The resignation of Ole Miss Chancellor Dr. Jeffrey S. Vitter was no surprise to insiders. A terrific academician with a stellar resume, Dr. Vitter simply was not the right fit for Ole Miss at this time. No doubt he will land another university presidency in the near future.
So, what sort of leader would fit?
While most Rebels simply want a fellow alum who can rally the troops and win in football, it takes much more than that to be a successful university president.
Two examples who could rally and win and do much more are former Chancellor Dr. Robert Khayat and current Mississippi State University President Dr. Mark Keenum. Frankly, neither were chosen for outstanding scholarship. Instead they had these more essential attributes of effective university presidents:
1. A commitment to excellence in higher education, particularly at their alma maters, and the capacity to understand and manage complex institutions.
2. The ability and personality to connect with donors and raise millions of dollars for both academics and athletics.
3. The ability and gravitas needed to attract and retain talent – the outstanding faculty and staff required to manage complex university activities, achieve academic standing among peer universities, recruit growing numbers of students, and, of course, win in football.
4. The ability and connections to navigate the swamp in Washington to get a decent share of the billions of dollars the federal government distributes to universities yearly.
5. The ability and connections to navigate the lagoon in Jackson to hold on to as much state government support as possible and minimize political interference.
6. The ability, personality, and stamina needed to keep fractious alumni and faculty content, if not happy.
7. The ability and savvy to work cooperatively with the IHL Board and Commissioner while still achieving the university’s priorities.
In the case of Ole Miss, it also takes the ability, personality, and courage to abandon divisive vestiges of segregation and, yet, sustain the university’s cultural uniqueness and alumni allegiance.
The traditional, insular university pathway to the presidency doesn’t well prepare academicians for all these duties. That’s why many universities now turn to leaders who have been successful in other fields, particularly government executives, to serve as presidents. Examples include former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, now president at Purdue University, and former Arizona governor and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, now president at the University of California.
And Mark Keenum at Mississippi State.
Among the early names floating around to become the next Ole Miss Chancellor is former Gov. Haley Barbour. Whether Haley is interested or has the gas in the tank to take this on, I don’t know, but he fits all the criteria.
Another name mentioned is former IHL Commissioner and current University of Nebraska system president Hank Bounds. Hank checks most of the criteria boxes but has limited fundraising experience (UN Foundation gifts have declined during his tenure). For the record he has an Ole Miss Ph.D. and USM undergraduate and master degrees.
Other names will soon surface. Perhaps retiring Supreme Court Chief Justice William Waller or Delta State University President Bill LaForge will emerge. Both check most boxes and have Ole Miss law degrees (but are MSU and DSU alumni, respectively).
Finding a Chancellor with the right fit for Ole Miss will test the IHL Board.
» BILL CRAWFORD is a syndicate columnist from Meridian.
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