New UM president Forsee works to win over faculty, students

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -- New University of Missouri president Gary Forsee admits he has a lot to learn.

So after less than two weeks on the job, the former chairman and chief executive of Sprint Nextel Corp. is following the path carved by studious freshmen for years: asking plenty of questions, listening intently and trying to win the respect and confidence of professors.

And lawmakers. Don't forget about alumni, administrators, donors, parents, athletic boosters, taxpayers and others with a stake in the four-campus system. Not to mention skeptics who question what a telecommunications CEO can bring to academia.

"I need your support," Forsee wrote in a systemwide e-mail Feb. 18, his first official day on the job after his December 2007 hiring. "Even as I ask for your support, I know that I must earn your respect, and I pledge to work to deserve it.

"On Day One of my presidency, I pledge that there will be no bigger advocate and no louder voice for what our students need, what our individual campuses need and what the faculty needs."

That commitment has taken Forsee far afield from his University Hall office. He's met with legislators in Jefferson City, students and faculty at the Kansas City, Columbia and St. Louis campuses, basketball boosters at Mizzou Arena and hospital workers at the university's health care system.

Next week, he heads to Moberly -- one of nine Missouri towns Forsee has lived in -- to meet local civic leaders, and Washington, D.C., to hobnob with the state's congressional delegation.

He's even dined with Rep. Kenny Hulshof, the Columbia Republican who was one of three finalists in the initial search for Elson Floyd's successor as university president. Curators scrapped the first search after their top candidate, New Jersey businessman Terry Sutter, declined the offer.

"I can't do my job sitting here," Forsee said in a University Hall interview with The Associated Press. "I have to be engaged and understand what the challenges and issues are."

Curators who hired Forsee cited his 35-year career managing large organizations in the telecommunications industry, including top executive jobs in this country and abroad with AT&T, BellSouth and GlobalOne before he took over Sprint in 2003.

That job didn't turn out as Forsee had hoped -- he resigned under pressure from board members and shareholders unhappy with declining stock prices and customer losses after the 2005 merger of Sprint and Nextel. For his troubles, Forsee received a $55 million severance.

But state Sen. Gary Nodler, who has known Forsee since the new president worked in Nodler's hometown of Joplin early in his career, called the industry's loss Missouri's gain.

"He's eminently qualified for this position," said Nodler, who as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee has a strong say in what Forsee calls his top priority -- raising faculty salaries.

"I think it's an asset when a university system the size and scope of the University of Missouri doesn't limit the search to the narrow scope of academia rather than finding the best possible person," Nodler added. "That would be a huge mistake."

As colleges and universities grow increasingly complex, more are looking outside the ivory tower for new leaders. That group includes three of Missouri's athletic and academic peers in the Big 12 Conference.

In December, Oklahoma State regents hired bank executive and former gubernatorial candidate V. Burns Hargis as president.

Texas Tech chancellor Kent Hance, hired in December 2006, is a longtime Austin lobbyist and former state senator and U.S. congressman.

And the University of Colorado system last week hired oil executive and Denver political insider Bruce Benson as president. Regents openly touted Benson's fundraising acumen as among the key reasons for his hire.

Faculty members on the four Missouri campuses are taking a wait-and-see approach about their new leader, said Jakob Waterborg, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

"I'm going to give him time to show us that he's willing -- as he declared -- to become sensitive to our academic environment," said Waterborg, a former chairman of the campus faculty senate. "His actions are what I'll be looking at."

Forsee, 57, was born in Kansas City but moved frequently for his father's job with the Social Security Administration.

It was a migratory pattern he duplicated as a young telephone industry executive after graduating in 1972 from what was the University of Missouri-Rolla and is now Missouri University of Science & Technology.

Forsee grew up in Moberly, St. Joseph and Cape Girardeau, where he graduated high school. He later lived in Hannibal, Joplin, Springfield, Charleston and St. Louis. His two daughters are graduates of the system's flagship campus in Columbia.

Those strong state roots are already coming in handy, Forsee said. When an attendee at a Missouri Farm Bureau event in Jefferson City told Forsee he was from Sikeston, there was no need for further geographical explanation. Forsee knew the town was just a stone's throw from Cape Girardeau.

As for the future, Forsee said he has no plans to return to the corporate sector and would be happy to cap his career as the University of Missouri's 22nd president.

In the meantime, 36 years after his formal graduation, Forsee finds himself once again learning the ropes on a college campus.

"I know I have a lot to learn," he told hundreds of well-wishers at a Columbia welcome reception Tuesday. "That learning process is well under way. Perhaps full immersion is a better description."

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