COLUMBIA — The “worst-kept secret” around the University of Missouri is now out in the open: Former Sprint Nextel Corp. Chief Executive Officer Gary Forsee is the four-campus system’s new president.
In an unanimous vote, university curators on Thursday picked Forsee, 57, to become the university system’s 22nd president. He replaces Elson Floyd, who left in April for the top job at Washington State University.
Despite the confidential nature of the eight-month search, Forsee’s appointment was widely expected because of leaks to the media. Introducing Forsee at a welcoming reception, the interim president, Gordon Lamb, called the hiring “the world’s worst-kept secret.”
Forsee, who is on Sprint Nextel’s payroll through the end of the year, will begin work for the university on Feb. 18, 2008. His three-year contract will pay $400,000 annually, plus up to $100,000 in incentives.
After a 35-year career in the telecommunications industry, Forsee acknowledged that he’s about to enter unfamiliar territory with the move to academia. He vowed to “earn that trust and respect” of skeptics, including some faculty members, who question his qualifications.
“I come into this with a lot to learn,” he said. “I have to go back to school, if you will. ... The burden of proof falls on the new guy.”
Board Chairman Don Walsworth, a successful businessman who owns a global publishing company, said he first reached out to Forsee within days of Floyd’s December 2006 announcement that he was leaving Columbia.
Forsee said he only seriously considered the job after leaving Sprint Nextel in October.
The Kansas City resident was ousted as chairman, president and CEO of the company, the nation’s third-largest wireless carrier. He resigned under pressure from board members and shareholders unhappy with the company’s plummeting stock price and a sizable loss of customers since the 2005 merger of Sprint and Nextel.
“Life’s road has lots of different turns,” Forsee said Thursday.
A Kansas City native, Forsee grew up in Moberly, St. Joseph and Cape Girardeau, where he graduated high school. He is a 1972 graduate of the University of Missouri-Rolla, serves on his alma mater’s board of trustees and has also lived in Hannibal, Joplin, Springfield, Charleston and St. Louis. His two daughters are graduates of the University of Missouri system.
“I certainly won’t need one of those Garmin (GPS tracking) devices or a road map to get around for this new job,” Forsee said.
His hiring caps a yearlong effort to replace the charismatic Floyd, who elevated the public profile of the Missouri presidency to become the state’s foremost advocate for higher education.
Gordon Lamb, who has led the Missouri system since Floyd’s departure, will remain with the university through 2008 as executive vice president at Forsee’s request. Lamb is a former president of Northeastern Illinois and former acting chancellor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Walsworth said that Forsee’s “deep roots” in the state as well as his acumen in the corporate world will serve the university well.
“Gary has led a Fortune 50 company. He understands leadership of large, complex organizations,” Walsworth said.
Forsee’s annual salary is an almost $18,000 increase from that of Floyd before he left, although with deferred payments Floyd’s annual salary topped $436,000.
However, it’s a significant pay cut for Forsee, who earned about $17 million annually at Sprint Nextel and reportedly received a severance of more than $55 million.
A day after he was interviewed by a 19-member advisory committee in November, Forsee met with Gov. Matt Blunt at the Capitol to discuss the presidency. He has since consulted with numerous lawmakers and politicians in Jefferson City and Washington, including Attorney General Jay Nixon, state House and Senate leaders and U.S. senators Kit Bond and Claire McCaskill.
While he doesn’t officially start working until early next year, Forsee said he has already started laying the groundwork for his new position.
“I’m going to be very engaged between now and then,” he said.