Tim Wolfe’s indeterminate path to the presidency

The Board of Curators set out in 2011 to hire the 23rd UM System president with the assistance of an advisory committee consisting of faculty and students — but it’s unclear if the board took their opinions into account.
Tim Wolfe smiles after being named the new UM System president in 2011. Wolfe resigned Nov. 9, 2015 following race-based student protests on MU's campus. Maneater File Photo

“We have to make all 6 million Missourians aware of what we’re doing at the University of Missouri,” then-UM System President Tim Wolfe said in an April 2012 interview shortly after stepping into office.

Four years later, it wasn’t just Missouri that was aware of the UM System.

On Nov. 9, 2015, Wolfe made headlines around the world after he stepped down following mounting pressure from student activist group Concerned Student 1950, which demanded his resignation.

His resignation came after weeks of protests calling for him to step down, including graduate student Jonathan Butler going on a hunger strike and the Missouri football team refusing to play or practice.

The UM System is currently searching for Wolfe’s replacement.

While the last two months of Wolfe’s presidency have been scrutinized extensively by the public, little is known about the presidential search that resulted in his hiring. How did the man who once ran a software company and was unemployed at the time of his hiring — or “funemployed,” as he once called it — become president of a four-campus university system?

Wolfe’s path to the presidency began with a phone call to him from the then-chairman of the board, Warren Erdman, who asked him to apply. The board appreciated his passion for the university and his business background.

But the advisory committee appointed to assist the curators in hiring the president — made up of faculty, students and staff — only met with Wolfe once. Some members say the curators did not take the committee’s opinions into consideration, according to committee member Max Skidmore, professor at UM-Kansas City. Moving forward with the 2016 presidential search, they say, they’d like to see more faculty input in the search process to keep from another Tim Wolfe being hired.

“Someone like Gary Forsee”

After serving as UM System president for three years, Gary Forsee announced in January 2011 that he would be stepping down to take care of his wife, who had been diagnosed with cancer.

Upon Forsee’s retirement announcement, Erdman said he didn’t want to speculate on what qualities the board was looking for in candidates. Instead, he wanted to find the “best person,” according to the Columbia Daily Tribune.

“I don’t want to go into the process with a set notion, but rather let the process take you to a decision,” Erdman told the Tribune.

In March, the board named the 20-person advisory committee of faculty, staff, students and alumni tasked with giving feedback throughout the search process. Two days later, Greenwood/Asher & Associates was named as the search firm that would assist the UM System in finding candidates.

The advisory committee was tasked with assisting the curators in compiling a list of desired qualifications for the next president as well as interviewing the candidates and providing “perceptions on the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate,” according to a UM System statement. The board held listening forums in cities throughout Missouri to receive input from many communities.

It was from feedback at these forums, then-curator Craig Van Matre said, that the curators decided it was important for the future president to have a business background. Van Matre said that a majority of those in attendance at the open forums said they wanted “basically someone like Gary Forsee.”

Forsee was lauded for some for his accomplishments during his tenure as president, including working with Gov. Jay Nixon to keep tuition flat for two years and advocating for greater college access for minorities. Still, some faculty felt that he wasn’t the ideal president: The first president without a background in higher education, he was a former CEO of Sprint who had spent most of his life in the business world.

Judith Haggard, a former curator who served on the board during the 2007 and 2011 presidential searches, said that faculty were “skeptical” of Forsee because of his business background, but he was chosen because the UM System is “a huge business.”

In 2011, the board decided to at least consider someone with a business background; the qualifications statement crafted by the board included the mention of wanting someone with “academic, business and political acumen necessary to lead a complex and diverse system.” Other desired traits included having a passion for higher education and being an “effective and compelling” communicator. The 2016 qualifications statement is similar, looking for someone with “the acumen necessary to cultivate key political, civic and business relationships essential to leading a public university system,” and “the ability to communicate effectively across numerous audiences.”

It’s not unusual to look for a candidate with a business background, according to Jan Greenwood, a partner of Greenwood/Asher.

The nature of the job — being the head of a university system that educates tens of thousands of students while also bringing in revenue and managing a $3.1 billion budget — demands both a passion and respect for education and a keen business sense. The president also has to be able to maintain good relations with state politicians.

In essence, the UM System president must successfully handle multiple responsibilities.

“I would say that because Gary was so successful, perhaps it encouraged (the search committee) to look more at people with a similar profile; in other words, it wouldn’t be the first time they hired someone outside of higher education,” Greenwood said.

With the qualifications statement in hand, the search committee began to look at candidates in an attempt to find the right match for the UM System. Erdman assured the community that the search would be done right.

“The appointment of a 20-member advisory board is very important to the process and gives a voice to the many diverse constituents of the university,” Erdman told the Tribune when the advisory committee was announced.

