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Pinstripes amid the ivy: Could a business leader run UW-Madison?

Madison, Wis. - At the University of Colorado in Boulder, which is akin to the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a mountain view, many faculty and students are aghast over the state Board of Regents' selection this month of a businessman with no academic credentials as the president of the three-campus university system.

An op-ed column in the New York Times captured the indignation: “Bruce Benson is an oilman, Republican activist, failed candidate for governor, co-chairman of Mitt Romney's (now ended) campaign, successful fund-raiser, donor to the university, former chairman of the Metropolitan State College Denver Board, and chair of a blue-ribbon panel on higher education. Obviously, he has a strong interest in education, but his highest degree is a B.A., and he has never been a member of a faculty or engaged in research or published papers in a learned journal. In short, he is no way an academic, and yet he is about become the president of an academic institution, and not any old institution, but a state university ranked 11th among public universities and 34th among universities overall.”

Colorado's university system also ranks 48th among the 50 states in public support from state government, which suggests the traditional path of hiring an academic to manage an academic institution has done little to inspire confidence among that state's policymakers and voters. The Colorado Board of Regents decided it was time to change course.

Minding the UW's business

As the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents prepares to search for UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley's successor, the University of Colorado experience - as well as similar hiring decisions in West Virginia, Missouri, and Georgia - raises this question: Does an institution that spends more than $2 billion per year need a manager or an academic at the helm?
At West Virginia University, President Mike Garrison came to his job with a law degree but no master's or doctoral degree. His appointment has been controversial from the start; like Benson in Colorado, he was vehemently opposed by the Faculty Senate and remains under fire.

In Missouri this month, former telecommunications executive Gary Forsee became president of the four-campus University of Missouri System. The chairman and CEO of Sprint Nextel for four years, Forsee holds a bachelor's degree in engineering and an honorary doctorate. The debate over his appointment was vitriolic at times, mainly because Forsee wasn't perceived as an academic.

At the University System of Georgia, long-time Wisconsin resident Erroll Davis Jr. is responsible for the state's 35 public colleges and universities, 260,000 students, 39,000 faculty and staff, and an annual budget of $5.7 billion. Chancellor Davis holds an MBA, but it was his credentials as a business leader that won over regents in Georgia. Davis is the first non-academic to hold that post.

The presence of pinstriped suits inside the nation's ivy-covered halls is not entirely new. Terry Sanford, a former North Carolina governor who was president of Duke University from 1969 to 1985, is generally considered one of Duke's greatest presidents. Sanford held a law degree from the University of North Carolina, but no “Ph.D.” after his name. By the way, it was during Sanford's tenure that North Carolina's Research Triangle truly began to blossom.

Go back even further in time and there was a fellow named Dwight D. Eisenhower who served as president of Columbia University in New York, and all he ever did to qualify for the job was help win a world war.

Beyond the guilded age

University faculty often look upon their institutions and its managers much like a guild; only those who paid the apprentice and journeyman dues are allowed to rise to the top. While that model worked for centuries, there is reason to ask whether it still applies in an era when universities are being called into public account.

Given the near-certain opposition within “the guild,” the next UW-Madison chancellor probably won't be a business leader. But if ever there was a time for the UW Regents to think broadly about the nature of modern academic leadership, it's now.

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Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC.

WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.


Conecrusher responded 7 years ago: #1

Hooray for fresh thinking. It is time for academic world to change, and it's inspiring to see a Board of Regents look to to the best interests of the institution, rather than tradition.

Newswatcher responded 7 years ago: #2

Call it the stupidization of America. Universities should have business and financial officers--the President should have an eye on finances while he deals with the primary purpose of a SCHOOL. Having seen first-hand what a business model does for a University, I can tell you that Presidents pulled from the business world and put in charge of major Universities inevitably go with what they know, rather than learn what they need. The result is the loss of prestigious faculty, rock-bottom morale among the rest, the selling off of naming rights for every building, concrete slab and parking lot and a due diligence for the bottom line that allows Universities to accelerate America's already alarming slide into ignorance. Got enough $ to enroll? No questions asked. We'll take your money and shuttle you through in four years or less, give you lots of online coursework, because it's cheaper than maintaining buildings and staff and anyway that's your comfort level; don't worry if you can't spell, write a simple declarative sentence or think your way past a stop sign, we'll hand you a sheepskin ASAP.
Small wonder most international students leave American Universities feeling they've seldom been challenged, done nothing but re-hashed their high school education and haven't learned much. No surprise literacy among a large percentage of college graduates is questionable. Business leaders can help train our students to their narrow tasks, remain ignorant of geography, art, literature and everything else outside their small spectrum of expertise and insure there aren't too many dissenting voices as America continues its charge back to the Dark Ages.

Moonshiner responded 7 years ago: #3

Tom, wishful thinking but the faculty at UW would never allow an non-academic to run the place. The faculty governance is as strong here as any place in the country and the notion of a 'business' person in charge is a non-starter.

Philip Craword responded 7 years ago: #4

Tom continues to write the best articles on WTN.

Let's hope this idea is not a "non starter" due to the childish notions of the faculty. Good leaders are good leaders, regardless of their academic background. The ability to listen, organize, learn, and lead is not dependent on the years spent writing research papers (nor is it guaranteed that a former CEO is a good leader).

Each year our university(s) become more integrated with the surrounding community (including the business community) and a leader with experience outside the institution could be quite beneficial.

Topsy Turvey responded 7 years ago: #5

Reminds me of the kids saying "But Mom, everyone else is doing it." I say think for yourself and don't blindly follow the crowd.

If Wisconsin had followed everyone else down the road of energy deregulation, we could have ended-up in the same mess as everyone else. Thankfully, we did not.

Once again, proceed with caution. A business person would come in here and start laying people off and cutting departments. You would have the most popular classes (profitable), but not a well-rounded university and little research orientation. Once the winds of popularity changed, you would be short-changed. Do we really want academics run like a business portfolio?

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