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Filling Gilley's Role at UT

by Joe Sullivan

J. Wade Gilley's resignation last week as UT's president seemingly leaves a bigger hole at the top of the university's hierarchy than would have been the case before he came along.

One of Gilley's early moves after becoming president in 1999 was to do away with the post of chancellor of UT's Knoxville's campus and consolidate the two jobs. Not long after then-Chancellor Bill Snyder had been unceremoniously dumped, his first lieutenant and heir apparent, Provost John Peters, took his leave to become president of Northern Illinois University. So Gilley was left holding the responsibilities of what had been two-going-on-three of the university's top officials. (Former chemistry professor Clifton Woods has been serving as interim provost during the course of a search for a successor to Peters.)

The question becomes: How big a vacuum does Gilley's abrupt departure create and what are its consequences for a university that's been striving to reverse a decade-long decline in its academic standing?

At first blush, the timing couldn't seem worse in relation to sustaining Gilley's initiatives to make faculty salaries more competitive and to lift UT into the top ranks of the nation's public research universities. The state legislature is at a crucial juncture in deciding on funding for the fiscal year ahead, including a special appropriation for the embryonic Centers of Excellence program that has been Gilley's hallmark. Amid the state's much-publicized fiscal crunch, prospects for getting it funded were enhanced by the reputation Gilley has built on Capitol Hill in Nashville both for vision and for tough-mindedness in streamlining what had been perceived as a bloated UT bureaucracy.

Acting President Eli Fly can continue to carry out the financial control part of that mantra—after all, he's been UT's financial controller for the better part of his 40-year career on campus. Beyond that, though, he lacks the stature to be perceived as anything more than a caretaker. Yet while the absence of a change agent at the top will no doubt slow progress on several fronts, Gilley's departure is probably less significant than meets the eye for several reasons.

For one, Gilley's health problems (diabetic and thyroid) have dissipated his energy levels and effectiveness over the past several months. According to several UT trustees and colleagues, he had de facto become a part-time president with little time for two of the most important aspects of the job: fundraising and faculty relations. While he boasted in speeches about launching a $1 billion fund-raising campaign, he never got to the crucial stage of commissioning a feasibility study that is a prerequisite to any such effort. At a long-scheduled meeting with a select group of senior faculty two weeks ago, Gilley showed up late, cut the meeting short and lectured rather than listened to faculty members, according to one that was present. "He seemed to think he invented research at UT," grumped this scholar.

Gilley further undermined his credibility with his selection of the now notorious Pamela Reed to spearhead identification, if not solicitation, of research funding sources for nascent Centers of Excellence. Gilley and his family should not be subjected to any more scurrilous rumors about the nature of his relationship with Reed. Suffice it to say that he used deplorable judgment in engaging a woman with dubious qualifications to be his confidante.

Even as Gilley is exiting, a new provost with heralded credentials is about to enter the scene. Loren Crabtree, who has been provost at Colorado State University for the past four years, will assume the same post at UT on July 1. According to retired former Provost John Prados, who headed the search committee for the post, "Crabtree stood out above the rest of a good pool of candidates." With his academic background—as an Asian history scholar—Crabtree should be able to gain faculty respect to go with his reputation as a strong administrator and strategic thinker. And that combination should do a lot to lessen any damage done by Gilley's relinquishing the reins.

Prados offers yet another reason for minimizing any damage. "Universities have a huge amount of inertia that keeps them going. Presidents, provosts and even deans can all mess up and it won't make much difference in the short run," he propounds. (The flip side of that, of course, is that universities are very hard to change.)

Even where state funding is concerned, little if any effect on UT's prospects is foreseen. "I don't think Gilley's departure will have anything to do with it," ventures influential Sen. Ben Atchley. "He's made good marks with everybody in Nashville for getting UT on the right course, and I think the prospects are good for getting most, if not all of the funding he's been seeking."

If that proves true, UT will commence its search for a new president on a much stronger footing than when it launched the search three years ago that led to Gilley. Then, it was anything but clear that a seven-year drought in state funding would turn for the better anytime soon. Now, the presidential search committee that's due to be appointed at UT's next Trustees meeting on June 28 can point to a governor and a Legislature that have evidenced commitment to paying up for higher education—if only a revenue source can be established.

Reportedly, the last search only produced a handful of candidates who passed any kind of screening. Along with the prospect of taking the helm of a school one wag compared to the Titanic, another reason for the dearth of interest may have been that the search was limited to presidents of other universities. This time around the "Only Presidents Need Apply" sign may well be taken down. According to primus inter pares Trustee James Haslam II, a good case has been made for also looking at the number two person at top-tier universities.

The biggest impediment to attracting top-flight candidates, in Haslam's view, is the sunshine law requirement that the selection process be conducted publicly. "If we could just bring people in and nobody knew they were here, we'd get candidates who can't afford to have it known they are interested. That's why the private schools are attracting the good people," Haslam vents.

Still, under all the circumstances, Gilley seemed like a good choice at the time. It's very sad to see that his tenure, which started with a bang, has ended with a whimper.

June 7, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 23
© 2001 Metro Pulse