ISU Needs More than a Money Guy

Friday, October 7, 2011

Iowa State has hired a new president with an "uncoventional resume." Translation = instead of hiring someone who is a president, provost or at least a dean of another university, they went for a money guy from North Carolina who specializes in economic development and fundraising, not necessarily classrooms.

I don't say that to criticize Steven Leath. He appears to be a solid, stand-up go-getter of a fellow. He's taught a few classes in his day. And his background is as a plant pathologist, so Ryman Gardens should rock. He even had the good sense to wear a cardinal and gold tie to the event announcing his hiring. By all accounts, he did well as a VP of research and sponsored programs in Chapel Hill. He may prove to be the best thing since sliced bread for my alma mater, for all I know.

I say this only to point out what the curent priorities may be becoming in Iowa higher education. Finding money first, innovation in education, hopefully in the mix there somewhere.

Shouldn't come as a surprise. Though Board of Regents chair Craig Lang admitted the move is a "risk," he noted the campus is "short of appropriations, and the fundraising issues have all become very important."

It is not a bad thing to explore for other sources of funding besides Iowa taxpayers, but as a parent of two students considering Iowa State, I wouldn't want their university to have to be focused on raising money as its foremost job.

The other presidential finalist, a current provost at the university of Kentucky, based his interview on achieving student success and "a passion for education and research in the service of society." Leath reportedly spoke at length about his experience and connections in fundraising.

It seems fairly clear what the state was looking for.

I understand that at least 50 candidates had shown an interest in the position. with a dozen deemed to be qualified enough. The names of other applicants were never made public, and I understand that finalist interviews were done in Minneapolis, not even at ISU.

One has to wonder - was there not a single Iowa college official, a single graduate of Iowa State, or a single native of Iowa who is interested or qualified to be recruited for such a position?

Are qualified leaders only available from big out-of-state universities, or might we have convinced ourselves of a grass-is-always-smarter-on-the-other-side philosophy?

To be fair, we have no way of knowing, because much of this selection process was kept secret. One would have to assume, I suppose, that the Regents made the best choice from their available candidate pool. Certainly we have nothing against those steeped in Carolina blue - such a choice worked out well for our own Buena Vista University, where Tarheeled Fred Moore found a home and has served ably for over 15 years.

That's not always the case in higher education, of course. It can be a rather mercinary field, with university leaders constantly jockying for position to move up a rung on the ladder for more control, more pay, more prestige at a bigger campus. The average length of tenure for a university president seems to vary from about six to about eight years.

They shouldn't spend more time sending out their resumes than they do leading. To his credit, Leath has proven more loyal than most, with the majority of his career spent at North Carolina State and the close to four years at Carolina. (He did try to make the jump to president at San Diego State earlier this year).

It's pretty obvious the Regents are worried about the trend for presidential migration, however, since they padded Leath's paycheck of about $440,000 with a another $225,000 in incentive cash if he doesn't split within the next three years. Since Iowa State has only had 15 presidents in its long history, it seems that lasting leadership is paramount.

That word, by the way, is critical here. "Leadership." In the midst of a time of change, from technological to societal to economic, a leader is needed, not just a facilitator or fundraiser. ISU and the state need a person in this job who will be a face, a stubborn, sturdy individual who will speak and fight for the importance of great education and lifelong learning.

Moore has done that in Storm Lake, and Keith Briscoe before him.

Quick - who is the current president of ISU? The one before that? And the one before that? Geoffroy, Jishke and Eaton; collectively they served 25 years. And yes, I had to look them up - I couldn't even have told you who was president at the time I was studying there! All I recall of Jishke for example, was that he drove around in an obnoxious Mercedes sports car convertible.

Did you ever wonder why we know the names of the basketball and football coaches at a school the size of ISU as household names, celebrities and spokesmodels, but the presidents of the entire universities probably need ID to pay by check at the Subway sandwich counter in their own college cafeteria?

We need Leath to be more than that anonymous figure, certainly more than a money guy for a period when legislators are looking to wring the cash out of our colleges. We need him to be the kind of dude they name a building after 20 years from now.

Somehow we need this guy who's never lived in Iowa in his life to be a motivating figure for us, a symbol, a fighter who makes us want more of out young people's education than we even knew an education could give.

This is our choice. We hope it is the right one. Good luck, Mr. President. You may need it. And we will need you.