I don’t get a lot of invitations, so when Brady Deaton sent an e-mail asking me to come meet our university’s new president, I decided to go. Imagine my surprise when it turned out that Brady had invited several thousand others.
Everybody who is anybody at the university, and a good many of us who aren’t, turned out last Tuesday for a couple of hours in the Memorial Union. Nearly every dean was there, of course, and several former curators; but so were lots of faculty and staff, retirees, students, at least one legislative candidate and the mayor. I didn’t spot any current curators, and I supposed that the current legislators were occupied making mischief downriver.
One of the more prominent faculty attendees commented, plate in hand, that the sure way to guarantee faculty presence was to promise free food. That’s the equivalent of saying that if you want to lure journalists, offer free booze. Neither, I think, is altogether fair.
Indeed, the length of the line to shake Gary Forsee’s hand suggested that he, rather than the crab dip, was the real attraction. (Full disclosure: I shook Brady’s hand, and Dary Hindman’s, but I was about five people short of President Forsee when he was called away to be formally welcomed by the platform party.)
The speechifying was mercifully brief and so content-free that the Missourian didn’t bother to report it. Fortunately, we have some other evidence on which we can assess our new leader’s early days. I’m referring to the e-mail note he sent out a couple of weeks ago.
In that communique, President Forsee offered the usual platitudes about how happy and honored he is to be here. He also said a few things that offered ground for at least a cautious optimism. One of those was that he’s hard at work. “I’ve had conversations with our chancellors about the needs and aspirations of our four distinctive campuses. I’ve conversed with many of our state’s leaders in education, government, media, business and economic development,” Forsee said in the e-mail.
What university presidents mainly do is talk, and it’s good to see that ours is talking to the right people. As to what he’s saying, he offered this clue: “I pledge that there will be no bigger advocate and no louder voice for what our students need, what our individual campuses need and what the faculty needs. I will be your advocate in Jefferson City, in Washington, D.C., and wherever I can help tell the positive story of our institution....”
He also said, “I’ve learned more about the support we need from Jefferson City and Washington for our operating budget and capital programs, and particularly for competitive faculty salaries. We need to maintain affordable tuition and strong financial aid programs....”
A friend who reached the head of the line told me he had wished President Forsee well but with skepticism about his prospects. History certainly warrants some skepticism, and neither the economy nor the legislature looks promising.
The room was filled with hope, though. From where I stood, well away from both the platform and the food line, the new guy seemed off to a strong start.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.