19 Jul Choice of next UW president comes down to matching skills with the challenge
MADISON – Here’s how a truthful employment ad for the job of University of Wisconsin President might have read:
HELP WANTED – Major Midwest university system seeks a chief executive officer who can multi-task and keep the following groups happy: Board of Regents, professors, academic staff, students and campus chancellors, most of whom can overrule or ignore you. State legislators also claim to be your boss, and are prone to micromanage. Academic responsibilities: Forget it; you’ll be too busy raising money. Budget: Declining in real terms. Salary: Below average in its peer group. Application confidentiality: Are you kidding? This place leaks like a rusty bucket.
The ad might as well have read that way, because anyone who looks at the job from within the UW System or outside its ivy-covered walls could read between the lines. The question is not why there were only 32 applicants to replace retiring UW System President Katharine Lyall, but why so many accomplished people were willing to take a chance on the job.
The list has been shortened to four names, and final interviews are scheduled to take place late this week. A recommendation by the Regents’ search committee could be made within a week. The finalists are:
Elizabeth Capaldi, vice chancellor and chief of staff of the State University of New York System in Albany.
Steve Gunderson, managing director of the Greystone Group Inc. in Washington, D.C., and a former congressman who represented western Wisconsin for eight terms.
Kevin Reilly, chancellor of the UW Extension and the lone system insider on the short list.
David R. Smith, chancellor of Texas Tech University System in Lubbock.
Members of the Regents’ search committee might easily conclude that any of the four could do the job, as they’ve all been successful in life. So the recommendation is not likely to hinge on overall competency – but which skill sets are most important to the survival and growth of the UW System in today’s environment.
The UW System is a $3.9 billion operation, counting all forms of revenue, with 26 four-year and two-year campuses and an Extension system that literally touches every county. Managing an operation of that size would be a challenge – even if the powers of the president weren’t diffused, and even if money wasn’t a problem.
But money is a problem, especially since the 2003-2005 state budget reduced UW spending by $250 million. At 9 percent of the total UW budget, that was the fourth-deepest cut in percentage terms of any university system in the nation. Don’t think for a second that many qualified candidates from outside Wisconsin took note of that cut and concluded the trend lines were pointing in the wrong direction.
Management is also a problem. Independent observers generally agree that the UW System operates under more constraints and rules than most public systems. It could benefit from more flexibility in hiring, setting salaries, purchasing and adjusting tuition and financial aid programs.
The next UW System president cannot fix any of that overnight. However, the work begins from the moment the Regents vote (it can be hoped, unanimously) to embrace a finalist. Only with the solid support of the Regents – and Gov. Jim Doyle, who appointed most of the current Regents – will the president begin to succeed. Gaining the support of the Legislature and working with the state’s delegation in Congress will also be important, as some of the UW System’s budget troubles in recent years can be traced to a lack of political consensus that money was being spent wisely.
The job of UW System president is tough and will get tougher. The Regents must decide what skills are most needed – academic versus political experience, out-of-state versus in-state perspective, internal versus external management – and support their own choice. If they don’t, the next “help wanted” ad will be placed far sooner than they want.
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, & do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.