The University of Tennessee used to be regarded as the fourth branch of Tennessee government, rather than a convenient place to cut the budget. President Andy Holt and his heirs were politically savvy veterans of state government departments. They had extension agents (political operatives) in every legislative district at a time when agriculture was king.
Looking back over the last 10 years, the most successful UT president has been Joe Johnson, a Holt protégée who had his own term and came back to clean up the mess after John Shumaker. After Eli Fly cleaned up the mess after J. Wade Gilley.
It is possible that the UT Board of Trustees will award current President John Petersen a new contract—he doesn't currently have one, though every coach at the university does. (Let's hope they don't leave it to Mike Hamilton; he would give Petersen a seven-year contract with a $6 million buyout.)
Should the trustees allow their month-to-month president to retire, what sort of candidate should they seek as the next leader of the embattled university?
What have we had? Expensive searches. Fanfare hiring. Honeymoon. Scandal. Embarrassment. Then a UT family retainer in a holding pattern while the process starts over again.
Petersen has a good reputation as an academic. His problems, from firing a popular chancellor to hiring the fabulously rich Phil Fulmer, demonstrate a lack of people skills and being tone deaf when it comes to politics. How else do you explain his asking Gov. Phil Bredesen for $20 million for the Vet school or lose accreditation when the university has been told to cut $75 million? Bredesen had an extraordinary reply, accusing UT of colluding with an accrediting agency to hijack the state for more money.
Let's recall that Bredesen is on the Board of Trustees and has appointed many of the rest of them over his last six years in office.
The job description for president of the university should include an ability to fund-raise, having the expertise to manage the conflicting interests of the various campuses, and the political skill to deal with the Legislature. It would help if the person already lives in Tennessee, has some appreciation for its traditions, and knowledge of the history of the university and its relationship with state government.
It would also help in garnering support from the public at large.
These are not qualifications you are likely to find in an academic from Connecticut, or Louisville or West Virginia.
Could it be possible to find a new university president from Tennessee? One who can motivate the Vol nation to support the university's academic mission? Who can speak Tennessean when he talks to legislators?
I think it could be done. At least the trustees could try.
I'm talking about people like Doug Horne, a successful businessman, a UT grad, and presently on the Board of Trustees. There's Victor Ashe, former Knoxville mayor finishing up a successful stint as American ambassador to Poland. There are people like Warren Neel, former dean of the business school with experience as state finance commissioner. Former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, should he not run for governor. These are only examples of the kind of candidate I'm talking about; there must be at least a hundred others out there.
What I'm suggesting is that the board make an unconventional choice. Skip hiring consultants that find people like Gilley and Shumaker. Do some jawboning on successful people with the skills needed to lead the university in the trying budget years to come. Someone who can motivate the public to support the school beyond buying football and basketball tickets.
Ensure that each campus has a strong chancellor with good academic credentials to protect academic integrity and raise standards. But the president of the UT system is a political job, a CEO job. A public relations job. Someone rooted in the realities of the current economy, the history of the university, and knowledge of state government.