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University presidents ought to be politicians

Saturday, December 1, 2007 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:53 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Recent news reports force me to conclude that, once again, our university’s curators are ignoring my advice and stumbling off in the wrong direction.

That’s even sadder than usual, I think, because the advice I’ve offered on the presidential search was a cut above my normal level. Let’s review:

Early on, I made a suggestion that, had the curators paid heed, would have saved untold amounts of time and money. Looking back on the forgettable tenures of our presidents, I proposed abolishing the office altogether, along with the rest of the hideously expensive and marginally useful infrastructure of the “system.”

If you’re not willing to go that far, I said, why not adopt one of Elson Floyd’s better ideas and combine the presidency with the chancellorship of the home campus? Brady Deaton would be a perfectly good chancellor-president. And he’s already here.

Once it was clear that the search was on, and floundering, I supported the public candidacy of Rep. Kenny Hulshof. That didn’t move the curators, but it generated some distress among campus colleagues. Kenny, they noted, is a full-blooded conservative and therefore not likely to defend the liberal arts or the freedom of inquiry essential to education.

That criticism missed the point, which is that we’re governed by conservatives. Who better to represent the university’s interests than somebody who speaks the language of the governor and the legislative majority? The other point in Kenny’s favor was that he is, above all else, a highly successful politician. Not only did the curators spurn him; they insulted him.

And that brings us to the latest “finalist” in what looks to be a succession of one-horse races. The current choice of the curators appears to be Gary Forsee, recently deposed CEO of Sprint Nextel. He has been interviewed by the curators, their “advisory committee” and even the governor.

The majority of curators has made it clear that the primary criteria for a new president are that he be an outsider and that he come from the business world. Having just been booted out of his $15 million-a-year job for inadequate performance, Mr. Forsee qualifies on the latter count. He’s not a complete outsider, though, as an alum of the Rolla campus and a leader of Interim President Gordon Lamb’s council of 100 heavy hitters.

Where the curators are going wrong has nothing to do with Mr. Forsee himself. It has to do with their misunderstanding of the president’s role. A university president isn’t a chief executive in the way that a company president is. His job isn’t to maximize profit or crush competitors. His power to hire and fire is strictly limited.

A university president is, or ought to be, a politician. Think about it. He is an advocate for the institution and for the principles of higher education. He is a lobbyist in the halls of power. He is a negotiator and a salesman. He is a public servant with multiple constituencies. That’s not partisan, but it is political.

Of course, it’s possible that the curators have in mind a different role for our next CEO.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor for the Missourian.


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Comments

Ellis Smith December 2, 2007 | 7:43 a.m.

Some of us prefer the suggestion made by MU law school graduate and former University of Missouri System curator Woody Cozad. Cozad has suggested that we scrap the present "system" (clearly, a bad joke if there ever was one) and allow each of the campuses to go its own way. One campus is about to shed the words "University of Missouri" from its official name. That's a start.

Cozad is a registered lobbyist. Isn't that first cousin to being a politician?

Forsee is currently unemployed. Given his talents and business connections, if he's willing to stay unemployed for a few months he can probably land a REAL job.

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