Erdman also said during a press conference that advisory committee members were instructed not to talk to the media throughout the search and would be required to sign confidentiality agreements. Because some potential candidates may have been employed and would not want their employers knowing they were applying for a new job, he said, confidentiality was crucial.

Charles Davis, who was a School of Journalism professor at the time, criticized closed searches to the Tribune.

“Sometimes it’s who didn’t make the cut that is far more interesting,” he told the Tribune. “Was there a minority in the initial pile that ended up becoming president of another large university? If that’s the case, what’s wrong with our search committee process? We’ll never know.”

Throughout the search, the strict confidentiality seemed to leave the UM System community in the dark about where the presidential search committee was in the hiring process. Few details were available, and some wondered if the curators were taking faculty and student input into consideration.

“The candidate pool named Tim Wolfe”

The advisory committee, too, felt left in the dark about much of the presidential search. Skidmore said there was no indication that the board took the committee’s recommendations into consideration. And more than that, he said, the committee was told very little throughout the presidential search.

“It is difficult to determine whether the board paid any attention to our recommendations, but there was no indication that it did,” Skidmore said in an email. “We received no information whatsoever about the process, about board deliberations, about who the candidates were or even about how many there were. The ‘Committee to Advise the Search Committee’ had no part whatever in the process. We certainly did not review applicants, or select finalists.”

What was most disconcerting to Skidmore was that the advisory committee only met, to the best of his memory, one time in person to interview the candidate pool. Or, as Faculty Council Chairman Ben Trachtenberg put it during a Faculty Council meeting about the 2016 presidential search, “they got to meet the candidate pool named Tim Wolfe.”

By June 2011, Erdman said the board had received more than 140 applications, many of them minorities and women. In addition to receiving applications from candidates across the nation, the curators also sought recommendations from UM System stakeholders, which Erdman said was customary.

Erdman heard about Wolfe from Joan Gabel, then-dean of the Trulaske College of Business, where Wolfe, an MU graduate, was a member of the Strategic Development Board.

“(Wolfe) came to us from a faculty recommendation and his recommendation followed the same process as the other recommendations we received and had nothing to do with anyone else not being satisfactory; he was just one of many recommendations that came to us that we followed up on,” Erdman said in an email.

At the time, Wolfe was unemployed. His previous position was eliminated after his software company, Novell, was bought out. He said that he was surprised by Erdman’s call asking him to apply.

“I asked him, ‘You want me to what?’” Wolfe said in an April 2012 interview with Inside Columbia magazine. “I was just floored. And I was flattered. The opportunities were intriguing, but I still had a lot of questions and I wondered about it.”

Erdman told Inside Columbia that there were a few phases of hiring Wolfe. The first was “selling (Wolfe) on the idea of just being a candidate.”

Wolfe admittedly did not have a background in higher education and did not have a master’s or doctoral degree, but he said having two parents who were professors helped with the lack of higher education experience.

Wolfe did not respond to repeated requests for an interview for this article.

Erdman doesn’t see Wolfe’s lack of higher education experience as a con, either.

“While his professional career before the university did not include a specific higher education position, he came from a higher education family and there is very substantial higher education leadership and experience on each of the campuses of the system and on the system staff,” Erdman said.

He said Wolfe understood that the UM System needed someone who would be an advocate for higher education.

“To this day, many of his strongest supporters come from the deans and academic leadership on the campuses,” Erdman said.

After mulling over Erdman’s request for him to apply and having a “compelling” conversation with Forsee, according to Inside Columbia, Wolfe became one of the many candidates vying for the title of UM System president.

How the board narrowed down the many candidates to just Wolfe is unclear, but multiple committee members said the advisory committee had no role in reviewing any of the candidates. They were asked by the curators to meet once to interview a candidate whose name was kept confidential; they later found out it was Wolfe.

UM-St. Louis professor and advisory committee member Richard Rosenfeld said that it became apparent early in the search that the advisory committee’s role would not be “terribly significant.”

“Our role was quite secondary,” Rosenfeld said. “I don't want to say marginal, but we were not key decision makers in the process.”

However, Haggard, the former curator, said faculty and student input was given strong consideration, hence the role of the advisory committee. She said faculty input was important because the UM System president serves not only the students, but faculty as well.

“What was valuable to us is that (the advisory committee) did their own thing, they asked their own questions, they had their own interviews and they came back to us with different recommendations,” Haggard said. “And that weighed heavily on our decision of who to pick.”

Erdman, too, said that the curators took the advisory committee’s input into consideration.

“Their comments were important and treated as such,” Erdman said. “Like many committees comprised of many different people from many different backgrounds, members of the advisory committee had differing opinions and feedback. Each was given as much time as they wanted to share their individual opinions and comments after their interview with Mr. Wolfe.”

