COLUMBIA — More than 100 people lined the walls of Stotler Lounge in Memorial Union North late Monday afternoon to meet the new University of Missouri System president, Tim Wolfe, his wife, Molly, and their 17-year-old twins, Madison and Tyler.
For more than two hours, the Wolfes and MU Chancellor Brady Deaton and his wife, Anne Deaton, shook hands and chatted with faculty, student leaders, and campus and system administrators.
The reception wrapped up a day that included a campus tour for the twins. In the morning, Wolfe had joined a teleconference meeting of the UM System Board of Curators, at which the group unanimously voted to increase tuition to UM campuses.
As the event wound down and the final few guests filed out, Tyler laughed and shook his legs loose while Madison, who was wearing platform high heels, took a seat for the first time in hours. Dad and mom stood nearby.
"It's a slow day," Tim Wolfe said with a wry smile.
Announced as the next UM System president on Dec. 13, Wolfe, 53, has spent the past two months settling in to the four-campus system. Recently, he has been sitting down for one-on-one interviews, setting the table for what he hopes will be the final post of his career.
The delay between his announcement and the Feb. 15 start date is the best piece of advice former interim president and general counsel Steve Owens gave him, Wolfe said. Spending time learning about what occurs and the complexity of the system has been crucial.
"He's my sounding board on all things that I think about, and I'd really like to bounce things off him," Wolfe said. "He gives me a perspective from the time that he was interim president, his perspective as the general counsel and his perspective in his 30 years of business in the law firm in Kansas City."
During his visits to the four UM campuses in Kansas City, St. Louis, Rolla and Columbia, Wolfe said he consistently saw passion and interest in the mission of the system. But that passion is internal, and he fears that Missourians unconnected to the system don't yet understand its true value.
"Making people aware of what we do and giving individuals a reason to care about what's occurring at the system level, that will get them involved," he said. "If we do the job right, (it) will lead to them caring about it, getting involved and also potentially investing in us."
Wolfe said one of his hopes is to give students the opportunities he had at MU.
"If I can give one more student, through whatever I do in my leadership position, if I gave one more student the opportunity that I had, then I feel good about what I do," he said.
Wolfe said he hopes the system presidency is a long and final role in his career. Throughout his career, he said, he was never one to take a job just because he wanted the next job after that.
"I was just focused on the particular job at hand, and then when I reached a point in time with that job, then I could think about the next one," he said.
Wolfe has called his leadership style "inclusive, collaborative and engaged." He believes the top-down managerial, bureaucratic approach to leadership won't work for the system.
"And by the way, it's not a good fit for me — I don't like that style of leadership anyway," he said.
Instead, he sees his role as a facilitator, "to get bright people around the table that are interested in this particular opportunity. Out of that conversation typically comes an ingenuous idea that individually probably would not have been thought of but collectively came out of it."
Wolfe said his experiences in the past 30 years have taught him that a people-intensive organization is just that: "Without people, we're really nothing. Without faculty, without students, we're nothing. We're a bunch of buildings that are going to be empty."
When to fold 'em
By now, Wolfe's ties to Columbia are established: As a quarterback, he led Rock Bridge High's football team to its first state championship, and he earned a bachelor's degree in business from MU in 1980. In business, he has served in leadership positions, including 20 years as an executive at IBM and, most recently, as president of Novell Americas, a software company in Waltham, Mass.
He said the toughest leadership lesson he's learned is to know when to fold. When you don't have the skills or the people to deliver a service or try to sell a product that's not in demand, no matter how hard you work, you won't be successful, he said.
"So the leadership lesson learned is when you go into a situation, you have to evaluate the cards that you're dealt and play that hand to the best that you can," Wolfe said. "Sometimes you're dealt a losing hand, and instead of trying to stay in the game and bluff your way through, where you end up spending more money and wasting people's time, you just need to fold."
But that's not the case with the UM System. In fact, the system is stacking the deck, Wolfe said.
"If we're playing a game that has six cards, I've got six aces — and we really do have six aces in our hand when you think about what we've done from a growth and a quality and a service delivered (standpoint)," he said. "We've got six aces, and if we're playing a game, well, I'll probably get thrown out because we have six aces, but we have a really, really strong hand."
"This is a system team that has delivered results, and there's lots of things to brag about," he said. "And it's much easier to play the game with this hand than if you're playing a game and in your hand you've got all twos."
This isn't tough
But doesn't the budget situation, with falling state appropriations and growing operating costs, give the system a tough hand to play?
"It's tough in your definition; it's not tough in my definition," Wolfe said. "Because tough in my definition — I go back to my experiences where I was a leader and every dollar that came in the door we were spending a dollar and a quarter, and we were probably six months to eight months from bankruptcy. That's a tough situation."
Wolfe said that he doesn't plan on folding anytime soon but that the system does need to prioritize to continue to grow.
"Part of that process is the prioritization of what we do," he said. "Sometimes things fall to the bottom of the priority list, and sometimes those are cards that we don't want to play anymore. But that's not to say we're folding our hand, we're just not playing that card. We don't need to."
But it's not the budget that drives the system's priorities. Instead, he said, it's the strategic plan and vision that should dictate where resources go.
"Unfortunately, too many people make the mistake that their financial plan or their budget drives their actions or drives their priorities — that's opposite," he said. "What should happen is that your strategy and vision drives your financial plan."
And that's just what the system is doing, he said.
"Over the past years, the University of Missouri System has risen to those challenges and made more good decisions than bad decisions," he said. "I'm convinced that that great leadership that made those wise decisions in the past will continue to make wise decisions going forward."
Husband and father
This week, the rest of the Wolfe family is in Columbia.
On Monday, Madison and Tyler took tours of MU before the reception with their parents at Memorial Union.
On Saturday, the family will travel to Lawrence, Kan., for what might be the final matchup of the 104-year-old rivalry between Kansas and Missouri. But despite Molly Wolfe's ties to KU, her alma mater, there's no question who they'll cheer for — or what colors they'll wear — at Allen Fieldhouse.
"In black and gold. Make no mistake, black and gold," Tim Wolfe said. "We're not confused."
One family member didn't make the trip to Columbia this week, though. Milo, the Wolfe's 13-year-old Labrador stayed home in Massachusetts this time but will make the trip to Missouri when the twins and Molly stay at Providence Point this summer.
"This dog is just absolutely brilliant," he said, lighting up. "Every time I see Milo, she's happy to see me and I'm happy to see her. She can take a bad day and make it good just when you walk in the door."
That kind of consistent companionship is something everybody needs in life, he said.
Milo's advancing age means that someday the family might decide to get another dog. Wolfe agreed with the joke that if that happens, the family might use a process similar to the one used in hiring him.
"Actually, we ought to think about that, the search process," he said, smiling. "We'd have to define a search committee, make sure the search committee represents our constituents, develop the qualifications — that's an idea, I hadn't thought of that."
"I wonder what kind of dog we'd get out of that process."