Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

The accidental planner November 24, 2008 by Jean Arthur • Published 11/24/08

Jim Rimpau and one of the chimps he studied in another career. Photo by J.H. Walker III.
Jim Rimpau and one of the chimps he studied in another career. Photo by J.H. Walker III.

When the chimpanzee, "Moja," told Jim Rimpau that she saw something in the barn rafters, it raised the hair on the back of Rimpau's neck.

Never before had any chimp told him something that he didn't already know. But Moja desired a hidden nest of baby birds, and she said so in American Sign Language. It was the first time a non-human had spoken so clearly to Rimpau in a human language.

Between 1977 and 1987, Rimpau's doctoral studies on psychology and animals led him to conclude that chimpanzees are not dissimilar to humans. But what he remembers most about his experience working with renowned researchers R. Allen and Beatrix Gardner, aside from research methods, design and statistics, is what Moja taught him -- expect the unexpected. It is something Rimpau uses in MSU's Office of Planning and Analysis today.

As MSU's new vice president for planning and analysis and chief information officer, Rimpau oversees computer data and infrastructure essential to budgeting and planning: the intangible structure vital to MSU.

"My friends on the faculty like to remind me that working with chimps must have been good practice for working in university administration," he jokes.

University strategic prioritizing seems like a big jump from studying chimpanzees and sign language, and it was for Rimpau, who was bound for a career in comparative psychology when his route diverged.

My friends on the faculty like to remind me that working with chimps must have been good practice for working in university administration.
-Jim Rimpau

Rimpau explains that when he began to work on his dissertation at the University of Nevada-Reno, he needed a computer. He took a job in the university's institutional research office because it promised after-hours access to the computer mainframe. He found that the office duties included analyzing university figures on operations, outcomes and allocations. It fascinated Rimpau. He utilized what he learned among the lab rats, chickens and pigeons to study the university organization as a living organism. He used his training in psychology's experimental design and statistics to evaluate the university's viscera.

"So I launched a career in strategic planning by accident from my short stint in the University of Nevada systems office, which is similar to the Montana Board of Regents."

The accidental planner preferred the campus life. He soon became director of institutional research at Washington State University, where he chanced meeting future MSU President Geoff Gamble, then WSU's Anthropology Department chair. During 5:30 a.m. gym workouts, Gamble spoke of his vision on shared governance -- the idea that input from all corners of campus (faculty, professional and classified staff, students and community representation) becomes a creative decision-making body that thrives in a data-rich environment.

Jim Rimpau, Photo by Steven Hunts.

"Geoff would say that any university had incredibly intelligent people, and that we should use their expertise to help administer a university. Colleges have tremendous human capital and brainpower, but often don't take advantage of all the employees as resources for ideas," Rimpau recalls. "The nice thing about shared governance is that you get input from lots of people."

It wasn't until Gamble became MSU's president (after serving as University of Vermont's provost), however, that the shared-governance initiative took form. Gamble lured Rimpau from WSU with his philosophies -- and with a promise of excellent fly fishing and upland game bird hunting. Rimpau signed on, moving his wife Sydney, teenage son Ben, and English Pointer Gunner, to Bozeman in 2002. In May 2008, Gamble named Rimpau vice president of planning and chief information officer.

Admittedly, Rimpau's American Sign Language skills have rusted since his days working with chimpanzees. Yet, Rimpau is adept at reading other types of signs and symbols. For instance, he must anticipate subtle signals that may indicate a need for off-campus technology systems backup or finding a sustainable enrollment cap while monitoring the long-range forecast of 15 percent fewer high school grads in state in the next decade. He analyzes effects of MSU's expanding academic programs, whether in Bozeman or other locations. Any plans, says Rimpau, must help maintain MSU's national standing as a top tier Carnegie Foundation research university.

"Jim's contribution is subtle," says Gamble. "As part of my senior leadership team, he brings a leadership style that is collaborative, engaging. His approach brings the community together in a quiet, understated way, an effective way."

Even 20 years later, Rimpau still recalls lessons learned during his sign-language days with Moja, Pili, Tatu, chimpanzees named in Swahili for one, two, three; and Dar, Arabic for the Tanzanian city, Dar es Salaam.

"Studying chimps puts our species in a different light -- we are very similar," he says. "Chimps have an intellect all their own in the animal world. Studying the university as a living organism, given the richness and diversity of campus, seems appropriate and allows us to recognize both the intellectual quality of the university body and to understand and predict what is likely to happen next."

As the ensuing chaos of any organizational planning begins, Rimpau recalls pandemonium one night when a chimpanzee escaped her cabin.

"The chimps were in bed by 8 p.m., and monitored by an intercom," he says. "Occasionally one would get up. One time, Moja got out of the cabin and was running along the farm rooftops. People tried to get her down by spraying hoses, but she'd go in and out the second story windows of the farmhouse. Things were totally out of control when I got there. Eventually, we talked her down, bribed her."

He says that also is what it's like with kids and administrators: "When all else fails, bribe 'em with candy -- sweet rewards rather than threats. Works every time."