UM System President Gary Forsee completes challenging first year

Friday, April 3, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 1:29 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Gary Forsee, 58, addresses switching from the corporate world to academia, and how he keeps organized to face the challenges of his new job.

COLUMBIA — Early one April 2008 morning, the students and faculty at Missouri University of Science and Technology were following their usual schedules: Completing assignments. Preparing for exams. Rushing to class.  

Yet in one room on campus, the mood was anything but routine. The UM System Board of Curators had convened to hear Missouri S&T graduate Gary Forsee speak to the board for the first time as president of the University of Missouri System.

Forsee’s first year, at a glance

Gary Forsee assumes the presidency of the UM System.

House budget chairman, state Rep. Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County, proposes a $9 million cut from the proposed allocation to the UM System.

At its meeting in Rolla, the UM System Board of Curators unanimously approved a 4.1 percent tuition increase. 
In his first State of the University report, Forsee presented data from the 2008 U.S. News and World Report ranking of colleges and universities. MU dropped from 88th in 2007 to 91st.

UM received a 4.2 percent increase in the fiscal year 2009 operating budget from the legislature, but the amount was still less than the state’s 2001 level; Missouri ranked 47th in per-capita state spending on higher education.
The curators approved a contract extension for Forsee from three to five years. The extension defers the performance-based part of his salary for a full five-year term before payment would occur.

Forsee and MU Chancellor Brady Deaton announce a reorganization of MU’s medical operations. University Health Care services and the UM System’s medical schools were to be consolidated under a new health science center, headed by a new vice-chancellor for health sciences.

Forsee describes the completion of the new Analytical Bio-Chemistry Laboratories facility at MU’s Discovery Ridge Research Park as an accomplishment for the community as well as a statement about MU’s commitment to economic development.

Forsee and his wife donate $1 million for the installation of a Cisco TelePresence videoconferencing system. Another $1 million for the system was donated by Cisco Systems and AT&T.

Forsee announces a systemwide hiring freeze for most positions.

Forsee announces possible budget reductions of up to 25 percent for fiscal year 2010 and meets with the Intercampus Faculty Council to discuss options.

Forsee asks faculty on all four campuses to cut expenses in 14 specified areas.
Forsee issues a statement supporting Gov. Jay Nixon’s proposal to maintain current funding levels in exchange for no tuition increases.

Forsee asks the curators to grant him authority to institute furloughs and recommends that employees contribute to the system’s retirement plan. In addition, he also announces he will recommend there be no pay raises.

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Forsee was named president in December 2007 and assumed the position in mid-February 2008. He had spent less than three months in the president's office in University Hall at MU before the time came for this address.

His words then focused on many of the same goals he has today:  supporting the mission of the system, increasing state support for higher education and promoting the UM System as the economic engine of the state. He also mentioned MU’s three-point drop in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of higher education institutions, from 88 to 91.

Getting started

Forsee, a man with extensive experience in the business world, embarked on a year of unexpected challenges.  During his first 365 days as president, his leadership has been tested as the UM System faces a financial crisis that also grips the world.

People who work with Forsee, 58, say he has made the transition from managing a big corporation to leading the UM System with relative ease. They describe him as intelligent and engaging but also intense.

They say he works well with leaders in state government, pointing to Forsee’s extensive preparation and his desire to listen to others. He can make tough calls and defend them, even though he has come under fire from faculty who say he announces policy changes without sufficient consultation.

Forsee, whose previous position was chairman and chief executive officer of Sprint Nextel Corp., said he wants to be consistent and transparent in his leadership of the UM System. He said he values collaboration and hearing the views of others.

“I think the premium on that is particularly so in tough economic times, or tough times the institution could be facing,” he said during an interview in March. “I think that is certainly part of the MO that I wanted to establish when I came on.”

At the end of the day, those around him say he has had a successful first year because he is not afraid to make necessary decisions to maintain the system and prepare for the future.

“Leadership should be about anticipating changes,” Forsee said. “It should be about looking around the corner. It should be about assuring that you don’t get caught short by lack of preparation, by lack of planning or not having thought about the implications.”

Initial challenges

In a 12-month period, Forsee saw the curators increase tuition by 4.1 percent, followed by a 4.2 percent increase in the operating budget for fiscal year 2009. Yet, that still left Missouri 47th in per-capita state spending on higher education.

In August 2008, Forsee and MU Chancellor Brady Deaton announced a plan to reorganize MU's medical operations under a new health science center. Two months later, Forsee and his wife, Sherry, donated $1 million to help fund a high-tech video conference system from Cisco, the communications company based in San Jose, Calif.

