The Marshall University Board of Governors could have chosen a safe, boring path when it chose the person to be the university’s next president. Instead, it took a different direction by hiring Brad Smith, a former Fortune 500 CEO with no experience in handling the day-to-day affairs of a state-supported university.
Rumors say the fix for Smith was in a long time ago. Current Marshall President Jerome Gilbert and Gov. Jim Justice had troubles from the day Justice was elected five years ago. Justice appointed every current member to the Board of Governors, and Smith and Justice both have residences in Greenbrier County. The coincidences add up.
That part is all behind us, though, and now Smith is the one who is expected to lead Marshall through a time of change.
College presidents are expected to follow a specified career path: Ph.D., professor, department head, administrator and provost. Smith definitely offers something different, and it’s apparently time to get used to different.
Higher education has become as much as business as it has a nonprofit educational service. Research grants and the ever-growing influence of outside money in athletics have contributed to that. But students, too, look at higher education as much as a financial investment as an intellectual one. The cost of tuition has risen at a higher rate than the cost of living. Given the recent increase in the inflation rate, that does not bode well for colleges and universities.
Students and prospective students ask if the loans they take out are worth the burden they will bring after graduation. CEOs are well versed in the concepts of return on investment and customer service.
There are other positives a CEO brings to the president’s office. As one of Marshall’s largest individual donors, Smith will have a connection with others whose generosity could help the institution grow. As a Marshall graduate himself, he has a bond with the community that people brought in from outside must take time to cultivate.
It’s been said that personnel is policy. Among Smith’s first duties will be hiring an athletic director and a provost. The provost will handle the academic side of the institution while the athletic director deals with challenges in that arena.
If the Board of Governors had a major problem with Gilbert, it was his focus on the academic and social side of Marshall and his reluctance to engage with legislators at the Capitol.
A university president in this age must be a politician, at least partly. He or she must be visible at the Capitol while the Legislature is in session. Smith already carries a certain celebrity status thanks to his leadership at Intuit. Now he will be expected to leverage that and his other skills to defend Marshall while lawmakers decide whether to increase or decrease the amount of money Marshall gets in the next budget.
At a news conference Thursday following his appointment, Smith said Marshall needs to dream bigger, deliver faster and define excellence. He admitted he will make mistakes, but that’s how people learn. The school will need to try some things, and not all will work.
“Excellence is having the courage to get caught learning,” he said.
He also said, “We need to punch above our weight, and we need to reach for the stars.”
That sounds like exactly what Marshall needs. The next few years should be interesting ones.