The University Record, January 16, 1996

Residents of western part of state want president who can almost 'walk on water'

By Julie Peterson
News and Information Services

 U-M alumni and members of the Grand Rapids community shared with Regents last week a list of qualities for a new president so ambitious that, as more than one speaker put it, the new leader of the University will just about have to "walk on water."

Approximately 150 community members attended the Jan. 10 evening public forum, and 17 speakers, primarily U-M alumni, shared their thoughts on the challenges facing the University, the selection criteria for a new president and the process that should be followed for choosing the U-M's next leader. The group stood out, as Regent Laurence B. Deitch later noted, for its "passion" and commitment to the well-being and continued excellence of the University.

The list of qualities speakers would find desirable in a president included being a visionary, a statesperson, a person of ethics and integrity, an articulate speaker and listener, and an individual with energy and enthusiasm who is personable, warm and friendly, and has a sense of humor.

The president also should be a master fund-raiser, have a strong background in financial matters, be an adept manager and be able to work with the Legislature, as well as being genuinely interested in the needs of students.

Attorney Joel M. Boyden (L.L.B. 1962) told Regents, "I don't envy you the awesome responsibility" of selecting such an individual. Added J. Stephen Marshall (B.B.A. 1970), also an attorney, "Your job is easy. You only have 300,000 alumni, a couple million taxpayers, the media and the Legislature to keep happy."

"As elected Regents of the U-M, you are statewide elected officials and you have the whole state to answer for your selection," said Rep. Jessie F. Dalman, R-Holland (A.M. 1958).

In the face of such a lengthy list of worthwhile qualities, Judith C. Frey (A.B. 1959), president of The Issue Network Group, suggested that the Regents hone the list to a small number of key priorities to guide their search. Her recommendation was echoed by three other speakers, as was her advice to make use of an executive search firm.

Boyden, the forum's first speaker, urged that a new president have a focus on the moral and spiritual elements of education in order to combat society's growing "weariness, boredom, cynicism and greed."

"We must demand from our children more civility and a greater sense of responsibility," he said. "The president must lead and inspire the entire institution with programs whose central purpose is ... to make good people act nobly."

Janet Gatherer Boyles (B.S.N. 1958), partner with Boyles, Curtain & Associates, would look for a president with "the wisdom to know what he or she doesn't know." She cited a Wharton School of Business study which found that "success can breed arrogance and inattention to those we serve."

"To prevent this destructive attitude," she said, "the candidate will need fresh eyes ... and the ability to listen and understand."

According to management consultant Laird A. Burns (M.B.A. 1987), the next president must "never be satisfied, no matter how fine we become. If we want to be the best in the world, we have to keep pushing."

And, noted Dottie Siebers, township supervisor (B.S. 1944, A.M. 1982), the president should be "someone who can deal with conflictwithout getting bent out of shape. There's going to be a lot of conflict, so the person might as well get used to it."

Speakers also identified a number of issues that should be priorities for the University as a whole and its next president, in particular. Among them: an even greater emphasis on undergraduate education, including the involvement of senior faculty in the classroom; a commitment to rein in tuition and keep the cost of a U-M education affordable; a focus on serving the state; and maintenance of the balance between athletics and academic endeavors.

While many of the comments shared with the Regents were echoed several times throughout the evening, speakers disagreed sharply on a few key issues.

Five speakers called for a president who, first and foremost, has strong academic credentials. But four others encouraged the Regents to look beyond academia to leaders of business organizations and other institutions when considering candidates. Attorney Robert J. Eleveld (L.L.B. 1961), seconded by Burns, proposed that retired Gen. Colin Powell be added to the list of potential candidates.

A number of speakers advised Regents not to become snarled in the provisions of the Open Meetings Act, but to look for legally acceptable ways to ensure confidentiality for candidates early in the process. However, Robert J. Trost (A.B. 1951, A.M. 1960), a reporter with the Grand Rapids Press, urged strict compliance with both the letter and spirit of the law.

Boyles advised the Regents to complete the search process quickly. "We cannot afford a dearth of leadership in this time of accelerated change," she said. Dalman, on the other hand, encouraged the Regents to take their time, proposing that President James J. Duderstadt be asked to stay on in an interim capacity until the right person is found.

Speakers thanked the Regents time and again for holding the public forums and for giving the community input into the search process.

Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie (B.A. 1961, J.D. 1968) told Regents in his introduction to the forum, "I applaud you for bringing this program on the road and indicating your willingness to come to your constituents."

Kevin Krauss, president of the U-M Club of Grand Rapids, moderated the forum. Regents Deitch, Daniel D. Horning, Rebecca McGowan, Philip Power and Shirley M. McFee, co-chair of the presidential Search Committee, were in attendance. A videotape of the forum will be made available to those Regents who were unable to participate.