The last two presidents of the University of Missouri system have lasted a total of less than seven years.
Each had previously worked in upper management in the insular world of big business. Neither had experience in academia.
Gary Forsee, former C.E.O. at Sprint — the man who engineered the disastrous merger of Sprint and Nextel — served from February 2008 to January 2011. Although his relatively brief tenure at MU was not marred by any significant scandals, he certainly didn’t leave much of a legacy.
Tim Wolfe, who resigned as president Monday morning, succeeded Forsee in February 2012. (An interim president served slightly less than a year.) Wolfe had previously worked in upper management for IBM and the software firm Novell.
…If ever there was a time for a change of approach in the hiring of the top person at MU, it is now.
It’s imperative, in my view, that the MU board of curators hire someone with administrative experience at a higher educational institution…someone who understands the warp and the weft of campus life and who enjoys mingling with students and talking with them about their college experiences.
Forsee and Wolfe were out of their depths and lacked the ability to communicate effectively with people at every level of the four campuses they oversaw.
In my experience the best leaders are those who are a good fit for their positions and effective communicators.
As most of you know, I was a reporter and editor at The Star for 36-plus years. The best editor I ever had, Mike Waller, who went on to become publisher at the Hartford Courant and The Sun in Baltimore, endeared himself to the rank and file partly by roaming around the newsroom, chatting with reporters, assignment editors, photographers and copy editors. More than once, he stooped down and read the top part of stories I was writing and offered comments or suggestions.
Since retiring from The Star in 2008, I’ve been a substitute teacher at middle schools and high schools in the Shawnee Mission School District. I have seen first hand that the best principals are those who are outside greeting the students in the morning and seeing them off in the afternoon.
In general, I think it’s fair to say, leaders who secrete themselves in their offices tend to lose the confidence of those who rely on them for inspiration and leadership.
I don’t know for sure that Tim Wolfe secreted himself in his office, but I know of two telling incidents where lack of communication got him big trouble.
The first incident occurred in 2012, according to Wikipedia, when Wolfe announced that the University of Missouri Press — the university’s main publishing arm — would shut down and be replaced by a new publishing operation. This from Wikipedia:
Wolfe said he did not know how much the new model would cost and that he had not spoken to any employees at the press before making his decision. In October 2012, it was announced that the University of Missouri Press would not close after all. Wolfe said that he always intended to increase the cost-effectiveness of the press and that it was never the plan to close the press. He said that he should have spoken to more press employees, authors, and other publishers earlier in the decision-making process.
And then there was the incident on Oct. 10, during MU’s homecoming parade, when several black students shouted chants, demanding to have marginalized voices heard.
If Wolfe had an ounce of common sense — and if he was the sort of leader who could communicate effectively — he would have gotten out of his car and talked to the students. “What’s up?” would have been a good way to start a conversation.
Instead he remained ensconced in his steel cocoon. Was he afraid the students were going to beat him up? Was he in a hurry to meet the homecoming king and queen? Whatever the case, he waited for Columbia police to shoo the students from the parade route and continued on his way.
By no means was that the only chance Wolfe and Columbia campus chancellor R. Bowen Loftin (who also is on the way out) failed to respond to complaints and protests from black students — and other minority students — who had been subjected to a succession of slights and offenses. Other incidents included a truck-load of dim wits shouting racial slurs at an African-American student who is president of the MU Students Association and one or more students using human feces to draw a swastika in the bathroom of a student residence hall.
There’s no guarantee, of course, that an MU president with a background in academic administration will be successful. But it’s certainly time for the board of curators to stop trolling the ranks of former and current business executives and set about finding someone with a track record of effective communication and leadership at either MU or another higher-education institution.
For the last couple of days, the MU situation has been one of the biggest stories in the nation. (The story was on the front page of The New York Times website Monday night and had drawn more than 1,345 comments.)
…The next MU president’s biggest job will be fostering an environment of accommodation, open-mindedness and goodwill toward all. It’s a hell of an opportunity for someone with really good “people skills.” Let’s hope the board of curators understands that.