Taking the measure of the new president of the University of Missouri System

Saturday, December 29, 2007 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:58 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

This is a hopeful season. There’s no point worrying about 2007. The old year is beyond fixing. The new year awaits, still bright with possibility, still unscarred by reality.

So in an optimistic spirit, I say let’s celebrate our university’s new CEO. Welcome aboard, Dr. Forsee. (Yes, I know that, technically, he holds only a bachelor’s degree. But his alma mater, the about-to-be-rechristened Missouri University of Science and Technology, has granted him an honorary doctorate. I figure it never hurts to butter up the new boss.)

Not all my university colleagues are being so generous. One has already sent me an online article alleging that he ran the Sprint telecommunications company into the ground. There’s no denying that Sprint fired him, but the decision-makers must not have been too mad or they wouldn’t have provided that $55 million to cushion the fall.

Another early critic wrote, “He may be greedy and ruthless, but at least he’s incompetent.”

Let’s not be hasty. Judge not, lest ye be judged, and all that. So the guy made one little misjudgment, and the merger with Nextel hasn’t worked out exactly as he had hoped. So what? I doubt he could even find 5,000 people to lay off at the university.

Besides, greed and ruthlessness are qualities that should resonate with our Republican rulers downriver. Even before the curators publicly anointed him, Dr. Forsee had passed muster with the Boy Governor and had met with key legislative leaders. Wisely hedging his bets, he also met with Governor-in-Waiting Nixon.

In his first speech as president-select and in the press conference that followed, he said all the right things. He understands, he said, that he has to earn the trust of the university and the state. He believes in academic freedom. I was a little surprised when he added that he supports stem cell research. At least one-third of the curators aren’t willing to go that far, to say nothing of the legislative majority.

The most important thing he said was that he intends to be an aggressive salesman for the university. Regular readers know I’ve argued that a university president isn’t really a Chief Executive Officer as much as he is Chief Salesman. The customers who really count are sitting in the legislature with their hands on the public purse.

That reality led me to think that a successful politician or a well-liked academic would be the best choice as president. However, as I listened to Dr. Forsee talk about his “passion for teaching and learning,” I heard a salesman who truly believes in his product. He has already demonstrated commitment, as a member of Rolla’s board of trustees and co-chair of the booster group put together by Interim President Lamb.

The university’s press release said, “He established a corporate culture that integrated social responsibility with innovation and performance.” That looks a lot like the university’s culture, doesn’t it?

If President Forsee can sell that culture to the people of the state and their elected representatives, his $500,000 a year will be a bargain.

This is a hopeful season.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Ellis Smith December 30, 2007 | 7:30 a.m.

How many of these derisive comments concerning Forsee would exist if Forsee had exactly the same resume but had obtained his engineering degree at University of Missouri-Columbia? It seems a fair question to ask.

In 2008 the Columbia and Rolla campuses will have been together in this university for 138 years. Relations between those campuses have never been particularly friendly. For most of those 138 years the two campuses, both their personnel and alumni, have studiously attempted to ignore each other, but now they have been placed in a situation where they can no longer do so.

You might be interested in a comment about Forsee made by a faculty member at UMR: "At least Forsee knows where Rolla, Missouri is." Indeed he does. He also knows where UMKC and UMSL are located.

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