An Open Letter to the Board of Curators, University of Missouri

Board of Curators, University of Missouri-Columbia

I am a former Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and I am writing this letter because you now have the important responsibility of selecting the next president of the statewide university system. You have been given the opportunity to prevent a repeat of recent events. But this will require an honest appraisal of how these crises were allowed to fester over the past several years, beginning with the decision to hire Timothy Wolfe as president of the university system.

Timothy Wolfe was selected to lead the state’s university system in large part because of his experience in business. He was praised as an outsider who could bring sound business and managerial skills to a university system that was caught up in the nation’s economic problems. As an outsider with a business background, it was hoped that his leadership would bring about efficiencies that would benefit everyone in the university system. Furthermore, the system was believed to have a marketing problem, which Wolfe’s experience could be useful in addressing. Indeed, his business background was thought to be so valuable that the fact that he lacked any university experience was not considered to be a significant drawback. By all accounts, he possessed exactly the skills he was touted as having. He is an intelligent, hard-working businessman who set out to bring about those efficiencies.

Many people seem to have been surprised by Wolfe’s inaction and tone-deafness to recent events on campus. The student protesters were rightly appalled by how oblivious Wolfe seemed to be when he was peacefully yet forcefully confronted over systemic racial problems on campus. Yet, I don’t believe that we have any right to be surprised by his and his administration’s ineptitude because his behavior is exactly what we should expect from a man whose entire experience is in the corporate world.

At the heart of Wolfe’s failures is his lack of understanding of university culture and the values held by university faculty and students. The former president simply did not understand concepts of shared governance, the broader role of education in improving the lives of Missouri’s citizens, or the ethical and intellectual standards that are necessary to create a campus in which the university’s broader mission can be achieved. His leadership style was dictatorial, and his actions seemed to be directed exclusively toward achieving the economic efficiencies he was hired to bring about. His recent failures to understand the broader consequences of his decisions were foreshadowed in his earlier decision to close the University of Missouri Press, not to mention his administration’s cutting of health benefits to graduate students – both of which had to be reversed following the predictable reaction of those affected. Clearly, Wolfe did not understand the broader impact of his decisions. And what is more important, he did not understand that those decisions were at odds with the core values of a university. The history of Wolfe’s administration should have allowed us to see in advance that he was ill-equipped to handle recent events.

There is no effective leadership without a solid ethical foundation. No person can have that foundation without also having a deep understanding of the culture and values of the organization he or she is expected to lead. Universities are unique in their culture and values, which is why an effective system-wide president must have a broad range of experience within academic culture.

Thus, I urge you to replace Timothy Wolfe with a person who has a history in higher education, who can demonstrate a sincere and well-informed appreciation for the unique culture and values of the university.

Sincerely,

Zachary Ernst

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