Greek life members learn to lead with President Farvardin

President Nariman Farvardin spoke to 70 members of the Stevens Greek community about his academic leadership experience and his perspectives on leadership at the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity house as a residential learning community (RLC) event on the evening of Nov. 20.

Former Sigma Phi Epsilon President Daniel Fenton gave introductory remarks and a brief explanation of the RLC accreditation process. In order to maintain RLC status, the fraternity must have a faculty fellow — both Dr. Kevin Ryan and Father Robert Meyer serve in this role for the chapter— host a Resident Scholar who is graduate student from Stevens or another university that has a positive influence on the chapter, and have substance-free common areas. Fenton explained that maintaining RLC status provides for events such as faculty open houses and now lectures featuring guests such as President Farvardin.

Fenton welcomed President Farvardin to the front of the room, and he immediately thanked the chapter for hosting him. “I have dedicated a good part of my life to interacting with students, and I cherish the opportunity to spend time with you,” said Farvardin.

The president, dressed in his usual business-professional suit, was now adorned with a lavalier microphone in the extension of a fraternity home with the task of discussing his own experiences with leadership. Rather than broach the topic immediately, Farvardin began with an overview of his background, which begins in Iran, where he was born and received a majority of his education. In January of 1979 — just one month before the Iranian Revolution reached its climax — young Nariman left his home country for the very expensive Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) with just $3,000 to his name. “By August 1979, I had run out of money altogether. Zero,” Farvardin recalled. “There was a week that I thought I wouldn’t be able to eat.” However, through hard work and determination, he completed his education at RPI and proceeded to join The University of Maryland as an assistant faculty member in 1983. Farvardin quickly rose in the academic ranks and by 1994, he was appointed Chairman of the Department of Electrical Engineering, where he remained for six years before being promoted to the Dean of Engineering. After only seven years as Dean of Engineering, Farvardin was promoted to Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs for the entire University of Maryland, where he remained until his appointment as President of Stevens Institute of Technology.

With 34 years of experience in formal higher education, Farvardin noted that he can count “maybe half a dozen instances that actually shaped my personality and made me the person that I am,” and from these impactful experiences, he has come to recognize four critical means that positioned him for success: integrity, hard work, courage, and friendship. In regards to the latter of the four principles, Farvardin noted that it was the work of good friends that brought him to Stevens. “I didn’t apply to be the president of Stevens, a friend who knew the university and cared about the university nominated me,” said Farvardin. “Another friend of mine who knew me well contacted the Chairman of the Board at that time and told him that I was a good guy and I only became president of this university because of the proactive measures two good friends took.”

It was as if President Farvardin was thrown back into the early days of professorship, lecturing to an engaged audience with a failing black Expo marker in hand. He took to the whiteboard and went through seven key attributes of what he considers a good leader. “I don’t claim to have a crystal ball and a perfect definition of what it means be to be a good leader,” warned Farvardin. “This is my own version, and I reserve the right to be wrong […] and if you talk to another successful person in the position of leadership, their version might be different than mine.”

The seven Farvardin “patented” key principles of effective leadership include the following: Having a vision with execution; working hard and being relentless; earning trust of an organization through integrity, humility, honesty and sincerity; communicating and inspiring; demonstrating courage and taking calculated risks; surrounding yourself with the best people; and being selfless. Farvardin included personal experiences highlighting how each principle appeared in his own journey to leadership, such as his first experience as a math tutor in the third grade, which drew him out of his comfort zone, or meeting Mr. A. James Clark for the first time at the University of Maryland after assuming the Dean position of the school that bore his name (the same A. James Clark that donated a $15 million scholarship gift this past month). “Mr. Clark said to me, ‘I don’t care how smart you are or how visionary you are, just surround yourself with the best people,’” recalled Farvardin.

The president took the time to address several questions submitted by the audience, which touched upon problem management, repercussions of failure, and the handling of betrayal. The audience member who asked the last question sought to understand how Farvardin maintains his humanity and dignity as the president and figurehead of the university. Farvardin admitted that “as the president I have a very lonely feeling,” noting how as one climbs within the hierarchy, “people become so much more careful about what they tell you and you have to be very careful about what you say.” He went on to explain how he “circumvents” this unintended, but very tactile sense of loneliness. “I find opportunities, sometimes artificially, to interact with students,” said Farvardin. He noted how he is one of very few university presidents that teaches a course every semester, referring to his freshman lecture series.  “Finding ways to keep in touch with the people that you work for is the best way to keep your humanity.”

“What it means to be a leader and more importantly, what it means to be a leader in Greek Life, are conversations we have with the professionals in the Student Life office frequently, but we rarely get an opinion from other members of administration,” commented Fenton. “The purpose of this talk was to help determine what ‘leadership’ means to someone with experience leading outside of the Greek Life bubble, and for that we could not think of a better speaker than President Farvardin.”

President Farvardin’s talk on leadership can be viewed in its entirety on the SITTV’s YouTube Channel.