Michele Wheatly, left, Christopher Howard, and Sharon Gaber will all make visits to the University of Toledo campus this month.
It comes down to three people, three potential presidents, three might-be leaders who would set the tone at the University of Toledo. UT officials, who narrowed a field of 29 applicants seeking to be the next president to a trio of candidates, will bring the top picks to campus starting this week for a series of multiday visits. Whoever emerges from among the finalists — who include two women who have held high-ranking posts at larger public universities and the president of a smaller, southern, private college — will be the first hired for the top spot since a 2006 merger with the former Medical College of Ohio.
The candidates — Michele Wheatly, former West Virginia University provost; Christopher Howard, president of Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College, and Sharon Gaber, University of Arkansas provost — all have thick resumes and doctorates, and profess a desire to lead UT.
“All three finalists are superb individuals. They have a rich background in higher education, inside and outside of a university setting, and we’d be thrilled for any of them,” said Joseph H. Zerbey IV, chairman of UT’s Board of Trustees and The Blade’s president and general manager.
Unlike former president Lloyd Jacobs, a vascular surgeon who moved from president of the Medical College to lead the combined institution, none is a medical doctor.
A seamless leadership transition nearly 10 years ago was key to the merger’s success, said William McMillen, a retired UT provost and former Medical College official who worked on the merger legislation. Former UT President Dan Johnson stepped aside, creating an orderly succession.
Mr. McMillen pointed out each of the three finalists would represent a first for the university, being either the first woman or the first African-American to lead UT.
He anticipates that one presidential challenge will be responding to the myriad pressures faced by independent health-care institutions and to be conscious of the community importance of health-care fields. It’s less important, in his estimation, that the new leader come from a strictly medical background.
“Quite honestly, and we looked at this when the merger happened,” Mr. McMillen said. “There are not a great number of medical doctors who are presidents of comprehensive universities.”
Mr. Zerbey, who led the search committee, said the group focused on individual experience instead of presupposing that the next president needed to hail from a particular field.
The candidates bring varied academic and administrative backgrounds and in telephone interviews with The Blade touted their credentials and reasons they’re positioned to be the next president as well as tackle responsibilities related to the Health Science Campus.
The public will get a chance to assess their preparedness in a series of forums at both the main and health science campuses. The UT Board of Trustees is expected to meet March 9 to decide which one to hire.
Born and raised in north London, Michele Wheatly, 58, said her early life didn’t extend much farther than a few subway stops.
Her parents attended school only through the eighth grade and worked in entry-level administrative jobs.
“Their goal for us was to get an education,” she said.
She attended an all-girls school, and then studied biology and physiology at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. As an undergraduate, she delved into research, an interest she has maintained throughout her academic career, garnering National Science Foundation funding.
In 1980, she went to Canada, where she held a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Calgary. It was the first of several moves that took her across the continent, including stops at the University of Florida, Wright State University near Dayton, and then WVU. A naturalized U.S. citizen, Ms. Wheatly has also retained her British citizenship.
WVU President E. Gordon Gee asked her to vacate the provost position when he returned to lead WVU.
“He believes in sort of a complete turnover when there’s a new administration,” Ms. Wheatly said, adding that nothing about the circumstances was “sexy or interesting.”
She points to her time as provost, from 2009 to 2014, as training for taking over the top spot at UT. She said she partnered with the leader of WVU’s Health Sciences Center and was involved in conversations about the hospital system, including the impact of national health-care reform.
Her experience would “form a natural bridge” between UT’s main campus and the Health Science Campus, which she described as a big asset.
“The health fields are going to drive the economy. I think that will be the saving grace of UT. I think it’s huge for UT,” she said.
Bowling Green State University President Mary Ellen Mazey, who knows Ms. Wheatly from when they both were deans at Wright State, called her an “outstanding academic.” As a science and math dean, she worked with the medical and engineering schools and promoted women in science, Ms. Mazey said.
“She is quite a great researcher, but a good administrator and very much a collaborator,” she said.
As one of few women in her field, Ms. Wheatly said she made sure students saw her working. As WVU provost, she developed a program to train women in leadership roles. The Women’s Leadership Initiative evolved after Maryanne Reed, dean of WVU’s college of media, attended training at Harvard University and wanted to share what she had learned with women at her home university.
More than 100 women have gone through the WVU program, and Ms. Reed credits Ms. Wheatly for backing it strongly.
“I absolutely think she’s very much about helping people develop to the best of their ability and having her team ... be as effective as they can be,” Ms. Reed said.
Christopher Howard, 46, often eats lunch in the dining hall of Hampden-Sydney College, the 1,105-student private college where he has served as president since 2009.
He also works out at the gym and goes to games, lectures, and plays. At college events, he talks to alumni, staff, faculty, and students, said Saranna Thornton, professor of economics and business, who rattled off the campus places where the highly visible president of the all-male college is routinely spotted.
“He’s incredibly passionate and energetic when it comes to his job,” she said. “I have no idea when he sleeps ... but he’s always on the job, always thinking, always working.”
His resume reflects that fast-paced approach. He lists membership on 17 boards as well as jobs at universities and corporations as among his work experience.
“He’s a fairly young guy. He is a Rhodes Scholar. He has a [master’s] degree. He has a doctorate degree. ... He served his time in the Air Force,” said Raymond Bottom, Jr., a Hampden-Sydney trustee emeritus and graduate of the college. “That’s just a drop in the bucket of what he did.”
