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UM president cites successful transition from business to academia

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 12, 2013 - Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can’t go home again, but for Tim Wolfe, it seems to be working out pretty well so far.

Wolfe is the hometown high school football star and Mizzou alum who returned to Columbia last February as president of the University of Missouri system after a career in telecommunications. With no experience in academia, he took over a four-campus system that has seen a constant growth in enrollment and a steady decline in state support in recent years.

Those challenges still remain, but as he completes his first year in office, Wolfe says that he is energized by the message he has for the residents of Missouri: Their public university system is engaged in work that enriches their lives every day, and he wants to make sure that value is recognized in all corners of the state.

“Our future is bright,” he told reporters Tuesday at a session recapping his first 12 months at the helm of the university system. “The work we do is valuable.”

Wolfe spoke enthusiastically about the people he has met on the system’s four campuses and those who have been touched by its outreach programs.

“In my wildest imagination,” he said, “I never would have imagined the creativity and the life-changing research that is going on. It’s just eye opening, and that research is going to translate to improvements in quality of life and new businesses. It’s what is special and unique about the University of Missouri system.”

He admitted to a bit of a learning curve making the transition from the business world, where decisions are made more quickly and with less discussion, and academia, where shared governance and collaboration are more of a watchword.

And he acknowledged that a lack of consultation helped lead to what may have been the biggest negative mark on his record so far: His ill-fated move to close the University of Missouri Press.

First the press was closing, then it was moving to the Columbia campus, then it was changed again to a model more like what it has always been, though it will now operate on the campus level, not the system level.

“I believe the decision we made in terms of moving the press closer to the academic research mission here on the MU campus was the right decision,” he said. “How we went about it could have improved, to bring more people into the process to make that transition smoother.”

Learning at college

In various forums where he has talked recently about his first year in office, Wolfe has mentioned how much he has learned as president of the system. He said the university’s complexity is something that is hard to understand or appreciate until you are working on the inside.

What specifically has he learned?

Wolfe ticked off the contributions of faculty members and the political aspects of the job.

“There are a lot of political influences and a lot of people who need to be convinced of the value of higher education and specifically the University of Missouri system,” he said. “But the amount of time you have to spend in influencing political leadership was surprising.”

As far as professors go, he noted that because both of his parents were members of the university faculty, the concerns of academia were not foreign to him, but he has now seen them from a new perspective.

“We have brilliant faculty that are very eager to be part of the decision making across the four campuses,” Wolfe said. “We need to take advantage of that. They have expertise and ideas about how we can be better at teaching and research and development. The opportunity for us is to reach out to those faculty as much as we possibly can and get their input to make better decisions.”

He said his transition was made easier by the fact that the university is in good shape and already benefitted from strong leadership. But, he added, he has sometimes had to change his vocabulary to fit more into the academic mindset. Referring to students as customers, for example, doesn’t always sit well; neither does talking in terms of profit and loss.

“They’re not words that are used in higher education,” Wolfe said, “so I’ve changed the vernacular.”

And, he said, the pace on campus is often more deliberate and more deliberative than he was used to in the business world.

“You always want to do things faster,” he said. “It just takes a lot of time to move because you have to bring everybody along. A lot of conversations have to take place.

“That’s the nature of our industry. Change is difficult.”

But having grown up in a college town and lived in college towns for much of his life, he said that still being able to work among students is a benefit that comes with the job.

“There is a thrill to walking on the campus,” Wolfe said, “and feeling the energy you get from the students and the faculty. That continues to be a thrill.”

Good grades

Those who he has worked with closely during the past year seem pretty happy as well.

David Bradley of St. Joseph, who headed the university’s Board of Curators during most of Wolfe’s first year in office, said the transition from Wolfe’s corporate world to academia was successful, for the most part.

“I think he did a fine job of getting to understand the broad reach of the whole system and all of the things it does,” Bradley said. “To get your arms around all of the locations that have something to do with the University of Missouri is an enormous task in itself.

“He loves the job. He enjoys being involved with the biggest economic driver for the state of Missouri. He loves going out and meeting with its various constituencies.”

The next phase, Bradley said, will be for Wolfe and his newly revamped administration to complete a strategic planning process, then put it into place.

“I think he’s putting together the strategic plan that is going to be a great idea and get all the campuses focused on the university’s primary mission, so we can be held accountable.

