COLUMBIA, MO. • The University of Missouri went back to the business well Tuesday when it selected Timothy M. Wolfe, a former software industry executive, to be its new president.
As they did with his predecessor, former Sprint executive Gary Forsee, the system's Board of Curators opted to hire a leader with a financial background, rather than someone from the academic or political realms.
Wolfe, whose hiring ended an 11-month search, spent three decades in the information technology sector, with lengthy stints at IBM and Novell. He served as president of Novell Americas until April of this year, when the corporation was bought by Attachmate Corp., leaving him out of a job.
Wolfe, 53, has strong ties to the system. He moved to Columbia as a fourth-grader, is a 1980 graduate of Mizzou's business college and his father was a communications professor at Mizzou from 1967 to 1997.
Curators said he has a rare blend of qualifications. They include leadership skills honed in the business world, deep knowledge of Missouri because of his Columbia roots and an understanding of academia because of his parents' careers as college professors. His mother is a law professor in Massachusetts.
"He has Missouri values, he understands our citizenry, our economy and the challenges we face today," said curator Don Downing of St. Louis.
Curator Pam Henrickson of Jefferson City said Wolfe would bring "fresh eyes. Somebody to come in and say, 'Why do you do this?'"
Steve Wyatt, vice provost for economic development at Mizzou, said Wolfe could help build partnerships with business, furthering the university's research as well as employers' needs for a highly trained workforce.
Wolfe's contract calls for him to be paid $450,000 a year and up to $100,000 in bonuses. He also gets a $45,000 relocation incentive, a car and housing at Providence Point, the official home for the university president. Initially, he plans to commute between Columbia and Walpole, Mass., where his twin children are juniors in high school.
Wolfe was asked to apply by the chairman of the curators, Warren Erdman, who got Wolfe's name from Joan Gabel, dean of Mizzou's Trulaske College of Business.
The timing was perfect. Wolfe was unemployed and "looking for something that was rewarding" and different from his business career. He called the university system presidency a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Gabel said she met Wolfe in 2010 when he was the school's executive-in-residence speaker. After his speech she asked for his insights on the business college. That night he emailed her a full report on his ideas.
"He really gets leadership and really gets university life," Gabel said.
Wolfe's professional career began in Jefferson City when he was hired as a sales representative for IBM, later serving as a manager in Kansas City. By the time he left the company, he was a vice president. Later, Wolfe would spend four years with Covansys, a consulting firm based in Michigan, before moving to Novell.
Still, his lack of academic background is sure to cause some grumbling in offices across the system's four campuses. Wolfe has no higher degree beyond the bachelor's degree he earned from Mizzou.
"The guy they hired has no academic experience. How is he supposed to know how to run a university?" asked Karen Piper, a Mizzou English professor.
And while Piper said she's willing to give Wolfe a chance, she isn't swayed by the fact that his parents are professors.
"My parents both worked for the Department of Defense. Does that mean I can build bombs? No, of course not," she said.
Michael Baer, an executive search consultant with Isaacson, Miller in Washington, acknowledged that Wolfe's selection won't be popular with some faculty.
"But it's rational to look for someone with a business background to head a system," he said.
During Wolfe's introduction at Mizzou's Reynolds Alumni Center, he tried to tried to bridge that academic-business gap by talking about his parents' teaching careers.
"My passion is in my DNA," Wolfe said.
Whether that upbringing will be enough to elevate the system's 23rd president in the eyes of his faculty remains to be seen. Some expressed encouragement Tuesday after learning of his parents.
"That will get him off on the right foot with a lot of people," said Joseph Martinich, a business professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Martinich said he has no qualms about a president's business background, as long as the executive understands the world of academics.
"It's important to run a university like a business," he said. "But it's not a business. Recognizing that difference is important."
Wolfe's financial skills are certain to be put to the test as soon as he sets foot in his office on Feb. 15.
He'll be guiding the system through turbulent economic times that show no sign of easing.
To deal with the economic pressures, Wolfe said he will examine "all the things we do on a daily basis" and also look for new revenue sources.
The system has recently faced a decline in state appropriations as legislators have grappled with budget shortfalls. During a recent curators meeting, system officials said they have little reason to think they won't face the same pressure this year as the state seeks to plug a $780 million gap, created by declining federal Medicaid payments and the need to replace one-time federal stimulus money.
State support, as a percentage of the system's budget, has been on the decline for more than a decade. In 2001, state funding represented 55.4 percent of the system's budget. This year, the number has fallen to 31.6 percent.
Given the current landscape, a leader with strong business skills could be critical, said Thomas George, chancellor of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
"These are tough times. We need people with a business acumen," George said. "We can use all the help we can get."
Already, curators have started the process of raising tuition at least 3 percent by next summer. A decision is not expected until February, at the earliest. They hope to learn more about what to expect in terms of financial support when Gov. Jay Nixon delivers his annual State of the State address next month.
Tuition increases earlier this year were a point of contention between the system and Nixon, who had asked the curators to keep increases at 5 percent. Instead, the system pushed ahead with a 5.5 percent hike.
In response, Nixon later hit the system with an additional 1.1 percent cut in funding, leaving UM with an unexpected $4.4 million budget hole.
The presidential search was steeped in secrecy and avoided the embarrassment of the 2007 search when businessman Terry Sutter rejected the post in favor of a position with a steel manufacturer. Former U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-Columbia, was also a finalist at that time but was not offered the job.
In contrast, Tuesday morning's announcement marked the first time Wolfe's name was uttered publicly in connection with the job.
"They kept it so secret. People who I would have thought would know something didn't know anything," said Stephen Montgomery-Smith, a professor of mathematics at Mizzou.
And that's not the way it should be, in the eyes of some faculty members, who'd prefer to see candidates brought in for open forums — rather than interviewed in secrecy by a small search committee.
"I find it kind of disturbing that faculty weren't involved," said Piper, the English professor. "I never heard of any finalists, even."