Since November, however, most of the announcements coming from the president's office have concentrated on the slumping economy.

Anticipating a shortfall in state revenue, Forsee ordered a hiring freeze across the system on Nov. 17. He also asked for reduced spending in nonsalary areas, imposed a wage freeze and secured the curators' approval to institute emergency furloughs if necessary through the end of June.

His leadership style will be in the public spotlight Friday at the curators meeting in Rolla.

The path to the presidency

Forsee was born in Kansas City in 1950. As he was growing up, his family moved around the state, following Forsee’s father as he took different jobs with the Social Security Administration.

After graduating from Cape Girardeau Central High School, he went to Missouri S&T, formerly University of Missouri-Rolla, where he majored in civil engineering, was the president and rush chairman of Kappa Sigma fraternity, and worked on the school newspaper.

During his senior year, Forsee interviewed with several companies. An internship with Procter & Gamble during the summer before his senior year convinced him to go into the management side of engineering.

He decided to join Southwestern Bell’s management program in 1972 in Kansas City, where his first position was as a chief assigner overseeing 15 people. He moved to installation foreman after eight months.

Forsee kept advancing steadily, working jobs at AT&T, Global One in Belgium and BellSouth on his way up the corporate ladder before becoming chairman and CEO of Sprint in 2003. During his time in business, he served on the Missouri S&T Board of Trustees. Later, he served as co-chair of The Missouri 100 — an advisory group to the UM System president.

Despite his success, Forsee’s exit from the business world was not graceful.

After his advancement at Sprint and being touted as a talented manager and deal maker by the business press — BusinessWeek named him one of the best managers of 2004 — he resigned under pressure from the company’s board on Oct. 8, 2007. Sprint had suffered weak earnings and lost subscribers to competing carriers. He also faced pressure over the merger of Sprint and Nextel, which did not go as smoothly as planned.

As he was leaving Sprint, the UM System’s search for a new president was heading into its 10th month. It began in December 2006 when Elson Floyd announced he would take the job as president of Washington State University.

The presidency was offered to New Jersey businessman Terry Sutter in June 2007, but he declined. Former 9th District U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof was also in the running.

Joining the UM System

On Dec. 20, 2007, the curators announced Forsee as their pick for president.  He officially began the position two months later, on Feb. 18, 2008.

Bo Fraser, chairman of the curators, said Forsee's strong business experiences have made him a stronger person, but he is the kind of man who already possessed strong leadership qualities.

“He has that vision,” Fraser said.  “He has the ability to envision how to make things better, and he knows how to get from point A to point B. He knows how to work through the maze, and he's very articulate about that.”

Forsee has visited each of the four campuses in the system, conducting town hall meetings to explain the cost-saving measures taken to weather the turbulent economy. Much of what he has put in place is a strategic effort to cushion the system.

“I think all along it became very important to plan ahead,” Forsee said.  “Not that great planning can ever trump some of the bad things that can happen in the worst recession in 100 years, but if good planning could help mitigate that, then that is certainly what we wanted to do.”

Working toward the future

Forsee said he understands the value of people’s time and takes preparation seriously. One way he does this is by compiling notes for meetings to show his engagement in the topic at hand.

At University Hall, the small three-story building near the A.L. Gustin Golf Course that houses the UM System offices, Forsee sat behind his desk in March , fully ready to answer questions.

On his desk was a page full of scribbled notes and details to use during the interview. He had prepared for questions on the UM System retirement plan by saving an article from The Wall Street Journal as an example of the continuing peril such plans are encountering across the country.

Tony Luetkemeyer, student representative to the curators, describes the president as a “ferocious note-taker.” He said Forsee's engagement and other aspects of his personality make him easily approachable.

“Taking notes is just a matter of assuring that I’m paying attention to the topic,” Forsee said.

Every Sunday, he makes a list of the tasks to be accomplished for the week. This beginning-of-the-week task has continued like clockwork for many years, he said, and helps him keep on top of all his responsibilities.

“He’s well-informed generally, and he asks critical questions — critical meaning trying to get at what is really driving the situation, what fully describes the way issues are evolving on the campuses," Deaton said. "He tries to fully understand those, and therefore he’s always asking questions about the issues.”

“He is very thorough at everything that he does, and he has an intense thirst for knowledge, and you gain knowledge by listening to people,” Fraser added.

Missouri S&T Chancellor John Carney said one reason Forsee is considered a good listener is because he understood there was a critical learning curve when he came into this position.

“I think he made it clear from day one that he had a lot to learn and that he was very, very open to working with various groups,” Carney said.