“He’s done some things with the reorganization of his staff. All of his moves have been very solid moves to help him function better. It’s his show now. He needs to run it the way he wants to.”

Bradley did acknowledge that Wolfe has hit “a few bumps on the road, and I think he’s learned from them.”

One of the biggest bumps, Bradley said, involved the press. What did Wolfe learn from the experience? Bradley put it this way:

“He learned to bring together the various folks who are going to be affected by it and talk to them about how he would like to change a situation to improve it. He probably could have had better communication with the MU campus about it.

“It’s not the end of the world. We still have a university press, and we’re doing things to improve it. That kind of shakeup gets the juices flowing, and it might mean a better future for the University of Missouri Press.”

Unlike the strife at Saint Louis University, where professors have complained about the administration’s refusal to include them in decision making, Wolfe seems to have adopted a much more accepting view of shared governance with faculty members.

Stephen Moehrle, an accounting professor at the St. Louis campus and chair of the university’s Interfaculty Council, says there may be a good reason for that.

“His parents were academics,” Moehrle noted, “and he’s been a quick study. People emphasized to him the importance of it, and he’s embraced that for sure.”

Adds Susan Brownell, an anthropology professor at UMSL and also an IFC member:

“It’s been an interesting working relationship. We had a president, that came out of the academic system, Elson Floyd, then we had a president out of the corporate world, Gary Forsee.

“Now we have a president who combines the best of both worlds. He has a corporate background that certainly shapes some of his concerns, but at the same time he does seem to recognize the academic world does not work like the corporate world, and there may be things he doesn’t have the proper preparation for. He’s open to new ideas. He recognizes that he has an entrepreneurial approach, but he needs someone who has experience implementing it in the academic world.”

Brownell is part of a new shared governance subcommittee of the IFC to help make sure the new relationship stays productive.

“So far he has been quite a listener,” she said. “On issues he feels strongly about, he can be quite passionate. Business as usual is just not going to be happening anymore. We’re in a difficult financial situation. Hard decisions have to be made. He wants more of an entrepreneurial approach.”

Moehrle put it this way:

“I think people overblow the academic nature of that position. It is the head of a huge organization and it’s also very political. I think that position takes a special skill set that may or may not be best served by an academic.”

Pressed on the UM Press

One of the chief critics of the way the situation involving the university press was handled isn’t as charitable toward Wolfe as Bradley and others have been.

“It should have never happened,” said Ned Stuckey-French, an assistant professor of English at Florida State University who led the charge to save the press. “It was frustrating. It was a long hard struggle. He came in as someone with no graduate degrees, no teaching experience, no university administrative experience. I think he got used by some of the people who were advising him and already had a plan in mind to close the press.

“I think he would have served himself better by doing a listening tour for a while. He probably didn’t think it was a decision of this magnitude, but it was striking at the very heart of the university.”

Stuckey-French gives Wolfe credit for coming around, though he wishes the battle had not been so protracted.

“He did recognize, I think, that he had made a mistake,” he said, “and the press was saved. It just took 5,300 signatures on an internationally circulated petition, 2,800 Facebook followers, rallies and meetings and press releases and op-ed pieces and letters and letters and letters to the editor.

“He came from the private sector, where he was the boss, and it’s my way or the highway. Now, he’s dealing with faculty and shared governance and people who have committed their lives to the university in a way that he hasn’t. I think he didn’t understand that he couldn’t just issue this edict that he saw as a cost-cutting measure and not run into the trouble he ran into.”

Moehrle says that while the Press closure issue drew a lot of attention, it may not have merited it.

“I think they blew it out of proportion,” he said of the opponents of the closure. “In retrospect, I’m sure it was a very loud minority making a lot of noise.”

So, has the lesson been learned once and for all? Stuckey-French hopes so, but he and his allies in the university press are keeping an eye out, just in case.

“I think we’re wary,” he said. “For me, and for a lot of people who got really involved in this struggle and this campaign, the thing that kept us going is that we saw this as an attack on public higher education. State funding has gone down nationally, since the ‘90s, and this was just one more kind of fallout from that.

“If you believe in public higher education and its importance to America and to our culture, you don’t think it should be run on a private model. That’s what I was fighting for. It was bigger than the press, in my mind.”

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.