Forsee starts third year with (mostly) high marks

Friday, February 26, 2010 | 6:00 p.m. CST
COLUMBIA — Gary Forsee is getting satisfactory marks from faculty leaders as he begins his third year as president of the University of Missouri System.

Asked to grade Forsee as he celebrates his second anniversary at MU this week, faculty members gave him everywhere from an A- to a passing mark.

No grade inflation going on here: These are the same faculty members who were skeptical of the former Sprint CEO with no academic experience when he became president of the state's largest university system. Turns out, Forsee's business background is making him the "right guy at the right time," said MU biology Professor Tom Phillips.

"The job he has isn't the one he accepted," Phillips said. "The fiscal crisis made it a whole different game. He got the short end of the stick but, in reality, he's probably better for us in that sense. He's a guy who can make tough business decisions."

Despite his image as a corporate executive, Forsee said he spends much of his time focused on the educational mission of the university, whether he is meeting with academic leaders and students to ensure each campus is providing a relevant education or fighting to make college more accessible.

On his watch, the university formed a P-20 task force to review whether the educational pipeline is preparing younger generations, and this year Forsee directed administrators to study expanded e-learning options and three-year degree programs.

But Forsee's messages related to economic development are what faculty members say they hear the loudest. Perhaps that's because the system has seen drastic increases in invention disclosures, patents, licensing income and research park development since Forsee arrived, and he's quick to tout those numbers.

Some faculty leaders say they're fine with Forsee's focus on economic development. After all, Phillips noted, early critics were more concerned that he would become too involved in what goes on in the classroom.

"A major concern amongst faculty when someone without a track record in academics was hired was that he might be tempted to insert himself into academic matters outside his scope of expertise," said Phillips, a former MU Faculty Council chairman. "He has kept away from these types of issues."

Biochemistry Professor Frank Schmidt agreed, saying immediate academic decisions "are coming back to campuses, and that's where they ought to be."

But some wonder whether Forsee is too far removed from the educational mission of the university.

"I would like it if he tried to help us a little more," said MU Faculty Council Chairwoman Leona Rubin, specifically pointing to his recent decision to allocate $5 million to economic development compared to a smaller allocation of $700,000 for e-learning.

After all, Rubin said, faculty members are shouldering much of the budget crunches. Research might generate funding, she said, but "the enrollment surge has been holding up the budget. When push comes to shove, increases in class size made the difference."

Spanish Professor Michael Ugarte said he thinks the educational mission has been pushed too far on the back burner.

"I understand universities have to function so they're economically solvent and we're in an economic crisis now, but we can't lose sight of what we're here to do," Ugarte said. "Clearly, he shouldn't be meddling in departments, but at the same time he should be a voice, a spokesperson for the university and what we do here. And I don't hear my ideals in education being voiced by him at all. I feel excluded from what he wants to do."

Forsee has been an advocate when it comes to voicing support for more state funding. He has verbally endorsed a proposed state bond package to improve public university facilities, and he has repeatedly criticized the state's Access Missouri scholarship program for awarding more dollars to students who go to private schools than to public college students. "He's the first president to have spoken out vocally and aggressively, saying: 'No, we're not getting a fair deal here,' " Phillips said. "I admire him for that. He's a guy who's willing to stand up for what he thinks is right for our university."

In existing economic conditions, Forsee said, that means partnering with the state to turn the economy around.

By turning research and ideas into products and startup companies, the UM System isn't simply a public entity asking for more state funds but rather part of the solution to generate new revenues. "If we can do that, this university will be fine," he said, "and the state and country will be fine because of that."

Although some faculty members seem to have warmed up to Forsee in the president's seat, a few remain skeptical. Ugarte said he couldn't give Forsee a letter grade because the president hasn't made his specific goals clear.

Schmidt continues to take a "wait-and-see" attitude.

"I don't think any president will win over all faculty members, at least while he's still in office," Schmidt said. "He certainly gets a passing grade at this point, but I'm not ready to chisel his name in the base of one of the Columns."

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