Forsee said one task he worked hard to accomplish during the year was to spend time with constituent groups, listening and learning from them. His connection to various groups is part of a deliberate collaboration process across the system, which Forsee takes quite seriously.

“You hope that a good process can result in consensus being formed,” Forsee said.

"I think President Forsee has tried to understand issues from all sides before making a decision on an issue," Carney said. "You might not agree with everything he decides to do, but he's not making these decisions in a vacuum."

Colleagues say one of the most important aspects of Forsee's leadership, especially given the current state of the economy, is a firm belief in his decisions.

“He's not afraid to take action, and I think that goes back to his experience in business,” Carney said. “In academia, we sometimes have meetings and discussions about issues and never come to a decision.”

Business perspective

Yet, when Forsee assumed his position as president, some voiced concerns that making a businessman the leader of an academic institution was not smart.

MU Faculty Council Chairman Tom Phillips said much of the concern derived from fears that a president with a business background would infringe on aspects of governance dear to the faculty.

Phillips said the anxiety tapered as Forsee’s first year progressed.

“He’s kept away from the things that we consider sacred,” Phillips said. Those things include academic issues such as building a curriculum and grading criteria — items the faculty strongly feel they should control.

Forsee said he has not attempted to turn the university into a corporation.

“Some people may think that the agenda now is how do we turn this into business,” he said. "Well, that is not the case at all. It's all about supporting our faculty, staff and students. That's our strength as an institution. It's all about enhancing our mission of teaching, research service and economic development. Our people are what make the university strong.”

Many of the practices he has learned from experience can be applied to almost any operation, he said.

“My job is how can I support the institution and certainly use principles, practices and processes that aren’t just used in corporations," Forsee said. "They’re used in any situation as tools to make things better.”

Deepening communications

Despite the suggestion that he puts a premium on listening, some would like to see Forsee do more.

He fielded resistance from the faculty and staff within the system after he announced his intention to ask the board to approve a measure requiring employees to pay into their retirement plans.

Some faculty across the system expressed dissatisfaction because they were not consulted before the measure was introduced.

“We just wish we could have been engaged in the process early on,” Phillips said.

The Faculty Senate at the University of Missouri-St. Louis unanimously passed a resolution on Feb. 24 seeking more input from the president. The executive committee of the MU chapter of the American Association of University Professors also sent a letter to Forsee calling for more dialogue.

Phillips added that Forsee does pay attention to concerns from faculty and staff. He pointed out a provision the president added after consulting members of the Intercampus Faculty Council for an annual review of the pension plan by staff and faculty advisory groups.

“The real test will be — does that happen next year?” Phillips said.

Given its central importance to both faculty and staff advisory councils, he said both groups would work to get the pension plan review on the agenda early enough next year to gather input.

“We expect that we would have consultation, and I would hope that we would all agree on it,” said UMSL Faculty Senate Chairman Matthew Keefer.

Fiscal uncertainty

There seems to be optimism among faculty that Forsee has the proper set of skills to manage the economic crisis.

“I’ve heard many people say we’re happy to have him in charge with this fiscal uncertainty,” Phillips said.

He also said much of the reason for concern has been a need for the president and the faculty to learn how to work together.

“This is all part of getting to know each other,” Phillips said. “Anybody takes a while to build a working relationship.”

Forsee also must persuade the legislature and the citizens of the state that funding higher education is important. Many people, including curators and faculty, agree that besides handling the economic crisis, this task is crucial.

Higher education administrators appreciated Gov. Jay Nixon's pledge to maintain state appropriations at current levels in return for a tuition cap. Forsee called it a “bold move.”

He said he appreciates the opportunity to present his case to state legislators.

“I’ve had the ability to get a full hearing, a full airing of our positions," he said. "That is all that I can ask for."

Fraser said Forsee was well-suited for the position because of his connections to Missouri and his ability to work with a wide array of people across the state, including members of the Missouri General Assembly.

Carney also said he is impressed with the president’s ability to work with legislators.

Forsee said he understands the demands legislators have moving forward in finalizing the state budget but remains optimistic that the message he brings is being heard.

“Higher education needs to be invested in, needs to be part of the solution,” Forsee said.

Commitment continues

He acknowledges that he is in a position that requires a considerable amount of his time and commitment. Pointing to framed photographs of his family, he said they are the major reason he is able to maintain calm and order in his life.

Forsee, his wife, Sherry, and their two daughters, Melanie and Kara, moved 16 times in order for him to pursue job opportunities.

“It’s about family and being sure that these 24/7 jobs have the appropriate balance of time to be with family and friends,” he said. "And it's important to have some humor and laughs along the way, too."

Missourian reporter Jacob Stokes contributed to this article.

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