"The ‘Committee to Advise the Search Committee’ had no part whatever in the process. We certainly did not review applicants, or select finalists.” — Max Skidmore

Skidmore, the committee member, said it was clear from the beginning of the interview that Wolfe lacked knowledge about higher education.

Additionally, Skidmore said, “it became apparent that before we met with him, Mr. Wolfe had already been selected, and that if there had been other candidates, we would not know of them.”

Rosenfeld said it is impossible to know if the board considered the committee’s recommendations, but the group was never asked to come to a specific consensus regarding Wolfe.

Skidmore said he found in talking with other committee members that some weren’t happy with Wolfe and did not want him to be hired. In fact, he said, at least one member told Erdman that the board should continue the search to find a more qualified candidate, and said Erdman was “astonished” that there were members on the committee unenthusiastic about Wolfe.

“That advisory committee member, by the way, threatened to resign from the University if Wolfe were the new president, and did so when he was appointed,” Skidmore said in an email.

Following the advisory committee’s interview with Wolfe, Skidmore said he sent the board an email urging them to continue the search for a better candidate, but never received a response.

In the letter, Skidmore acknowledged that being well-versed in business was helpful for running a university system, but said nothing in Wolfe’s record supported that he would be a skilled administrator.

“He could, of course, be a quick study, but the university’s needs are so critical that it would seem as unwise to expect leadership from one who would need on-the-job training as it would be to expect sterling performance from an airline pilot who had never flown, or a football coach who knew nothing of the game,” Skidmore wrote.

Skidmore wrote that from being involved with higher education for almost 50 years, he understood the needs of the university system. Wolfe, he said, did not fit those needs.

“I strongly urge that you, the curators, search further to ensure that our new president does, indeed, bring the skills, temperament and experience that the position requires,” Skidmore wrote. “Too much is at stake to do otherwise.”

Six days later, Erdman announced that Wolfe would be the 23rd president of the UM System.

A “hometown boy”

Wolfe’s appointment as president was considered a homecoming for him and his family. Many stories alluded to his return to Columbia, where he had grown up and gone to college. The Tribune published a story following his hiring detailing the 1975 Rock Bridge High School football team that Wolfe quarterbacked; he led them to the state championship.

Wolfe was hailed by many as a “hometown boy” who was invested in the UM System.

“He loved the state of Missouri,” Haggard said. “This is his roots. He had a big background here with us.”

Soon, the 2011 presidential search seemed to fade from people’s memories. Wolfe seemed to be well-liked, and many stories written about his hiring quoted UM System employees who were pleased with his hiring.

Still, MU professor Karen Piper had doubts.

“The guy they hired has no academic experience. How is he supposed to know how to run a university?" Piper told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the day after Wolfe was hired.

Her opinion hasn’t changed since then. Though skeptical, Piper said she thought she would give him a chance, but she never felt that he was the president the system needed.

“For me it really started when he came to the first Faculty Council meeting and he was talking with all these acronyms and business lingo that nobody understood and he never looked at us,” Piper said. “Finally somebody shouted out, 'What does such and such mean?' and he looked up and he said, 'Oh, sorry, I thought I was at IBM for a minute.'”

Piper found that to be off-putting. It didn’t get better when he started calling faculty “the lower-level.”

“(It’s) just insulting to faculty because we're supposed to be co-governing with the administrators,” Piper said.

Haggard said it would be impossible to make everyone happy when hiring a new president, but that she thought Wolfe was the right person.

“You're always going to have people who have their reservations,” Haggard said. “And you always have people who are more positive or negative in the process with somebody new. To me, the most important thing is that they are a good listener and a good learner. They have to be somebody who can learn and be humble and listen, and not think they know it all. And that's a unique person.”

Former curator Craig Van Matre said that he thought Wolfe did well as president and that if he had to guess, he thought Wolfe might have had a 60 percent approval rating.

“He didn’t approach the job with an egocentric attitude,” Van Matre said.

He also said Wolfe had been moving “pragmatically” and keeping peace with the legislature.

But in November 2015, Wolfe found himself at the center of headlines around the world. To some, Wolfe was a strong leader who should not have resigned. To others, it was a much-needed goodbye.

“When I saw the video of the homecoming parade, my first thought was, 'Why isn't he getting out of the car?'” Piper said. “Any good PR person would just get out of the car and talk to them. And then, to do the opposite and try to push through them? I thought, 'Oh dear, this isn't good.' So of course people were upset about that.”

Haggard thinks it was then-Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin’s job to handle issues on MU’s campus. Wolfe was the wrong target, Haggard said.

“What took hold there at the university, it just sickens me,” Haggard said. “And I wonder how that all happened. That makes me wonder about the leadership. That makes me wonder about what the chancellor was doing. Because the president's job is a system job. It's not just looking at Mizzou. That was the chancellor.”