Mr. Howard deflects attention from his football past (he was a running back for the U.S. Air Force Academy) and his training as a helicopter pilot and intelligence officer (he served in active duty and in the reserves for about two decades, including time in Afghanistan) and focuses instead on his scholarly and career-related achievements.
He grew up in Texas and said that by seventh grade he knew he wanted to attend a service academy. He was recruited by several but fell in love with the Air Force.
After a stint in corporate workplaces, Mr. Howard started his first university administrative job in 2005 at the University of Oklahoma. After nearly four years, he became president of Hampden-Sydney, an institution that, like the military, was “steeped in tradition.”
It’s a preppy, rural college where most students live on campus, and the bookstore sells a guide called To Manner Born To Manners Bred: A Hip Pocket Guide to Etiquette for the Hampden-Sydney Man.
Mr. Howard describes the role of president as a CEO; in his parlance the letters stand for “chief empowerment officer.” The approach would carry over to UT.
He said he’s familiar with medical fields, citing his study of health-care topics at Harvard business school and work at the biopharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb.
“I’m not coming to it cold,” he said. “I’m bringing a dollop of humility and understanding that my role is to empower ... and to get things done ... not to be the doctor in the waiting room.”
Working at Oklahoma readied him to lead a complex public institution that requires transparency and openness, he said.
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Mr. Howard’s academic and business background creates “the whole package,” Ms. Thornton said. “When we hired him, we were really just hopeful that he would stay five years because everybody knew what a dynamic and powerful leader he was.”
Some in the college community have expressed dissatisfaction with his leadership. A Facebook page titled HSC Alumni & Friends for a New President has about 370 followers, though Ms. Thornton described the number as a small percentage of the thousands of alumni, faculty, staff, and students.
“I think it’s rare that a college president is universally admired,” she said.
The social media site posted a copy of a November document by the student senate pronouncing a vote of no confidence in board of trustees Chairman Thomas Allen and cited concerns related to Mr. Howard’s contract, which the board extended to renew automatically unless either party ends it.
Student senate Chairman C. Trent Singleton could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Allen’s executive assistant said he was out of the country and could not be reached for comment regarding Mr. Howard.
She forwarded a statement released by the college that stated the president has kept board officers informed about the potential UT job. Mr. Howard continues to do “a great deal for Hampden-Sydney” and “owes it to himself and his family to examine opportunities,” according to the statement.
The Facebook page, which does not identify its administrator, has alleged Mr. Howard has fostered a feeling of intimidation on campus and scaled down a student center project because of fund-raising woes, among other complaints.
“When you are dealing with really difficult issues, you have to make tough decisions. Some people may not like that, and that’s fair,” Mr. Howard said.
The scope of the student center project was adjusted based on feedback from facilities and fund-raising departments. He rejected the notion he has practiced intimidation.
“I don’t know why people say that. I’ve never stifled anything in my entire life. I’m saddened that’s ever been said,” he said.
Mr. Bottom has heard that some students have expressed unhappiness about “relatively petty things.”
“Dr. Howard has done a lot for Hampden-Sydney in a sense of putting it on the map,” he said. “I have felt for some time that he is probably at our school when he should be at some other school that is much larger.”
Studying urban planning and economics suited 51-year-old Sharon Gaber’s early academic interests and, she later realized, meshed with her administrative ambitions.
The University of Arkansas provost would draw on her educational background if she is chosen to lead UT.
She said the university is “critically linked” to the city and can strengthen its role as an economic engine.
“We can expand that and in doing that it is going to enhance the reputation, the research, the draw that the university has,” she said.
Ms. Gaber, who grew up in Pasadena, Calif., remained on the West Coast to study economics and urban studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She received her doctorate in city and regional planning at Cornell University.
Her first academic leadership role was at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she became a department chairman. As the lone woman in her department, Ms. Gaber said she often served on committees and found she was good at those tasks.
“I don’t believe that I started out wanting to be an administrator. I love research, I love teaching, I love connecting with students and faculty,” she said. “Part of what I like to do is [bring] groups together.”
At Arkansas, she said she’s done that by hiring a diverse group of deans, helping to enhance the university’s research focus, and diving into fund-raising efforts. She travels to high schools to promote the university and meets with donors at football games.
“On this campus, the provost is highly visible not just on campus but in the community too,” said Stacy Leeds, Arkansas’ law school dean. “A lot of those things that are expected of a president or chancellor she’s already doing.”
The University of Arkansas System’s medical sciences campus is not in Fayetteville, though there is a branch facility, Ms. Gaber said. She said she meets regularly with medical school officials and serves as secretary on the board of Washington Regional Medical Center, a nonprofit, 366-bed hospital in Fayetteville.
Washington Regional’s board chairman, who is also the sheriff of Washington County, Arkansas, said Ms. Gaber offers insight and a different perspective to her work with the medical center.
“She’s really top-notch in finance,” said Sheriff Tim Helder, adding that she brings common sense and a focus on collaboration.
She said those experiences provide her with direct knowledge of working with a hospital and medical school to take on the presidency at UT, where she sees more opportunities following the medical school merger.
Among Ms. Gaber’s leadership attributes is her ability to communicate and build a team, said Ms. Leeds. Even though the deans are sometimes in competition with each other for limited resources there are few turf wars.
“Maybe it’s the people that are part of the team or maybe it’s the way that she directs the team, but the end result is that you have a highly collegial group of people,” Ms. Leeds said. “That is really a priority of hers.”
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