Thursday, October 1, 2015

A Significant Upgrade

So I have had some time to reflect on the three presidential candidates and their suitability for that job in this place. I have been asked by several people, inside and outside of the university, who I would hire and I had to spend some time explaining the why behind the who. I see the university almost as a professional sports team. It has several pressing needs but only one draft pick this season. If we are drafting (hiring) for need let’s look at the needs filled by the respective candidates.
The first candidate, Dennis Shields, is a serving executive with five years of experience. He is the kind of hire who can hit the ground running because he knows the questions to ask and the data to look for. He seems to know what needs to happen and would bring an experienced hand to the job. He would be a serviceable player who could step in and contribute consistently to the team for a few seasons. It has yet to be determined if he would improve over time and take the franchise to its ultimate goal. The downside is that he is not a traditional academic. As the academic side of the house has been neglected, nee attacked, for the past six years, it would be refreshing for faculty to have an advocate in the president’s office, instead of someone who has no idea of the faculty’s role in the academic enterprise. The second downside is that Mr. Shields isn’t from Illinois and doesn’t appear to have the connections necessary to get things done the “Illinois Way.” I have no doubt he could build those political and social networks over time but the question becomes will he have the time to do that.
The second candidate, Jerry Blakemore, is a bit of a dark horse. He has many of the nice to have qualifications for a university president. In a football draft analogy, he would be an All-Pro left tackle. The job of the left tackle is to protect the quarterback. He is not a play maker, doesn’t make the most money but has one of the most important jobs. In the case of the university he protects the academic enterprise of faculty and students, from onrushing opponents. Blakemore seems very adept at navigating the rough and tumble of Illinois politics and as this administration has made the university more of a soft target, that protection is critical to the long term viability of the institution. His downside is that he is not an academician. As the General Counsel at NIU he has provided counsel to the board and to the administration on a number of issues yet has no really connection to faculty or the faculty experience. The upside of that downside is that he appears to realize what he doesn’t know and would hire a provost that is acceptable to the faculty and expect that person to provide the sorely needed leadership that is currently absent.
The third candidate, Thomas Calhoun, could provide the warm fuzzy feeling of wanting to come to work at a place that is not being systematically destroyed by incompetence. His background as a clergyman was on full display as he appealed to emotional decision making during his visit to campus. He is the wide receiver with blinding speed who makes spectacular catches that make the fans cheer. Yet he is only targeted five times per game, unlike that left tackle who plays every offensive snap.  Having some roots and connections in the city gives him an advantage over Mr. Shields, but is far behind the type of political experience that Mr. Blakemore has. Like the other candidates his is not a traditional academician and has spent time in secondary education as well. I can imagine that he would fulfill a need for healing at the university that has been unnecessarily damaged over the past six years. That leadership is largely symbolic and may not lead to increases in enrollment, grant funding, or development. Charismatic leaders serve particular purposes but in the case of this university at this time, is a charismatic leader who makes one feel good the solution to the plethora of ills plaguing the university?
That leads me to conclude that Blakemore is my first choice, followed by Shields and Calhoun. They are all capable and seemingly would be a significant upgrade over the failure that we have now. Yet in filling different needs, it seems protecting the university from the storm that is Illinois politics is more important than a charismatic president. The recent closure of buildings due to the plumbing emergency is just one area where a more locally experienced president might prevail in getting some relief from the state for emergencies like that one.
I would hope that the Board would look to need and commit to their fiduciary obligations in selecting the next president and not abdicate citing other factors outside of their own judgment. I suspect in a week or so we will see what the Board values both in the next president and in the future of the university. I say next week only by wild guess as their communication about the presidential search process has been appallingly bad.
As one of my colleagues whispered to me recently, “when is this going to end?” I assured them it has to be soon. Stay tuned loyal readers and keep your fingers crossed.

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