Leadership: A high point in St. Louis higher education
Is there a crisis in university leadership in St. Louis? Apparently so, according to a recent Post-Dispatch article, "Does Anyone Want to Be Chancellor Anymore?" It is harder than ever to be a university CEO, says the article. Budgets are tighter, scrutiny is more intense, and antagonists abound. The result, we are told, is a rash of local trouble spots, highlighted by executive suite vacancies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the MU system office in Columbia, SIU Carbondale and Missouri State University in Springfield.
Yet these locales are hardly local, all of them falling well outside of the St. Louis metropolitan statistical area. Indeed, of the 11 accredited universities within greater St. Louis, none shows evidence of instability at the top. The average American university president has been on the job for 8.5 years, according to a 2006 American Council on Education survey. As of July 2011, however, the average St. Louis president had been on the job for a remarkable 13.3 years. Leading that list is Henry Givens, who is retiring after 32 notable years at the helm of Harris-Stowe. Newest to the group is Beth Stroble, beginning her third year at Webster and showing every sign of a long and accomplished presidency.
About the Author
David Carl Wilson is dean of Webster University's College of Arts & Sciences, which serves almost 8,000 students and offers 40 degree programs at 35 locations in six countries. As dean he has worked to raise the college's profile, to build its enrollments and quality, and to strengthen its resource base. During his tenure, the first endowed professorship in Webster's history has been established and many new programs have been launched.
Wilson also serves as professor of philosophy at Webster, covering such topics such as reasoning, ethics, science, religion, higher education and leadership. He earned his PhD in Philosophy from UCLA, where he taught and served as associate provost until he came to Webster in 2002. He is the author of the McGraw-Hill textbook, "A Guide to Good Reasoning."
He has served as a fellow with the American Council on Education and is now on the executive committee of ACE's Council of Fellows where he co-chairs its national outreach and engagement committee.
Wilson is chairman of the board of directors of Upstream Theater and an active board member for the Academy of Science-St. Louis, the Missouri Biotechnology Association, the Missouri Institute of Biotechnology and Innovation, the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute and the German American Heritage Society. He chairs the ethics committee for the St. Louis Science Center and has been a fellow with Leadership St. Louis.
A protracted presidency is not always a good thing. Fresh ideas sometimes require fresh thinkers. A president who starts settling can mean a university that stops striving. But even the best leaders in higher education require years to get results. They must gain the trust of their university's many complex constituencies, install and empower an effective leadership team, and conceive and articulate a vision for the future that fits both the university and the times.
It is the great good fortune of St. Louis that our leaders have had the opportunity to achieve transformative results. Consider where Larry Biondi has brought SLU as he clocks in at three times the national average. Similar superlatives apply, for example, to Alton Lacy at Missouri Baptist, James Dennis at McKendree and Mark Wrighton at Washington University as they attain twice the national average. Tom George at UMSL and Vaughn Vandergrift at SIUE have laudably advanced their institutions as their tenures approach the national average. And we can only hope for the same extended opportunity for the likes of James Evans, who has already begun to impressively elevate Lindenwood University during his tenure of, so far, only half the national average. It is a golden age for university leadership in St. Louis.
The real story, then, is not whether anybody wants to lead our universities anymore, but why so many talented academic leaders want to come to St. Louis and stay.
A major factor is the diversified portfolio of universities in this region. There is a market for each of the 11 universities, with little head-to-head competition for shelf space. Of the four research universities, two are private -- one sectarian, one not -- and two are public -- one Missourian, one Illinoisan. Of the six student-focused universities, four have a strong sectarian identity, two do not. And there is one historically black university.
Of the 17 metropolitan regions larger than St. Louis, the only one that clearly equals or surpasses St. Louis in this regard is Chicago. The eastern United States is dominated by private universities, the western and southern parts of the country by public universities. St. Louis is the rare city that allows almost every university leader the opportunity to establish a distinctive market identity.
There are other factors. St. Louis' commitment to the arts and its culture of philanthropy, more typical of much larger cities, go hand in hand with a commitment to higher education. This means that a sophisticated and visionary academic leader can enjoy living in St. Louis, can find a receptive audience here and can be appreciated here. St. Louis also has an unusually well-developed community college system, serving as an important tributary to the universities. This system, regrettably, is not currently a model of stable leadership (except at Florissant Valley), but, so far, the flow of students continues.
Danger lurks. College-age demographics do not bode well for the Midwest in the next 10 years. The city and the county still can't get together. Lambert will have fewer flights before it has more. The for-profits are arming for battle. And it will never be 1904 again. But good leaders are energized by threats when so many opportunities beckon. To the benefit of St. Louis their motto continues to be, to adapt Julius Caesar, "Vini, vidi, velcro." I came, I saw, I stuck around.
To reach voices authors, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.