When Kit Bond retired from the U.S. Senate, you could hear around the university a chorus of praise but an undertone of foreboding. Whatever his shortcomings as a statesman, he was certainly the university’s best friend in Washington. One reckoning I’ve read credits him with $400 million in federal largesse.
Then another blow. President Forsee announced last week his resignation after a three-year run that has earned almost universal praise. His rationale for quitting is beyond dispute, but his timing — just as the legislative session opens — wasn’t great.
So the lame duck Board of Curators, with three members serving expired terms and a fourth already gone to Florida, is launching both an expensive and time-consuming presidential search and an almost certainly losing struggle to preserve what’s left of the institution’s state funding.
The curators haven’t asked my advice, but here it is anyway:
Oh, I know he’s already taken another job with a big law firm. Not an obstacle. That kind of position will always be available to an honorably retired senator. (I have a friend who used to say he was going to name his next child “Former U.S. Senator” as a guarantee of social prominence and financial success. A real one has no shortage of opportunities.)
I also know he’s not an academic. Doesn’t matter. Neither was ex-President Forsee. A university has deans and provosts to do the academic stuff. Presidents and chancellors are primarily salesmen. Their real job is to sell their institution to the public, the legislature and other potential benefactors, governmental, corporate and individual.
If you see a similarity between the job description of a successful university president and that of a successful politician, it’s because the skill sets are virtually identical. To be good at either job, you have to be able to win friends, neutralize enemies and, above all these days, raise money — lots and lots of money.
In some ways, Kit’s a more obvious choice than Gary Forsee was. After all, Mr. Forsee had just been fired from his corporate job. The voters fired Kit once but quickly realized their mistake and didn’t repeat it. Mr. Forsee had been a sufficiently loyal and successful alum that the Rolla campus gave him an honorary doctorate. Kit, whose degrees are from Princeton and Virginia, already has a building named for him on the flagship campus. That ties him with Richard Jesse.
Did I mention the $400 million?
Of course, there’s always the possibility that Kit would turn us down. The prospects don’t look all that pleasing, with budget cutters in charge in Jeff City and a senior senator who regards pork as just the other white meat.
In case that happens, I have another suggestion.
Elson Floyd, whom I think of as the first of our new-breed university presidents, had some good ideas he didn’t stick around long enough to implement. One that should have special appeal in tough budget times was to combine the jobs of president and chancellor of the MU campus.
That brings me to Brady Deaton. He’s a fine chancellor, and he’d be a fine president. Everybody likes Brady. Beyond his obvious strengths as administrator and fundraiser, he offers another big advantage. He’s already here. No need to spend thousands of dollars and months of time, neither of which we can afford. And think of the savings: one salary, one residence, no moving costs.
There’d be some whining, no doubt, from partisans of the satellite campuses. They’d get over it. Brady’s bigger handicap is our institutional inferiority complex. If he’s all that good, we wonder, why is he still here? Maybe he won’t be, once the top job again goes to somebody else.
There you have it — two eminently reasonable nominations. No need to thank me, Curators, though I would consider a finder’s fee.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.