Dos and Don'ts of Picking a New UT President

The way in which the search for a successor to J. Wade Gilley as UT's president is getting started could compound the damage done by Gilley's ignominious resignation.

Gov. Don Sundquist has been pressing to get his finance commissioner, Warren Neel, named as UT's "limited term" president at the next meeting of its board of trustees on June 28. While Neel, who is on leave of absence from his long-time post as dean of UT's College of Business, has qualifications for the presidency, Sundquist's pressure tactics risk tarnishing a Neel selection.

Some UT trustees and administrators who've become aware of them fear that perceived politicization of the selection process could aggravate faculty disaffection and departures at a time when they are already running high. "It smacks of the same kind of railroading that put Lamar Alexander in the presidency, and we can't afford the loss of confidence in the integrity of our process that would result from something like that," says one official on condition of anonymity.

Publicly, all Sundquist has done is make it known through his press secretary, Alexia Levison, that he believes Neel "would be a capable and effective and efficient leader of the University of Tennessee." Behind the scenes, however, the governor has done a lot more than just commend Neel for the post. In his capacity as ex officio chairman of the board of trustees, Sundquist has the authority to appoint a presidential search committee (subject to board approval), and he appears bent on exercising it to the hilt.

In a draft circulated last week, Sundquist floated the appointment of an unusually small, three-member search committee to recommend a "limited term president who shall serve for one year and so much longer as it may take not to exceed an additional year to select a permanent president." The draft went on to stipulate that "[t]he search shall focus on candidates who are currently involved in higher education in Tennessee." And "the Governor will direct that the committee recommend a candidate or candidates to the Board before the June Board meeting."

The draft apparently didn't float very well because Levison is now saying, "The governor is working with the UT Board of Trustees [on] what a time line would be. We're still in the preliminary stages of working those things out." Yet the longer this "time line" stretches out the more it would appear to muddy the waters where appointment of a full-fledged search committee to pursue selection of a—hopefully—long-term successor to Gilley is concerned. When it named Eli Fly as acting president in the wake of Gilley's resignation on June 1, the Executive Committee envisioned setting such a search in motion at the June board meeting. But just how many searches for how many presidents of what duration will the traffic bear?

If it weren't for all the confusion and perceived conniving that surrounds it, the prospect of a Warren Neel interim presidency would have a lot to recommend it. Neel gets high marks as dean of the College of Business for having innovatively built its M.B.A. program into one of top 50 in the country (although it has since lost that ranking). More recently, he was in the forefront of an effort on the part of the Council of Deans to shape a set of academic priorities that to some extent served as the forerunner of Gilley's highly publicized centers of excellence program. Since taking his leave for Nashville a year ago at Sundquist's behest, Neel has been an effective champion of increased funding for higher education in general and for his most cherished project: the renovation of Glocker Hall. (Glocker's dilapidated condition is a millstone that has been dragging the business school down.)

While he also has his detractors and has been passed over in previous searches both for president and chancellor of the Knoxville campus, Neel clearly has academic stature that Fly lacks as acting president. So a Neel-for-Fly substitution, if it could be carried off gracefully, might strengthen the line-up all around, not least by allowing Fly to concentrate on what he does best as the university's chief business and financial officer.

The paramount thing, however, is to show that UT is seeking a worthy successor to Gilley, someone who can take the helm for a decade or more and restore the confidence in UT's future that is so sadly lacking. At age 62, Neel doesn't fit this profile, and the sooner UT can get someone who does the better.

"The process has got to recognize that we're in a state of crisis and desperately need someone we can be proud of and who understands our diverse needs," says Anne Mayhew, dean of the graduate school and acting vice provost.

Just within the past year, Mayhew reckons, "We've lost nearly 20 really good faculty people. And while our salaries are way below the norm, it's not so much the money as it is lack of a sense of institutional mission. That's what has got to be restored."

The search for a new president is a place to start. There needs to be a much greater sense of faculty and administrator involvement in the process than has been the case in the past. Under UT's bylaws, only gubernatorially appointed trustees can serve on the search committee. But the bylaws also provide for an advisory committee representing all of the university's stakeholders.

In the search that led to Gilley's selection, the chairman of the search committee, Bill Sansom, relied heavily on the chairperson of the advisory committee, retired UT-Martin chancellor Margaret Perry. But the Knoxville faculty members on that committee didn't feel they had much input. Especially with Gilley's restructuring that consolidated the presidency and the Knoxville chancellor's job and also given the newfound emphasis on research that needs to be sustained, the interests of the flagship campus must be better served.

Warren Neel may have a role to play in doing so, but his effectiveness will be impaired if it looks like he's a political, rather than an educational, figure.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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