By GENE BUDIG
Great leadership requires a bold and compelling vision, and the ability to make that vision a reality.
Even in the best of times, this is a tall order. But when times are bad — when resources are scarce and partisanship is the norm — great leadership is even more difficult.
As recent events have shown us, these tough times are now upon us. But the federal government is not the only place where leaders are facing increased scrutiny and criticism. All parts of both the public and private sectors are being watched.
Higher education and its leadership are not immune to these reviews. Survey after survey comes down hard on higher education, with respondents in the vast majority believing that academia is in crisis and moving in the wrong direction: prices are too high; too many are dropping out; and students are not receiving the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.
But there are exceptions and they are worth noting. Take Gordon Gee at The Ohio State University and John Sharp at Texas A&M University, where two of America's largest public universities have demonstrated a thirst for creativity and change on a massive scale.
In Ohio, President Gordon Gee's innovative tactics over the past two years have helped bring in $1 billion through creative financing strategies — all for the academic core. One example is leasing the management of campus parking operations to outside vendors. It brought in $483 million. Those monies were deposited into the Ohio State endowment, growing it by more than 20 percent in a single day. Now more than 50 colleges and universities are considering a similar plan of action in the new year.
Gee is also a member of the Governor's Jobs Ohio Board, where he is helping recruit new companies and more jobs to the state. This links the university directly to the work force. Ohio just announced that IBM is locating a new analytics center in Columbus and it will result in 500 well-paying jobs. IBM selected Columbus, in large part, because of the aggressive nature of Ohio State and its School of Business.
Gee is also working on graduation rates. Gov. John Kasich admires the Ohio State president's way of thinking outside of the box and taking needed risk, breaking the age-old mold in higher education. Together they have devised a plan that would tie half of approximately $600 million the state annually allots four-year institutions to how well those colleges did in graduating students over the three prior years. The other half would be tied to course-completion rates.
Statewide newspapers, like the Cleveland Plain Dealer, have applauded the proposal.
In the Lone Star State, the Texas Legislative Conference, a nonpartisan organization of business and political leaders, named Chancellor John Sharp the 2013 Texan of the Year. Once a student body president at Texas A&M, Sharp was recognized as having "the leadership skills serving those from all walks of life without deference to political parties."
Certainly, we see a modern day rarity and one in need most everywhere. Sharp reached a landmark agreement with Compass USA to provide dining services to all system entities within Brazos County, including Texas A&M University with more than 52,000 students. The agreement is valued at over $260 million in revenue, cost savings and infrastructure improvement for a 10-year term, including a $45 million upfront payment to Texas A&M University. These needed funds will be redirected into what the chancellor calls the "core assets of the university, teaching and research."
The head of the sprawling Texas A&M University System, one of the nation's largest, Sharp has introduced a new competitive sealed bid requirement on all major construction projects throughout the A&M System. The first project under the new system resulted in a $12 million savings on the original estimate of $50 million for the Texas A&M University-Central Texas' Multipurpose and Library building project. "The construction money we save goes to academic programs, to research and teaching," the chancellor emphasizes at all of his stops.
The Texas A&M University System was just picked as one of three Centers for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing. The $285 million grant places the A&M System on the frontline of defense of the nation and brings significant economic opportunity (more than 1,000 new jobs) for biopharmaceutical manufacturing. Of the three centers, A&M is the lone university system serving as a prime contractor.
These are tough times but at these universities, superior leadership pays handsome dividends for students, faculty and the economy. Just ask the people of Ohio and Texas.
Gene Budig, a former chancellor/president of three major state universities (Illinois State University, West Virginia University and the University of Kansas) and past president of Major League Baseball's American League, is chairman of The News-Gazette Board of Directors.