GEORGE KENNEDY: Positive signs that new chancellor might be skillful leader

Thursday, February 27, 2014 | 4:40 p.m. CST; updated 6:58 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 23, 2014

As he ends his first month on the job, here’s a preliminary impression of our university’s new chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin.

Until this week, I thought we knew only two things for sure about him. First, he really, truly does love students. And second, he is sufficiently self-confident not to mind looking a little goofy.

Wednesday’s welcoming reception provided supporting evidence of the first characteristic. As he worked the crowd like a candidate for governor, he sought out students and engaged them in conversation.

At one point, responding to a young woman’s request, he even recruited a Columbia Daily Tribune photographer to take a picture on her cellphone of the chancellor with her and a friend.

For evidence of his willingness to be playful, you need to look no farther than the cover of the current issue of “Mizzou,” the magazine of the Alumni Association.

The text reads “Skillful leader,” but the full-page photograph is a close-up of a smiling fellow with a ragged gray mustache and a very high forehead as he pretends to adjust his black and gold bow tie.

Whether he is, in fact, a skillful leader remains to be seen. However, I thought I spotted some hope-producing clues in the long interview by Missourian reporter Kevin Modelski that the paper published Thursday and in the chancellor’s remarks at the reception.

Kevin asked how his fundraising success at Texas A&M might translate to MU. Chancellor Loftin responded that we have to identify strengths and sell them. Even the best universities, he noted, “can’t be good at everything.”

In our case, noting the presence of “a great ag (agriculture) school,” he proposed as a possible selling point a commitment to end world hunger. Maybe it’s a coincidence that his predecessor, Brady Deaton, is tackling that problem in his post-chancellor career. In any case, it’s an ambitious, even audacious, idea.

His response to a question about improving our standing within the Association of American Universities combined ambition with an apparent understanding both of what’s required and how far we have to go.

He ticked off the major criteria relied on by the AAU, including federal research expenditures and National Academy memberships. Then he focused on the School of Medicine, which generates a lot less research money than its AAU peers. The next dean of medicine is going to be charged with “taking the medical school to another level,” he said.

He also found a way to turn a weakness into a potential strength.

“This university may be by itself among those in the bottom quartile of AAU ranking that has actually pretty openly talked about this,” he said.

That talking, as you’ll recall, is included in the university’s latest strategic plan, which was rewritten and toughened substantially after President Tim Wolfe expressed his displeasure with a mushy first draft.

The new plan promises major investments in “high-impact” faculty, with much of the funding to come from internal reallocation. Impact will be measured by those AAU criteria. There will be losers as well as winners.

In the interview and in his remarks at the reception, the chancellor repeated what seems to be a favorite word – “vision” – as in, “It should be our vision for MU.” His long-range vision displays an ambition on a par with ending world hunger.

“We have the opportunity to become the model land-grant university for the second half of the century,” he said. The Morrill Act of 150 years ago gave to land-grant institutions the role of carrying education to the broad society. That, he said at the reception, “is something I’m passionate about.”

More immediately, he pledged in the interview to lead an effort to educate the campus about the related subjects of alcohol abuse and sexual assault.

Last summer, as President Wolfe launched the search for a new chancellor, he specified that he was looking for a “dynamic leader” who would champion our values, foster excellence, engage with the full range of stakeholders, support faculty and staff, and rethink the multiple roles of the university.

The shortest month isn’t nearly time enough to tell whether our new leader can do all that, but there’s no doubt he’s dynamic.

Introducing him at the reception, Faculty Council Chair Craig Roberts said that, so far, “The faculty loves what we see.”

That view may change, of course; but it’s a good beginning.

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.

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Michael Williams February 27, 2014 | 5:11 p.m.

George: No raving review, that.

I've noticed you really like "qualifying" statements when discussing others.

No need to commit yourself, I guess. Better to leave open a line of intellectual retreat.

Of course, if you have trouble saying a future "I wuz wrong", that leaves little room for a credible future "I wuz right", too.

(Report Comment)
George Kennedy February 28, 2014 | 12:15 p.m.

Michael --

As always, thanks for reading. Fair and balanced -- that's Fox News and me.


(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith February 28, 2014 | 7:03 p.m.

It will, and should, take some time to make a true and fair evaluation.

Also, keep in mind that the greatest leader we might ever imagine can be severely constrained by both the caliber and lack of enthusiasm of his/her followers.

(Report Comment)

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