There was an eruption of bow ties Thursday morning in the Great Room of the Reynolds Alumni Center. Our new chancellor-designate, R. (stands for Richard) Bowen Loftin, who favors them, noticed.
"Flattery will work," he quipped. His introduction to the campus was off to a great start.
University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe, who hired him, described Dr. Loftin as a "dynamic leader" and a "higher education visionary." That remains to be seen, of course, but he came across, at least to me, as a down-to-earth guy, comfortable with himself and pretty sure he knows what it takes to make a university great.
The one thing that puzzled me – and continues to puzzle me a little despite his several answers to the question – was why he would want to leave Texas for Missouri.
He had a sweet deal at Texas A&M University. He had announced last summer his intention to step down as president (the office we call chancellor) of that system’s flagship campus to return to teaching and research. He had been given a golden parachute of $850,000 and the promise of a $311,000 faculty salary. His wife was also retiring from her position with the equivalent of our Institutional Review Board. He was 64 years old.
Texas A&M is bigger, by at least some measures better and richer than MU.
He had taken the A&M job in 2010, first on an interim basis, to replace the university’s first female Hispanic president, who had been forced to resign after clashes with her boss, called the chancellor in that system and the president in ours. Before that, he oversaw the branch campus in Galveston.
A Houston Chronicle article from Dec. 9, 2012, described him as a kind of academic rock star working the crowd at a football game, wildly popular after leading the university into the Southeastern Conference and leaving arch-rival University of Texas at Austin in the shrunken Big 12 Conference.
How could you not like a university president who regularly ran onto the field with students to help scoop up the horse manure after the mounted drill team passed by? The article noted that when status-conscious critics complained that poop-scooping wasn’t his job, he replied, "This IS the job of the president."
President Wolfe didn’t mention that. Instead, he talked about A&M’s 56,000-plus students, its more than $700 million a year in research spending and its fundraising, which last year alone yielded more than $700 million. He also noted that Dr. Loftin is a physicist with more than 100 publications to his credit.
He said Dr. Loftin was "loved" on the A&M campus.
That turns out not to be universally true. A friend who teaches there sent an email Thursday morning with the subject line "You have my deepest sympathy." The friend reported that Dr. Loftin’s nickname among many faculty members is "Bowtie-Sock Puppet," based on the belief that the ideas he espouses have been handed down from his superiors.
I got the strong impression Thursday that he shares, if he doesn’t echo, President Wolfe’s goals of a quicker-moving, more tightly focused, more productive flagship. He had warm words for outgoing Chancellor Brady Deaton (who got a standing round of applause when he was introduced). But he said, as Wolfe has, that universities can no longer try to do everything but must identify strengths and build on those.
Our recently released Strategic Operating Plan, which was extensively rewritten to the president’s specifications, makes a solid foundation, he said.
Later, responding to the "why" question, he insisted that his announced intention to return to teaching was "actually true." He added, "I really love students."
When the search firm contacted him two months or so ago, he said, he and his wife did some "soul-searching." Their conclusion was that he can impact the lives of far more students leading a campus he described as "a special place." This, he said, was the "right match."
Dr. Loftin isn’t the first Aggie we’ve hired to lead us. Remember Haskell Monroe? He was a longtime dean at A&M. His finest moment here, I’ve always thought, was his decision to quit rather than implement yet another round of budget cuts. He lives now in College Station, Dr. Loftin said, and has nothing but good things to say about MU and Columbia.
Chancellor Monroe was with us for six years. Asked Thursday how long he hopes to stay, Dr. Loftin seemed to calculate for a moment and then responded that he’s shooting for five years or more.
Let’s hope he makes it.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian.