The Importance of Being Herb
Former WVU President E. Gordon Gee was recently featured on page one of the Wall Street Journal. He now serves as Chancellor of Vanderbilt University, the fourth university which he has led since leaving Morgantown. The list also includes the University of Colorado, The Ohio State University, and Brown University.
The WSJ article critiques Mr. Gee’s generous salary and perks. And it also balances criticism of his compensation with praise for his outstanding fundraising ability. Vanderbilt’s endowment has grown from $2 billion to $3.2 billion during Mr. Gee’s tenure. That feat alone would make Commodore Vanderbilt proud of his namesake school.
Gordon Gee’s prominence is not new, however. The national media discovered him while he was president of WVU. Burger King ran a television ad campaign called “Where’s Herb?” Herb was promoted as the only American who had not eaten a BK Whopper and viewers were offered a cash reward if they spotted Herb in public.
As luck would have it, the actor who portrayed the fictional Herb was a dead ringer for Gordon Gee. It wasn’t long before Mr. Gee was seeing strangers point at him and exclaim, “There’s Herb!”
“Herb” is again newsworthy just as David C. Hardesty has announced that he will step down as WVU’s President. The university has formed a presidential search committee and I think it’s rather certain that the committee will receive two lists of candidates from which to pick. So then, this is a good time to consider the candidates who hope to steward West Virginia’s flagship institution of higher learning.
First of all, the committee will hire a professional headhunter. I always believed that headhunters and headhunting firms were nothing more than glorified realtors. After all is said and done, they provide you with a handful of listings in your price range and then ask for their fee. The headhunter’s list will be populated by professionals from academia—Herbs, if you will—and will contain most of the frontrunners for the job.
The second list, what I call the “out-of-work brothers-in-law slate”, will be provided by state politicians and other power brokers who believe that patronage is the pathway to employment. Patronage and nepotism have justified their existence, so pardon them if they know no better.
Sometime in March 2007, both lists of names will be commingled and the resumes will be thoroughly shuffled. This is an important step in the selection process because it guarantees that some candidates will appear to be outstanding in comparison to others in their peer group. The selection system then works as predicted, and is considered a success because most search committees never ask the all-important question, “As compared to whom?”
The search committee can avoid this trap by first identifying the needs of WVU before it even accepts a resume. The job description drives the process, not the other way around. Since the search committee is probably now defining the job description, let me offer my thoughts.
The next WVU president will face two major tasks. First, faculty and staff salaries need to be raised significantly to insure that the university not only retains, but also attracts, the best personnel. As WVU grows to 30,000 enrolled students, faculty and staff will also grow. And second, the university’s growth and expansion needs to be financed by a method other than further burdening the already debt-laden student body. Both of these goals can be mutually accomplished without compromise.
The candidate that WVU should be looking for can be best-described as the next Peter Ueberroth. Ueberroth, you’ll recall, organized the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles; the event made a profit of nearly $300 million. He proved that a public enterprise could be of world-class quality without complaint while still being operated efficiently.
To the search committee, I say this: Forget List #1 and List #2. Go find the next Peter Ueberroth. He’s out there, but his resume isn’t on file with academic headhunters and he’s surely not an out-of-work brother-in-law!
I have always said that David Hardesty is the best president that West Virginia University will ever have. He was born for the job. Even so, he had his detractors during the selection process. Those who preferred List #1 said he lacked academic credentials. Those who preferred List #2 said he would use the job as a springboard for politics. Fortunately, the previous search committee ignored all of that claptrap.
Leading West Virginia University, the university where greatness is learned, is an honor and a privilege. I wish the search committee well in its quest to find the candidate who is worthy of the title.
David Allen was the May, 2006 graduation speaker for the Exercise Physiology Division at the WVU School of Medicine.
"The Importance of Being Herb" appeared in the Oct. 6, 2006 edition of the WV State Journal and was reprinted in the (Clarksburg) Sunday Exponent-Telegram (10-8-06) and WVU Daily Athenaeum (10-12-06).
David G. Allen, Clarksburg, WV
Copyright 1990-2006 David G. Allen