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New president of University of Missouri system to be named Tuesday morning

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 12, 2011 - Nearly a year after it began searching for a new president, the University of Missouri system says it will introduce its new president Tuesday morning in Columbia. Officials said last week that a search committee met last week and unanimously approved the choice, whose name has not been announced as yet. 

After a two-day meeting of the Board of Curators at the university's St. Louis campus, Warren Erdman, who is ending his term as chairman of the board, told reporters on Friday that when the final contract issues are worked out, the successor to Gary Forsee as president will be introduced. Erdman said at that time he expected that would happen this week.

Forsee stepped down last January after just short of three years on the job to care for his sick wife. Steve Owens, who had been the university's general counsel, was named interim president but said he did not want the job on a permanent basis. So the university curators began searching for Forsee's successor, using a search firm, an advisory committee and the board itself.

That process ended with a search committee meeting earlier this week, Erdman told a news conference. From a field of more than 100 candidates, the choice was narrowed to less than 40, then winnowed further in what he called "the most unprecedented due diligence I have ever participated in."

The smaller group of candidates was the subject of further interviews, and a couple were invited back for a second interview, but in the end, Erdman said, the search committee unanimously recommended the person who is now in contract talks with the school.

Erdman praised the process, saying that "the diversity of the candidate pool was extraordinary," with candidates from all walks of life. "With any luck," he said, "we will be coming to you with an announcement next week."

The presidential search capped a busy year for the curators, who not only had to find Forsee's successor but were involved in the heated debate over whether the university's Columbia campus should leave the Big 12 Conference to join the Southeastern Conference, which it eventually did. The hiring of a new basketball coach at Mizzou and the retirement of the chancellor of the Rolla campus, Missouri University of Science and Technology, were also high profile items they had to deal with.

During a presentation to the board, Owens, the interim president, talked of the period of great change, saying the university had a "busy, dynamic and successful year." He also spoke of the challenges the system faces from continued hard financial times, as lower state support has forced tuition increases.

Searching for Money

That led into a discussion by the heads of the system's four campuses on changes in funding, particularly the need for increased private donations. Fund-raising campaigns on the campuses are almost nonstop, but they are a necessity, the chancellors said, because the university needs to replace dollars lost from state appropriations.

"We can't control what happens in Jefferson City," noted Leo Morton, chancellor of the University of Missouri at Kansas City.

But, he added, without adequate money from lawmakers, private donors may feel they don't want to give their money to an enterprise that doesn't even get proper support from the state, just to get it back up a minimal level. They want their money to make a difference.

"I consider donors to be investors," Morton said, "and it's not unreasonable for them to look for a return on their investment. They want to see their investment help us rise to a higher level."

Added Thomas George, chancellor of the St. Louis campus, "We can't lose sight of the importance of state support or tuition. The private donations we get are our margin of excellence."

Increasing private donations, the chancellors agreed, was at least in part an issue of marketing -- instead of just telling each other what a great job the university is doing by serving the state, they need to make that case more clearly and more forcefully to the public at large.

"I think we could probably do a better job of providing information about what we are doing," George said. "Maybe we could tell that story better."

If that message gets across, said Brady Deaton, chancellor of the Columbia campus, maybe not only private donors but state lawmakers will take notice and step up.

"The state has an investment responsibility in higher education," he said. "That has to be there, a recognition that there is a public good that holds us together as a state."

Cigarette Tax Hike?

To help the state raise more money, Erdman said that, now that he is still a curator but no longer chairman of the board, he will spend time in 2012 as a private citizen to help lead an initiative petition effort to raise the state's cigarette tax - now the lowest in the nation at 17 cents a pack - by 73 cents a pack.

He said he would be working with the American Cancer Society and the Missouri School Boards Association to put the question on next November's ballot. Proceeds from the increased tax would be divided so that 50 percent goes to elementary and secondary education, 30 percent goes to higher education, with an emphasis on health care training, and the other 20 percent goes to public health. He said the proposition would be written so the new tax revenue would be in addition to what is appropriated now, not simply dollars that could be used to replace reduced state support.

He acknowledged that such a campaign would be difficult, particularly on a ballot that will include contests for president, governor and U.S. senator in addition to other propositions, but he thinks a large turnout will help.

If the campaign can make it clear to Missouri voters that the state tax is now the lowest nationwide and the new money would go for vital needs like education and health care, "I think we'll have a shot," Erdman said.

At the end of their meeting, the curators elected David Bradley of St. Joseph to be chairman for the coming year. Bradley is currently president of the News-Press & Gazette Co. Former state Sen. Wayne Goode of north St. Louis County was elected vice chairman. Both men were appointed to the board by Gov. Jay Nixon in 2009.

After the election, Erdman told his fellow curators:

"I'm quite possibly the happiest man in the world."

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