John Karl Scholz. Photo by Todd Cooper

Big Man on Campus

The 19th University of Oregon president on AI, Oregon Hazards Lab, the Ballmer Institute and more

John Karl Scholz has come to the right place, as a former marathon runner and a wine drinker, Oregon is perhaps the perfect fit for the new president. With vineyards in the area and this being Tracktown, USA, “I feel like I’ve come to paradise,” Scholz says. 

University of Oregon announced Scholz as its 19th president on March 13, and he started his appointment on July 1. Scholz is the former provost of University of Wisconsin-Madison as well as an economist and professor. 

Eugene Weekly sat down with Scholz to hear his thoughts on the University of Oregon as the school year begins.

The emergence of AI and ChatGPT in the classroom has forced the UO’s instructors, professors and students to adapt to new technologies. A common public concern is that AI may be used to replace the human role in the humanities, but Scholz feels otherwise. 

“Nobody is going to remember what they feel like with an interaction with a chatbot. Whether through this meeting or a beautifully written essay or interactions, you are left with a feeling. Humans do that, that connection,” he says. “It is thinking about the higher order things that people do to create value, whether relationships, transactions, writing and art. I’m confident they’ll continue to be for that.” 

The incoming class of 2027 is the second largest in the UO’s history at 5,057, and with these students growing up with AI, Scholz emphasizes just how important academic integrity really is, and to be honest with your work. “Ignore social media, don’t believe everything you read unless it’s from the Eugene Weekly,”  he jokes. 

Scholz wanted to highlight the research going on at the UO, particularly the work being done by the Oregon Hazards Lab, the Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health and Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact. 

The Ballmer Institute was founded in March 2022 with the goal of educating students in behavioral psychology for children and adolescents. Scholz says he believes that the Ballmer Institute can change the world for the better because it will help expand behavioral health care for children in the U.S. The Ballmer Institute offers a bachelor’s degree in which students will have more than 700 hours of practice with students in Portland area K-12 schools as well as a graduate microcredential, which is a three year program. 

The Oregon Hazards lab has received $20 million in funding since 2020 to track and understand natural disasters across the Pacific Northwest. Since its founding in 2018 as a research lab inside the Department of Earth Sciences, OHAZ has grown to 28 full time staff with more than 200 seismic monitoring stations, 41 wildfire detection cameras in Oregon and, according to the OHAZ website, plans on having 75 cameras by late 2024. 

Scholz also highlighted the Knight Campus, which seeks to speed up the time between scientific discovery and societal impact. Several students have been working on a probiotic capsule with the aim of combatting the bacterium H. pylori, which can cause stomach cancer and ulcers. 

Scholz says he recognizes that athletics play a massive role at UO. “Athletics serves as a front door for the university and the free media. The fact that 10 million people watch the Ducks play Colorado on Saturday is valuable to us. That kind of exposure. Announcers were saying, ‘Autzen Stadium is the best place in the country to see a football game.’” 

That kind of thing “helps students understand what a wonderful place this is, what a great place to go to school,” he says. “Athletics is an asset. It elevates the profile of the university and we want to continue to do that.” 

So while UO athletics may be the first thing the community thinks of when thinking about the university, the university may be more closely involved with the city moving forward. UO architecture instructor Kaarin Knudson is running for mayor of Eugene “It’s kind of neat. I am excited to see one of ours putting themselves out there in a political setting like that,” Scholz says. 

The UO has been criticized for its distance from the community it is located in, but Scholz says Knudson’s mayoral run is an example of the great connections that university has with the Eugene community. 

Scholz remains determined in his belief that higher education will be massively important, despite an increasing cynicism within the public towards it. “If you were a university president, what would you do? It is just looking at the most important things and continuing to execute the absolute best to our ability, our core mission,” he says. “That is creating world-class education. Pushing boundaries of knowledge, enhancing our understanding of what it means to be human, and serving Eugene, the region, and states and the world,” he says. ν

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