UM’s trustees must lead so that a new president does too
Written by Michael Lewis on September 17, 2014
University of Miami trustees have a golden opportunity as they replace their retiring president to sharpen the vision of the university’s mission and future and select the person most likely to get them there.
Just picking a great leader won’t suffice. A university president can lead in many directions. Trustees should state where they want the university to go so that they can choose the person most likely to achieve the mission.
That means that when the trustees hire a search firm to rank candidates for a highly coveted position, they should attach to the order specific targets for the winning candidate.
And, no, just saying raise lots of funds and keep the university rolling forward isn’t nearly enough.
Donna Shalala has been unique. She came into the president’s chair with high national visibility, great contacts, solid academic credentials and no apparent desire to use the job as a steppingstone to a higher academic or other position. She was committed.
She also knew how to recruit big names to the faculty – and how to hype those acquisitions. She has definitely been in charge at all times, imperial and imperious. She has always found time to teach throughout her 14 years at the university and to listen to an individual student’s concerns – but didn’t always find time to communicate as well to trustees, or to take actions they all felt were wise for the university’s future.
She says proudly that during her presidency she replaced every dean and department head with people of her choosing.
Admire her or not – and you can find insiders of both persuasions – the one thing trustees know is that they can find no carbon copies of President Shalala. Hence, the need to sharpen their own vision of the university to find the right leader.
In doing so, they needn’t look for a young person. True, Donna Shalala’s predecessor, Tad Foote, was in the job 20 years. Dr. Shalala has been there 14 and counting.
But the average university president nationally has been getting older – up from 48 years to 61 – while tenure in the job has been dropping, down from 8.5 years in 2006 to seven in 2012. Don’t go looking for a 20-year man or woman in the role.
Trustees will vet candidates with multiple skills, but all will bring particular strengths. Every president seems to have fundraising as a top requirement, but after that what attributes are most vital? Academic credentials? Likeability? A big name nationally or globally? Political skills? Clout? Avuncular style? Regal bearing? Cheerleading for the school’s athletics?
Speaking of vision, the board can’t expect it all to come from the president – especially a newcomer. The board should detail its own vision to candidates as well as the search team.
After all, the world will never know whether it was the board or the far more visible president who pushed the university to greater heights. In this case as in most, allocating credit equitably is far less important than getting there.
When Tad Foote became president of what was still derisively called Suntan U, he immediately trimmed the number of undergraduates by 2,300 while tightening admission standards. That cost the university money that required budget cuts but quickly boosted the school’s national status – an advance that lingers. Suntan U is now part of the distant past.
Should Dr. Foote get total credit for that gain, or was board support or even pressure an impetus? We’ll never be certain. But the credit is less important than attaining the goal.
As the trustees lay out their vision as a yardstick by which to rank presidential candidates, we would hope that it would incorporate several aims.
One would be that the president of our long-standing education bellwether would lead not just on campus but in the community.
Miami-Dade suffers from a lack of leaders who are willing to convene the community to help shape a community vision – in the same way that the university’s trustees need to shape a vision. The ideal University of Miami president could play that role.
Another aim would be to focus tightly on areas of undergraduate and graduate academic excellence by which the university should be known nationally. It would be nice to be great at everything but it’s not attainable.
The university is now weak in an area of national concern, the STEM group: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. At a minimum, reversing that weakness should be one presidential goal.
The university considers itself a research university, yet it’s not a member of the prestigious American Association of Universities, a group of 60 US and two Canadian public and private research universities that can be entered only by invitation based on a university’s innovation and scholarship. This group grants more than half of the nation’s doctorates.
The group, founded in 1900, admitted the University of Florida in 1985; no other Florida university has been invited. Trustees might aim at achieving membership during the next president’s tenure, just as it achieved status as a university able to award prestigious Phi Beta Kappa memberships under Dr. Foote.
The next president will be pulled in many directions. It’s a broad, difficult job. Focusing on three or four significant aims from the outset might help the president target the most important gains.
A friend notes that boards of large organizations often look for a CEO who is exactly the opposite of the CEO being replaced, which is usually a mistake. It would be in this case. Donna Shalala has done much to help the university that should not be discarded.
On the other hand, it’s clear that the university president could play a much larger role in the community, emphasize weak programmatic areas like STEM, maintain closer ties to governing trustees and push successfully to join the nation’s elite universities.
The ideal leader could do all of that. University of Miami trustees should seek that candidate and underscore those aims.