Haggard also said that the president ultimately oversees all of the chancellors, so the responsibility falls to the president to make sure the chancellors are doing their job.

Piper compared Wolfe and Loftin and said that Loftin had been doing his job. Wolfe, Piper said, didn’t communicate with the protesters, while Loftin “was going down (to the campsite) and bringing them heaters and that sort of thing.”

Rosenfeld said that when it comes to protests and students’ concerns, “opening lines of communication” is key and something Wolfe failed to do.

“Universities are places where talk is not cheap,” Rosenfeld said. “Universities are all about communication. And I don't think his experience in the business world prepared him for what he needed to do. That doesn't mean that his efforts would have necessarily been successful, however one may want to define 'success,' but I was concerned that at least from what I could see, he was not doing all the things university administrators must do to communicate with students who have grievances.”

Erdman told Inside Columbia in 2012 that Wolfe was the “best listener” he had ever heard. He still stands by that today.

“Being a good listener doesn’t mean you are required to do whatever or everything someone else is telling you to do,” Erdman said. “It means you listen and value what others say and take their views into consideration. Tim did that very well as president, even if some might not have liked some of the decisions he made.”

Many have questioned if Wolfe was the one Concerned Student 1950 should have focused on; others pointed toward Loftin, who dealt directly with students as the chancellor, as someone to whom they should’ve taken their concerns.

Greenwood said system heads work to improve all campuses, whereas campus heads are responsible for the welfare of a campus. However, Greenwood said, system heads are accountable for how an individual campus is run.

“If it's something that is specifically the campus, the accountability does reach up to the system head because they're accountable for being certain that the campuses are being run in a way that's high quality, effective and efficient,” Greenwood said.

Van Matre called Wolfe’s resignation a “symbolic beheading” and said in December that “at the end of the day, the protesters will not have accomplished a damn thing other than to damage their cause.”

He said Wolfe was not a “closet racist” and did not engage in systemic racist practices. Erdman said Wolfe cared about the students.

“When dealing with the relatively small number of student protesters last fall, Mr. Wolfe made many attempts to listen and address their concerns,” Erdman said. “He shared most of their objectives. Unfortunately, that situation did not result in a successful end to the protest, but that does not mean Mr. Wolfe was not a good listener.”

Moving forward

Now, nearly six months after Wolfe’s resignation, the 2016 presidential search is underway. This time, instead of having a search committee consisting of just the Board of Curators and a separate advisory committee, the search committee consists of all six curators in addition to faculty, students and staff. All of the members of the search committee are voting members.

Skidmore said those who love the UM System, himself included, are hoping for a better search process that doesn’t involve “rashly” selecting an unqualified candidate.

“I can only hope that the current search will fully — and meaningfully — involve all relevant parties, certainly including students and faculty,” Skidmore said in an email. “Many of us recognized immediately that Mr. Wolfe was not the right person for the position.”

Erdman said that the curators took the advisory committee's input into consideration, and said that a wide and diverse range of opinions were represented.

“We listened to and valued all, but talking with one member of that group does not mean he or she speaks for everyone or the entire group,” Erdman said. “I recall some concern by a member of the (advisory) committee about Mr. Wolfe’s lack of work experience in academia and as I have pointed out and still believe, Mr. Wolfe had a strong appreciation for academia and higher education.”

However, Skidmore said the advisory committee ultimately did not have much involvement in the process. Rosenfeld said he is unsure of the extent to which the board considered the advisory committee’s opinions.

“Were we just there to put on a show?” Rosenfeld asked. “I hope that's not the case. But I honestly don't know. I'd prefer to believe that the (curators) had a view of the faculty role being quite limited, strictly advisory, and they were simply acting on that view. But I can't tell you what the (curators’) intentions or motivations were.”

During the Board of Curators’ first meeting about the current presidential search, Curator John Phillips spoke about the role the advisory committee played in 2011. Ultimately, he said, there were two finalists, Wolfe and another candidate. After the other candidate withdrew, the advisory committee met with Wolfe and consequently “didn’t really have an opportunity to make any comparison.”

“Although it was an interesting concept, it ended up without any meaningful participation at the end,” Phillips said. “It didn’t work right.”

“I can only hope that the current search will fully — and meaningfully — involve all relevant parties, certainly including students and faculty. Many of us recognized immediately that Mr. Wolfe was not the right person for the position.” — Max Skidmore

Rosenfeld said he hopes faculty involvement this time will be more significant than in the last search. While he doesn’t think faculty should be the ones who choose the president, he thinks their input should be considered.

“I should say that in my view, faculty involvement in the selection of the system president is highly important,” Rosenfeld said. “I can't think of a better example of what can go wrong when the faculty do not play a significant role when someone is selected who has a very limited background in academic administration. I think it was clear what happened as the result.”

Edited by Taylor Blatchford | tblatchford@themaneater.com

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