Jeffrey Wadsworth — Board of Trustees member, president and CEO of Battelle Memorial Institute and chair of Ohio State’s Presidential Search Committee — talks about the challenges and opportunities for the university’s next leader.
onCampus: In general, how does today’s climate (in higher education, in politics, etc.) affect the task of finding a new president?
Nationally the expectations of a university president’s role are ever increasing in terms of accountability and complexity. A president must be an exceptional leader, with expertise in academic matters, strategic planning, fundraising and marketing. In essence, he or she will be serving as CEO of a Fortune 500-sized company.
Additionally, the weak economy has increased focus on the affordability of a modern university education and the value it provides. Stretched by rising tuition costs, a university president must strive to make education affordable to all while dealing with declining state and federal support. Given the strong correlation between a college education and economic success, this is a critical challenge.
Further, colleges are bracing for a sharp decline in the number of high school graduates. In some areas of the country, the number of high school graduates is expected to drop dramatically, so universities have to find ways to seek out, attract and retain increasing numbers of qualified lower-income, first-generation and minority students.
Finally, university presidents need to be able to steer their organization to compete against for-profit universities and nonprofit learning organizations, massive open online courses and so on.
While aware of the national issues, we also need to focus from a local viewpoint. We are looking for the next president at a time when there are other high-profile searches under way.
OSU’s new Medical Center expansion, strong finances and incredible students, staff and faculty make this one of the most attractive and alluring opportunities in the country, so the competition is less concerning to me. OSU is an amazing place that will attract the top presidential talent.
onCampus: How does, or should, Ohio State’s current search compare to others — either previous ones here or others going on around the country?
JEFFREY WADSWORTH: Our search is extremely well researched and open to every possible avenue that can lead to the best president.
For example, we have established an Advisory Subcommittee, held a symposium with four sitting presidents, and hired an executive recruiter to provide input and suggestions. Additionally, we have a transparent process to define the desired qualities of the next president and have developed a website to allow input from alumni, faculty and staff.
This has allowed us to receive recommendations from a broad set of stakeholders. All this input has been excellent, and we now start the work of interviewing the best candidates.
onCampus: What type of person do you think will be drawn to Ohio State’s presidency?
JEFFREY WADSWORTH: OSU will attract leaders who recognize the tremendous assets that OSU has to offer and the platform it represents.
In presiding over one of only 62 member institutions of the Association of American Universities, the new president will have the opportunity to be a key leader in impacting university education policy and reform. The next president will be someone who thrives in a milieu of complexity and scale and breadth. The position provides the unique opportunity to build a world-class medical center and research institute, manage the best athletic program in the country, and partner with local, state and national communities.
onCampus: Would you assess the work of the Advisory Subcommittee? How difficult has it been for the search committee, and by extension the Board of Trustees, to define and then stick to such a thoughtful, deliberative approach to the search?
JEFFREY WADSWORTH: The work of the Advisory Subcommittee has been superb.
Thirteen faculty, staff and students, led by Professor Debby Merritt, have produced two extremely valuable documents — the first is the presidential profile and the second is a description of OSU. These kinds of documents are extremely difficult to deliver, striving as they must to be consensus-based while containing specifics.
The quality of the work by the Advisory Subcommittee is so good that the Board has embraced all aspects of their input; in fact, I’m afraid that their reward has been that we have asked them do even more than their original scope!
onCampus: Speaking of that thoughtful approach: What were your main takeaways from the Symposium on the Presidency convened here in late August?
JEFFREY WADSWORTH: First, I was extremely grateful to the four presidents — Larry Bacow (formerly at Tufts), Tom Ross (University of North Carolina System), Teresa Sullivan (University of Virginia) and Elson Floyd (Washington State University) — for participating and to Dick Chait (Harvard) for moderating. Scott Cowan of Tulane also was going to attend but was stranded in the Atlanta airport; we subsequently talked to him, and he shared his views.
My main takeaways were that the modern presidency is an increasingly challenging role and that it requires many skills.
Some of the key highlights from the panel: the managerial expertise to operate a $5 billion business, which is larger than many Fortune 500-sized companies; the political knowledge to deal with the challenges and realities of local, state and national politics; and the skills to balance the medical enterprise with the other research areas of the university.
To succeed in this environment, the panelists stressed the need for visionary leadership coupled with the skill to deal with multiple audiences. These were just a few of many other insights offered both during the panel discussion and in subsequent conversations.
onCampus: What do you see as the university’s areas of strength? What must the next president do to nurture those strengths?
JEFFREY WADSWORTH: The fact is that a nationally prominent, $5 billion-per-year, great university has many assets, and the profile of OSU by the Advisory Subcommittee has done a wonderful job identifying them.
The problem is that for every area one lists, someone will be offended that their area is not listed. The Medical Center has to be recognized because of its excellence and size, as does the athletics program.
Personally I find the Byrd Polar Research Center to be a fantastic asset; I firmly believe that 100 years from now researchers will visit OSU to study the history of the world as revealed by Lonnie Thompson’s ice drillings — a collection that can never again be reproduced because the ice sources have receded or disappeared.
Other unique aspects include the brand new microscopy center, which will be the best in the world. I have been equally impressed by some of our language accomplishments and work in history studies. The list is endless.
As a general guideline, OSU should aim to develop programs and facilities and groups of people that are unabashedly world-leading, and we should be proud to state that as our objective.
onCampus: And along with that: What do you see as areas of yet-untapped potential at Ohio State, and what are some specific things the next president must do to draw out that potential?
JEFFREY WADSWORTH: An ability to predict the future is certainly a necessary skill for the next president of OSU. As we have discussed, universities will need to reorient themselves due to shifts in demography and technology.
In my opinion, great universities exist to solve great problems, and there are many challenges facing the world. Population growth is one of the most well-understood and reliable demographic data sets. We know that in about 35 years the world population will grow from 7 billion to 9 billion people. This growth, combined with increasing prosperity, will drive enormous energy demand — a 40 percent increase by 2040 — that cannot be met without significant technological progress.
There will continue to be concomitant environmental and societal impacts. Population growth will of course drive food issues including production and security. An aging population will bring with it added complexity to the cost of an already teetering health care cost model. Inevitably, there will be new national security requirements.
Solutions to all of these topics will require unprecedented teaming amongst experts in every area of the university, from sociology to engineering, from philosophy to political studies, from business to languages.
This is why Ohio State’s Discovery Themes are such an opportunity to demonstrate OSU’s capacity to examine and solve the technological, social and environmental questions that characterize today’s world.
Business innovations at OSU have provided the funds to make possible these investments. We often forget that successful research requires a three-legged stool of money, staff and equipment. Without all three, the research will fail.
In my experience, anything of value takes a village to solve — and that is where OSU must excel in the future.