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What traits should new UM president have? Forum participants have a few ideas

Cheryl Walker leading the presidential search forum at UMSL
Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

Could the new president of the University of Missouri live for a couple of years in each of the four cities where a campus is located, to get a better feel for the entire system?

Probably not. But that’s one of the ideas brought up at a forum at the university’s St. Louis campus Monday designed to help a 12-member search committee narrow the qualifications and characteristics the new president should have.

About 75 people attended the 90-minute forum at UMSL, led by St. Louis attorney Cheryl Walker, one of two co-chairs of the search committee. It was divided into several parts:

  • What qualifications would you like the new president to have?
  • What experience would the best candidate bring to the job?
  • What personal qualities should the candidate have?
  • What kind of relationships should the new president form?
  • Of all these traits, what are desired and what are required?

As the audience responses were listed for all to read, Walker emphasized that there is no guarantee that the ideal candidate will be out there. But the committee needs to set priorities in what they want to find.
“Obviously,” she said, “we’re not going to get someone who has all of these. What are the ones you think are non-negotiable?”

Diversity in all of its forms – not just race, but gender, class and sexual orientation – came up frequently. So did the need for the ability to deal with students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors and legislators.

Someone able to articulate and sell a vision of what the university is and can become was mentioned, as well as someone who is media savvy and can represent the university well to the community at large. Others said the president has to be more than just a “brainiac” but someone who can relate well to others.

After holding forums in Rolla, St. Louis, Columbia and Kansas City this week, the committee is expected to draw up a job description during the Board of Curators’ meeting next week in Rolla.

Then, with the help of the search firm Isaacson, Miller, it will begin advertising for candidates to succeed Tim Wolfe, who resigned in November following protests about racism at Mizzou. Mike Middleton, who was named interim president, has said he does not want the job on a permanent basis but will stay on as long as he is needed.

Academic or business executive

Much of the discussion centered around whether the new president should come from the world of education or the world of business. Both Wolfe and his predecessor, Gary Forsee, had been business executives, and many speakers at the UMSL forum questioned whether that is the best background for someone in charge of a university.

Susan Brownell, a professor of anthropology, acknowledged the need for an understanding of finance, but she said that isn’t enough.

“I think that higher education today really is in a period of transition,” she said. “One of the big challenges has to do with money. It’s money, it’s finances, it’s responding to demands for leaner government, including leaner state universities. So it’s clear that the president needs to have some kind of financial expertise….

“I think this is the real dilemma we’re facing now. Do we want a president from the corporate world or do we want a president from the academic world? It would be ideal if we got someone who had perfect expertise in both worlds. But if we can’t find a person like that, and we’re looking at candidates from the corporate world, I think at least we need to look at what kind of experience in the corporate world that person has had, and whether that person has anything in his or her background that indicates that he or she has cared about higher education and thought about higher education before applying for this job.”

I think this is the real dilemma we're facing now. Do we want a president from the corporate world or do we want a president from the academic world? -- Anthropology Professor Susan Brownell

That choice is particularly crucial, Brownell said, at a time when higher education in general and the University of Missouri in particular are getting a harsh reception in Jefferson City.

“There may be a tendency in these financial times to really emphasize the ability to manage budgets and deal with state legislatures, but that skill in and of itself is not going to be good enough if the person really doesn’t understand what higher education is all about and how the money actually fits in with a larger picture.”

And business Professor Paul Speck took exception to one sentence on the university’s presidential search website that reads:

“The next UM system president will have the opportunity to lead an enterprise that is an excellent steward of public resources by annually recognizing cost-savings for the citizens of Missouri through efficiencies totaling $77 million in savings since 2014.”

Besides objecting to the syntax of the sentence, Speck said he thought the emphasis on cost-cutting sends the wrong message about priorities for the new president.

Kelley Stuck, the university’s interim vice president for human resources, said she would see whether the sentence could be changed or omitted.

Care for the community

For other participants, experience in education in general wasn’t enough. They want the new president to have experience in public higher education, which they said is different from private colleges and universities.

And part of being a public university, other said, is caring for the neighborhood. Many in the audience, particularly those who have been public officials in north St. Louis County, said the new president has to show sensitivity to the area around the UMSL campus and the needs of an urban university.

Monica Huddleston, the former mayor of Greendale, put it this way:

“I look at this university as a key anchor for our community. I would like to see the new president having worked with an urban institution as part of their experience, and also knowing how to interact with elected officials. It’s got to be a community, politically savvy kind of person that knows how to handle these kinds of things.”

Further, participants said that being able to see the university as a place to prepare residents near the campus to get good jobs is a key to helping the area.

Marcy Graham, a Clayton attorney who is the only St. Louis representative on the Board of Curators, said he was impressed with the opinions expressed at the forum. He expressed the common themes this way:

If a person likes a challenge, and wants to do something for four really good campuses and for a great state and for the students and faculty we have on those four campuses, I think it creates a great opportunity. -- Curator Marcy Graham

“They obviously want a strong leader. They want a leader who is in tune with public education. They want a leader who can deal with a lot of different constituencies, not just the legislature but the faculty, the students, the community, the citizens of Missouri.”

Will the university be able to find someone like that? Some members doubted that anyone that qualified would want to come to a system that hasn’t had the best image  of late. But Graham isn’t sure that is the case.

“Everybody understands that we’ve been in a situation of turmoil since early November,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of publicity. Some would say bad publicity, but we’ve had a lot of publicity, particularly about what’s going on at the Columbia campus. I would agree with the group that we had as our consultants that this is a real opportunity.

“I think that the right person will see this as a system where he or she can come in and really make a difference – address the issues that we know exist, but also take the system and the four campuses to a new level, and make their own mark doing that. So if a person likes a challenge, and wants to do something for four really good campuses and for a great state and for the students and faculty we have on those four campuses, I think it creates a great opportunity. I’m encouraged that we’ll find the right person.”

The University of Missouri’s Board of Curators holds the license for St. Louis Public Radio.

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

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.