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New UM president revives debate over business vs. academic credentials

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 13, 2012 - When Timothy Wolfe officially arrives in Columbia this week to take his place as president of the University of Missouri system, it won't be his first association with the Mizzou campus, and he will hardly be a stranger to the city, where he grew up and was a star high school quarterback.

But, like his predecessor, Gary Forsee, Wolfe will take over the four-campus system with no prior experience working in higher education. While starting at the top in a field like academia may seem strange, those involved in the presidential search say Wolfe has just the attributes the system needs. And those who are familiar with how such searches have been going in recent years say he represents a growing trend.

"It varies by state," said Jan Greenwood, whose search firm, Greenwood/Asher & Associates, was hired to help the University of Missouri find a president last year. "It's not one size fits all. But as you look at it state by state, this is how it plays out more often than not.

"People who come in from outside higher education do best when they have a pre-existing relationship with the university or the state. If you look at those who were not successful, almost to a person, it was in situations where the person went into the state and did not have that pre-existing relationship."

Warren Erdman of Kansas City, who was president of the university's Board of Curators last year as the search process went forward, said that the qualities that Wolfe brings to lead the system are different from those that would be needed if he were going to be the chancellor in charge of a campus.

"We want innovation and academic performance driven at the campus level," Erdman said. "So when you think of it like that, you start thinking of a system president as someone who will be a good listener, who will respect the autonomy of the campuses, who will work with the chancellors to help them achieve their goals and be the collective university's representative before the legislature.

"So really, a candidate from either an academic background or a business background can achieve those things. It's more important that the person have respect for the campuses, and knowledge and a commitment to the state and loyalty to Missouri, to help the campuses and chancellors achieve their objectives."

And, Wolfe himself adds, having grown up with two parents who were university professors is a big plus when it comes to having a strong sense of what academic life is all about.

"I don't see my lack of academic experience as a drawback at all," he said in an email message, "partially because of our great campus leadership and partially because I am the product of two higher education professors.

"I spent many evenings around the dinner table growing up learning and listening to issues and concerns that impact faculty, and many of those still resonate with me today."

Second Businessman in a Row

When the university conducted its previous presidential search, which led to Forsee taking over the top job in February 2008, curators found a businessman who had been born in Kansas City, graduated from the university's Rolla campus, then had a career of more than 30 years in the telephone industry.

During that period, he was active with his alma mater and was the co-chair of a group known as the Missouri 100, which advised the UM system president. When Elson Floyd announced in December 2006 he would be leaving that post and the hunt for his successor began, Forsee's career was at a turning point: He resigned under pressure from his job as head of Sprint in the wake of weak earnings and a rough transition to the merger with Nextel.

He soon surfaced as one of the leading candidates for the UM job and got the job after the university's top choice, businessman Terry Sutter, turned them down.

Forsee resigned early last year to help care for his wife, Sherry, who was stricken with cancer, forcing the university to begin another search. Forsee declined to answer questions for this article but pointed to comments he made in a Columbia Missourian story marking his first year in office.

Asked then about how his business background had helped him handle the demands of the university -- and worries that his lack of academic experience made him a questionable choice for the job -- Forsee responded:

"Some people may think that the agenda now is how do we turn this into business. Well, that is not the case at all. It's all about supporting our faculty, staff and students. That's our strength as an institution. It's all about enhancing our mission of teaching, research service and economic development. Our people are what make the university strong."

To achieve those goals, he added, a background in business comes in very handy.

"My job is how can I support the institution and certainly use principles, practices and processes that aren't just used in corporations," Forsee said. "They're used in any situation as tools to make things better."

New Search, Similar Parameters

That outlook guided the search for Forsee's successor, according to Erdman, whose year as head of the Board of Curators was capped by the introduction of Wolfe in December. Wolfe too was a businessman between jobs; he lost his position with Novell when the company was taken over last year.

Erdman said that right up until the field was winnowed down to a few finalists, candidates with backgrounds in business and in academia were in the running.

To make their final choice, he told the Beacon, the curators hewed very closely to a list of criteria that was drawn up after a series of listening sessions held throughout the state, asking the university's various constituencies what qualities they thought were vital for the next president.

"In the end," he told the Beacon, "I really don't think that was the determining factor. I believe the determining factor had more to do with the candidate who met the criteria best -- someone who was familiar with Missouri, with Missouri culture, with Missouri political realities, with the Missouri legislative process, someone who was part of the University of Missouri family and someone who had all of the management experience on top of it."

In terms of desired personal qualities, Erdman listed listening, leadership, open-mindedness, respect for the academy and an understanding of the way academia works. Those attributes could be found in someone from either background, he said, as evidenced by their final choice of Wolfe.

And he emphasized the difference between the role of the head of the university system and the role of the chancellors who lead each of the four campuses.

