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Running the UM System is big business

Tuesday, January 15, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:51 p.m. CST, Monday, February 2, 2009

Last month, the selection of Gary Forsee, former Sprint Nextel CEO, marked the culmination of an 11-month search for a University of Missouri System president to replace the departed Elson Floyd. Not exactly an orderly process, this exercise was marked by obsession with secrecy, the inevitable leaks accompanying attempts to maintain confidentiality, the offer being declined by the initial choice for the post and, finally, nitpicking the qualifications of the ultimate selectee.

Those insisting the selection process be open to public scrutiny have a valid point; nevertheless, I don’t really see this having any real impact inasmuch as the “right to know” is more often than not trumped by one’s “need to know.” While it may be nice to have a window to such activities, the average person’s capacity or interest in influencing the outcome renders its intelligence value moot at best. Furthermore, the conduit to daylight for this information serves us well as a training vehicle for investigative journalists.

Those in opposition to the selection itself offer a variety of judgments, including Forsee’s lack of academic credentials, his ties to the corporate world, his checkered performance at Sprint Nextel and the absence of faculty and student participation in the proceedings. A Kansas City Star poll of 805 individuals showed 50 percent against, 30 for and 20 percent undecided or uninterested — a predictable outcome when one considers that it is more popular to criticize an issue that has limited effect on a random audience.

As a graduate and member of the University of Missouri community, however, I am both appalled and embarrassed by the written and reported verbal commentary by a few faculty members. Discussion and disagreement are always welcome; but ad hominem personal attacks, innuendo and political partisanship are unprofessional and discourteous, a classless abuse of tenured status too often seen on campuses.

While one can empathize with faculty disappointment with president-select Forsee’s lack of advance degrees and pro-business experience as opposed to academic credentials, it remains an unassailable fact that the UM System is now big business as well as an institution of higher learning. With, according to 2006 statistics, a net value of $1.9 billion, a faculty of 7,478, a staff of 16,457, covering an area of 19,517 acres and including grants and contracts of $287 million, $107.2 million in gifts and more than $893 million in endowments, the UM System is a corporate entity.

Accordingly, as a major complex corporation with relationships and responsibilities spanning both national and international connections, research and funding, a multi-campus university requires leadership skills consistent with systems management. Included among these traits are the ability to improve the business practices of the institution and the name recognition to interact with the legislature and private sector.

The academic functions of the system are vested in the capable hands of the chancellors who are the chief academic, administrative and budgetary officers of the several campuses. Each chancellor is responsible to the president and the UM System Board of Curators for the academic programs of the respective campuses along with ultimate responsibility for faculty supervision and non-academic areas as well. Each chancellor is assisted by vice, deputy and assistant chancellors, provosts and various department heads.

It is somewhat difficult to find a degree of sympathy for the faculty and students having been estranged from the selection process. Other than in the election of the president of the United States, and the leadership of various professional and social organizations, I am not aware of any instance in which people have so much input in choosing their chief executive. In my 31 years as a Marine and five more in the education arena, I was never involved in the selection process of my commander nor my superior.

Although somewhat flawed in its methodology, I believe the curators choice to be sound as the business functions of the UM System are properly carried out by its chief executive with the authority of the academic programs delegated to the chancellors. If I may paraphrase the Gospel of St. Matthew: Render unto business that which is business and to academia that which is academics.

J. Karl Miller of Columbia is a former colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. He can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.


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Comments

Ellis Smith January 15, 2008 | 3:51 p.m.

I agree with Colonel Miller. I was never a Marine, but recall no instance in the United States Army where persons of lesser rank participated in selecting their commander. A university is not the armed services nor is it the same as a corporation, but does that make a difference where a selection process is concerned?

My understanding is that neither Manuel Pacheco nor Elson Floyd were former corporate executives, nor did either have only a bachelor's degree, but I do not recall those two administrations ending very well.

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