COLUMBIA — Gary Forsee’s first day as president of the University of Missouri System included some of the formalities that come with a desk job: getting one’s initial calendar ironed out, successfully getting logged into the company computer network and, yes, even learning how to work the phones.
Forsee, the former CEO of Sprint Nextel who said he needed to “get used to the new devices,” embraced the irony.
And even though he was formally welcomed as the system’s 22nd president with an introductory press conference Monday, his job effectively started soon after the Dec. 20 announcement of his hiring. With visits to all four of the system’s campuses , conversations with alumni and attendance at the January Board of Curators meeting all under his belt, the Missouri University of Science and Technology graduate said he desired to hit the ground running.
“I wanted a chance today to be able to say more than just, ‘Gee, I’m excited to be here,’” Forsee said.
Those prior introductions enabled Forsee to lay out portions of his agenda on his official first day at work. He pledged to be the bridge for both students and faculty between the state’s and nation’s educational and political realms.
“I want to be their biggest advocate, their biggest supporter in Washington, Jefferson City and around the state,” Forsee said.
To that end, Forsee said creating a continuous conversation about higher education in the state is one of the system’s main avenues to progress.
Among his initial priorities, Forsee stressed both the protection of the university’s current assets through esteemed foundations in life sciences and entrepreneurship and the new economic development that needs to occur for the system to be the “engine for the state.” In light of challenges in funding at the state level, the move toward increased funding through initiatives and foundations as future revenue sources is even more important, Forsee said.
Forsee also said students’ needs within Missouri need to be met and realized as early as pre-kindergarten. He said the preparation for learning and being educated has an effect on their post-secondary performance.
Frank Schmidt, MU’s faculty council chair, said Forsee’s initial agenda contained some good starting points.
“People often talk about barriers to higher education in purely economic terms,” Schmidt said. “But another chief barrier to access is preparation. That part (of Forsee’s agenda) could be applauded.”
Schmidt said that the majority of faculty have adopted the “wait-and-see” approach on Forsee’s hiring. Although Schmidt said some faculty have questioned his overall interest in faculty concerns, he said a note that Forsee sent through e-mail to all members of the system struck the right chords.
“Certainly he wouldn’t have gotten where he did (in business) without being able to relate to people of all sorts. People skills are important,” Schmidt said. “But can he change what (former president) Elson Floyd called a ‘culture,’ that’s hard to tell.”
That culture primarily involves the perception of state legislators about higher education as a whole, Schmidt said. He said Missouri is on the wrong end of the curve.
“You’ve got to be a culture that values creativity and innovation — innovate or die,” he said. “Missouri has a culture that has to change, or else we’ll be behind the rest of the country.”
Forsee said legislators need to be reminded of the unique mission of the university as a land-grant institution. He said his position gives him a good opportunity to inform those without a wide understanding.
Forsee said in his e-mail that one of his primary observations is that he needs to quickly engage with students. He started by dropping into a residence hall room at the University of Missouri-Kansas City last week for a quick visit.
Erin Moran, student affairs chair for the Missouri Students Association, said a committed rapport with students would go a long way toward earning their respect.
“If he could just show us that he isn’t always in his office, if he were to go out there and actually get involved at times in student government, that would definitely make a difference,” Moran said. “I think that might catch parents’ attention, that he tries to know some of the kids.
“I’ve been in MSA for two and a half years, and I don’t think the last president even got involved. I don’t even remember his name.”
The observations Forsee has made during the campus visits have made him aware of a statewide sense of dedication to the university on several fronts, he said.
“I’ve concluded that there’s an incredible passion in the state of Missouri for our institution,” Forsee said. “I’ll continue listening and learning to help me tell our story more broadly, to be an even louder voice.”
For more details on Forsee’s press conference, go to the Missourian’s higher education blog at utownblog.wordpress.com.