"I would point out that the university is blessed with a number of leaders with an academic background," Erdman said. "The chancellors, the provosts, the deans, the senior vice president of academic affairs at the system level; the university is very rich in the depth of its bench with people who have spent their career in academia.

"Part of the criteria for the president was to find someone who would respect the autonomy of the academic leadership at each of the campuses. One thing we didn't want was someone who would come in and attempt to undo the academic leadership that we have on each of the campuses. We wanted someone who would respect and really support and enable that academic leadership.

"We were really looking for someone who would be an enabler and a supporter and bring skills to the table to support the campuses, as opposed to someone who might try to push down a single approach from the system to the campus."

View from Columbia and Nationwide

Someone who can address those issues from a dual perspective -- from the president's office in Columbia and as the head of a nationwide organization of public universities -- is C. Peter Magrath. He served as president of the University of Missouri from 1985 to 1991, when he became head of the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges.

Magrath, who also has been president of the University of Minnesota and headed several other campuses, including two stints at the University of Binghamton in New York, said the person who heads a university needs to be "a damn good multitasker" ready to work 24/7.

"Most of us don't come out of the womb with the resume you need," he told the Beacon. "You acquire it over time. The university president is a different breed of cat. You have to be comfortable working with governors, faculty, business types; successful presidents have to function in all sorts of worlds.

"My view is that you have to be an ultimate CEO. The ultimate CEO at the University of Missouri doesn't have a football team and doesn't have a faculty, but he's got four campuses that report to him. I don't think that person has to be an academic, but that person is the CEO of a major, very good, complex university system. He's going to have to understand the culture, even though he may not be directly involved with the St. Louis campus or Kansas City or Rolla or Columbia."

Like Erdman, Magrath stressed the need for cooperation and collaboration between the system president and the academic leaders at the campus level. He cited what he called a "disastrous choice" at the University of West Virginia, who he said was "nontraditional, and he was a total bust," partly because he did not understand how to work with the academics around him.

"I think a person coming out of business can be a very successful and effective president," he said. "However, they are not going to be effective unless they have someone who comes from inside the woodwork and knows the culture.

"The only way you can survive is to have entrepreneurial deals that generate income. You have to have president types that have a business mentality. And this is not a job for political virgins. I'm an educational politician, and I make no apology for it. If you can't work with the political interests in the state -- the governor, the legislature, the government NGOs -- you can't be successful."

A Need for Diversity

Greenwood -- who said she has been the head of two campuses herself as well as a tenured professor and a licensed psychologist -- was not involved in the search for Forsee but did help select Wolfe. She said that she noticed in the listening sessions held across Missouri that the system's first president with a business background helped pave the way for the second.

"In those sessions," she said, "it was very clear that (Forsee) was viewed as highly successful and he opened the door for other people from business to come in and be accepted."

That receptiveness, Greenwood said, is particularly crucial because as the leaders of colleges and universities approach retirement age, there is a shortage of traditional candidates available to take their place.

"There is a huge pipeline issue in higher education right now," she said. "That being said, we've had clients over the years asking if they bring in someone with no higher ed experience but business experience, what does it take to staff them up to get them up to speed.

"It's probably a little bit of, we've tried this, now we should try that. There are numbers of business people who have come in to work in higher education who have done a good job and caught on to higher education quickly. Take the perception that if someone has been in business, they don't know how to raise money. But if someone has been in politics you have to ask: Did they raise the money themselves, or did their fund raiser raise the money."

Another reason business people increasingly have been seen as candidates for higher education posts is a general move toward diversity, Greenwood said, including more than just race and gender to include people from business, government, overseas and K-12 education.

"The key thing that has been driving this," she said, "has been the whole issue with the economy. As higher education loses more state funding, people wonder whether leaders who have come up through business, with a different kind of mindset, might be the people with the skill set that is better able to serve higher education."

And in the case of the University of Missouri, the final choice came from a pool that is the frequent source of non-traditional presidents.

"Any time we are working with a group that says they want to look at people outside of higher education," Greenwood said, "we say let's look at your alumni list, people who have been involved with the university and the state and let's consult key leaders of the state. That seems to work best."

So Wolfe, the son of two university professors and the high school hometown football hero, seems to fit that bill well. Add that background to his business experience, and he says he's ready to face the challenge that awaits when he takes office on Wednesday.

"The University of Missouri System is not unlike other large organizations I have had the pleasure of being part of and leading in my 30 years of business experience," he said in his email to the Beacon. "We have a vast number of constituencies, a seemingly constant challenge of diminishing resources, and high demand for the quality services and products we offer. There have been similar dynamics at other organizations I've been with previously.

"At the same time, I have never been part of an organization with the potential to be so creative in its thought, that has a more noble mission and purpose, or that is collectively advancing Missouri in every county -- every day -- as the University of Missouri System. To be able to help tackle challenges and seize opportunities surrounded by some of the greatest minds and innovators, for a cause we all love, is a dream come true, and I am confident I can make a difference."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.