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What COA needs in new president

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By Miles Layton

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Dear College of The Albemarle Search Committee,

As everyone knows, COA is looking for a new president because current president Robert Wynegar announced plans to resign on June 30. Head-hunter consultants are seeking input for the search committee as to what qualities the university’s constituency – faculty, staff, students and the trustees – want when hiring a new president.

COA has campuses in Pasquotank, Chowan, Currituck and Dare counties, so everyone should be engaged in this process as to who ascends the Iron Throne. The policies that this president pursues will directly impact northeastern North Carolina’s future.

Jerry Climer, Edenton-Chowan Partnership chairman, said the region has a shortage of skilled workers that COA helps address.

“The opportunity is to produce a different type of graduate — not necessarily the person who wants to be a rocket scientist or brain surgeon, but a person who understands that if they are going to work for Daedalus Yachts, they’d better have some capacity in that field and the skills,” he said. “COA in the past has done a really nice job of working with some of our manufacturers to design programs specifically for their challenges.”

During my long career as a reporter, I covered more than one presidential search, so I saw how the hiring process unfolds and afterward, what qualities are best suited for academic governance.

COA will pay consulting firm ACCT a flat fee of $30,000 to assist the presidential search process.

For the bargain price of this newspaper, here are my thoughts about the best person to lead COA into the future.

The right candidate should have some academic management experience so as to know how to lead and improve the system. Decision makers also should give equal weight to a candidate with professional experience from outside the academy.

This is NOT to say that a scholar who possesses a terminal degree is unable lead the college.

Nor is it that a president with a law degree, political accumen or extensive business experience will be any more successful herding cats in a university setting.

Some of the best university presidents who I’ve met came from various backgrounds, but they all had people skills, were critical thinkers and able to attract outside investment while lobbying the legislature and alumni. David Hardesty Jr., who led West Virginia University for many years, had a Harvard law degree and held statewide office as Tax Commissioner.

Gordon Gee — Ed.D. and law degree from Columbia — is the gold standard of college presidents having led Ohio State, University of Colorado, Brown University and Vanderbilt. President of WVU, Gee is an amazing fundraiser, a great leader and an administrator who is very student centered.

Doreen Larson — formerly president at Pierpont Community and Technical College — holds a master’s/​doctorate in special education. She was an awesome administrator, student centered and an active lobbyist who transformed the community college in Fairmont, West Virginia.

When William E. Moran was chancellor at UNC-Greensboro, he transformed an institution that previously had been known to many as the state’s Women’s College into a highly respected top-tier school in the region. He held a master’s degree and Ph.D. in business administration.

As a longtime administrator and later as provost, Gerald Lang transformed WVU into a top-tier institution. A keen mind and a straight shooter, Lang earned his master’s degree and Ph.D. in biology.

Some of the worst administrators I worked with were blinded by a tunnel-vision approach that served the bureaucracy more than the students and stakeholders. Because of their academic credentials or professional experience, these folks naively thought they could lead the academy by virtue of personality, perhaps convinced of their own brilliance by sycophants, but they ended up getting dragged into the mind-numbing politics of faculty and institutional governance that has always been filled with competing petty fiefdoms.

Put simply, wars waged between the academic stakeholders have negative consequences. One only needs to study what happened to former ECU chancellor Cecil Staton or UNC system President Margaret Spellings and even recent history at COA to conclude that leading a university is much harder than it looks.

Moreover, the COA doesn’t need a smug leader who says that’s how it is done at Berkeley, so it should work in Edenton or Elizabeth City. A condescending approach to university governance will not work in a place where people pride themselves on their independence, heritage and sense of community. One size does not fit all, and trust most be earned.

When the time comes, stakeholders need to ask each presidential candidate questions about strategies to increase enrollment and maintain retention that do not jeopardize prudent academic standards; how to grow endowments; what strategy will be employed when lobbying Raleigh lawmakers; how are you going to engage the local business community; how are you going to continue to retain and attract quality faculty and staff; are you willing to cut programs and shed staff as needed; and please provide an example as to your approach to communication.

No matter what a candidate’s qualifications, we don’t need someone who follows lockstep with the eye-rolling insanity that has turned top institutions into echo chambers of intellectual conformity that feast on catchphrases such as diversity and multi-culturalism, but ignore their core mission — providing a quality education.

And no one wants a president who is going to play it safe by seeking the same-old/​same-old paper-pushing policies.

Personally, I’m hoping for a dynamic leader, perhaps a leading politico or military type, maybe even the right type of academic, and certainly someone who is comfortable in their own skin -— not someone who will burn King’s Landing after enduring a contentious four-hour faculty senate debate over the price of tea in China.

It might be nice to see a president with direct ties to agriculture as that has a huge economic footprint in northeastern NC.

Most importantly, the next president should possess vision and an ability to work with others to transform our region in terms of training skilled labor, spurring economic development and revolutionizing education.

Staff Writer Miles Layton can be reached at mlayton@ncweeklies.com.

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