GEORGE KENNEDY: Sales background is good foundation for UM presidency

Thursday, December 15, 2011 | 5:08 p.m. CST; updated 9:35 a.m. CST, Friday, December 16, 2011

You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that our university has added the pursuit of economic development to the traditional Big Three roles of teaching, research and service.

The main goal of economic development is the creation of good jobs for Missouri residents. So it makes perfect sense that the UM System Board of Curators has again reached into the ranks of the unemployed to find a president of the four-campus system.

Our previous president, Gary Forsee, was at loose ends after having been deposed as the CEO of Sprint. Our new leader, Timothy Wolfe, was bought out as president of Novell Americas after one of those mergers that always seem to result in higher profits and fewer jobs.

The $450,000 plus incentives we’ll pay him sure beats unemployment compensation. Now he won’t have to worry about whether Congress will approve extending benefits for the long-term jobless.

I joined the crowd Tuesday in the Reynolds Alumni Center as President-to-be Wolfe made his debut. What with the presence of a pep band and a couple of cheerleaders, you’d almost have thought we were changing athletic conferences again. The only thing missing was somebody to lead us in the M-I-Z-Z-O-U chant.

The new guy was still making his get-acquainted visits to the campuses when the complaints began.

The Columbia Daily Tribune rounded up the usual suspects and got their unsurprising objections to the hiring of another nonacademic.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch weighed in with an editorial – reprinted in Thursday’s Missourian – bemoaning the secrecy that surrounded the search.

I’m more impressed by the latter than the former. Secrecy deprives all those with a stake in the health of the university, which means all of us, of any way to judge whether a year of expensive searching really has produced the best possible result.

As to the grousing about another leader lacking in academic credentials, I’ll just ask the complainants to compare the presidency of Forsee with that of his credentialed predecessors, Elson Floyd and Manuel Pacheco.

The fact is that the presidency of a big public university these days doesn’t really have much to do with the academic part of the academy. It’s all about the money.

The Missourian helpfully published a timeline of Wolfe’s career. Perusing it led me to think that his first job out of college was the most directly relevant to the role he’ll play now.

His bachelor’s degree in business helped him start as a salesman for IBM. Now he’s going back into sales.

He doesn’t move into the president’s chair officially until mid-February, but we can assume that he won’t wait until then to begin making cold calls on his most important customers. Those would be the governor and – even more important – our elected paymasters in the legislature.

President Forsee’s biggest sale was the deal he struck in Jefferson City to hold tuition constant in exchange for a stand-still budget. Today, that looks like the good old days.

President Wolfe will have earned his money if he can match that.

His opening speech Tuesday sounded all the right themes. The university is “the state’s greatest asset,” he said.

He added that he has “a passion for higher education,” reminding his new employees that his father is retired from the faculty and that his mother holds MU degrees. He even came clean about his wife’s degree from Kansas University.

When I shook his hand, I wished him luck. He, and we, will need it.

Note: I’ll be taking off the next couple of weeks. Think of this respite as my Christmas gift to you.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Ellis Smith December 16, 2011 | 5:21 a.m.

I agree, George, and am looking forward to your return. Merry Christmas, no matter how politically incorrect that might be. :)

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