Presidential search at MU complicated by other departures

Monday, July 30, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:46 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

As the search for a new University of Missouri president forges ahead, some high-ranking academic leaders aren’t waiting around to meet the new boss.

Since mid-June, three top university officials have decided to take jobs elsewhere. The first to leave was economic development guru John Gardner, who quickly followed former Missouri system President Elson Floyd to Washington State University.

Next came Jim Coleman, a vice chancellor for research at the Columbia campus. Coleman departs in September for a job as vice provost of research at Rice University, a Houston private school with one of the largest endowments in the country.

And just last week, Steve Lehmkuhle — another former Floyd lieutenant — was named as the first chancellor at the University of Minnesota-Rochester. Lehmkuhle spent more than two decades in the Missouri system, including a stint in 2005 as interim chancellor of the Kansas City campus.

The succession of abrupt departures is largely coincidental. But some keen observers of higher education in the state are also wondering if the brain drain, coupled with the prolonged presidential search, could create a leadership vacuum in University Hall.

“These are people who are really synonymous with MU’s success in the past decade,” said Kelly Gillespie, executive director of the Missouri Biotechnology Association. “It is an opportunity — but how long do you want that window open?”

The topic came up last week during the Board of Curators’ annual retreat in Marceline, with several members bemoaning the academic hiring carousel, particularly in the upper administrative echelons.

“What I see as a great failure in higher education is a lack of training grounds for new management,” said curator John Carnahan III, of Springfield.

A day later, interim president Gordon Lamb scoffed at any suggestion that the collective loss of leadership was anything more than bad timing.

Executive recruiters had previously flirted with Coleman, Lamb said. Lehmkuhle made no secret of his interest in again leading a campus. And Gardner has family ties in the Pacific Northwest.

“This is not a mass exodus,” Lamb said. “That is a complete overstatement. We ought to get back to reality.”

Coleman, who with Gardner helped lead the university’s efforts to parlay academic research into private investment, agreed that the post-Floyd moves were more about personal advancement than institutional duress.

At the same time, he also decried the increasing role of politics in the university’s life, from hostile lawmakers in Jefferson City to curators quick to find fault.

“It was starting to become pretty clear what was going on in our legislative process, and how MU was going to be treated,” he said. “It was starting to become frustrating to be a senior administrator.”

University leaders had high hopes for Gov. Matt Blunt’s initial plan to sell assets from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority to finance campus construction projects.

But when the smoke cleared, those hopes were trammeled by partisan maneuvering and disputes over embryonic stem cell research, leading to the elimination of an $85 million health sciences building in Columbia and another $31 million toward the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center.

Coleman said he was also troubled by comparatively low faculty salaries at the flagship campus. By one measure of professorial pay, the university ranks next-to-last among 33 peer institutions.

In response, Chancellor Brady Deaton has proposed a three-year, $21.6 million plan to boost faculty wages — in part by reducing administrative costs through consolidation, hiring freezes and other cutbacks.

That uncertain financial climate could lead to far more faculty departures than the handful of administrators already on their way out, Coleman said.

“As someone who loves MU, I am concerned. This university is so important to the state, and can do so much for the state,” he said. “We just want to make sure the university doesn’t get to the place where it can’t recover because of losing too many good people.”

Curators Chairman Don Walsworth acknowledged that low faculty pay remains a problem.

“We are going to support our faculty and staff,” he said. “There are some deficiencies now regarding salary.”

Coleman, who said his salary at Rice represents a “pretty sizable chunk” more than the $190,550 he earned annually at Missouri, also articulated a concern that more than one university administrator privately harbors.

“The Board of Curators, over the last year, seemed to be in a mode that was more about finding fault in the university than being supportive of us,” he said. “We’ve all been in a very defensive posture, responding to fires.”

For now, the curators’ top priority is hiring Floyd’s permanent successor. Their first choice, business executive Terry Sutter, rejected a job offer in early June. He instead became chief operating officer of a Florida steel manufacturer.

For the first time since Sutter turned them down, curators met behind closed doors in Marceline to discuss the search. Walsworth said the board hopes to soon settle on a group of three to five finalists who would interview with a 19-member advisory panel of professors, alumni, students, retirees and nonfaculty employees from the four campuses.

Panel members would then forward their recommendations to curators, who will make the final decision.

Walsworth said he expects the new president to put his or her own stamp on the leadership team — a job no doubt made easier with the recent vacancies.

“The University of Missouri is embarking on a new era,” he said. “We want a person, man or woman, who can take us to the next level.”

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