting to know people like this young woman gives you an amazing perspective, and for me, is the biggest benefit of volunteering for Angel Flight.”

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