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Published: Friday, 7/11/2014 - Updated: 2 months ago

COMMENTARY

UT focus must be on the future

BY KEITH C. BURRIS
COLUMNIST FOR THE BLADE

This is a column about the University of Toledo and what the future of the university might mean to this city.

This is not the column people have been urging me to write — about the departure of UT President Lloyd Jacobs and his compensation.

That seems like a rabbit hole.

Individuals thrive who live in the present. Institutions thrive that focus on the future. The question is: “What’s next?”

The task before the UT Board of Trustees is, broadly, to lift the university to the level of national importance and quality.

More immediately, the task is to find a new president. The two goals are intertwined.

I began grown-up life as a college professor and have taught intermittently since. To me, what makes a great university is, at root, pretty simple: High standards for the students and faculty who are preeminent in their respective fields. Next, there must be a feeling of intellectual excitement, experiment, and cross pollination on the campus. Finally, there must be visionary leadership, and that’s not so simple.

College and university presidents mostly raise funds. They also govern — keep the faculty together, manage crisis, and balance the books. But great ones do a third thing: They lift. They inspire and transform the institution.

I went to the University of Pittsburgh. Many years ago it had a visionary president, Edward Litchfield, who lifted the place from a decent regional school to a near-great one by upgrading students and faculty. He hired philosophy professors, at one point, from Yale. Jonas Salk taught and assembled his polio vaccine team at Pitt.

For 25 years I covered the transformation of the University of Connecticut — from a mediocre state university in the Eastern Connecticut countryside to membership among the top 25 public universities in the country. UConn had a president named Philip Austin who rebuilt the campus and beefed up the faculty by hiring top scientists who could win federal grant money.

UT doesn’t need to build buildings. It has one of the most beautiful campuses in Ohio. And, it might surprise many Toledoans to know that UT faculty are doing cutting-edge research on climate change, on brain cancer, in astronomy, and on the future of Lake Erie.

UT needs to get the word out about the research on its campus that is of lasting significance.

People like me need to get the word out.

UT is the most important institution for the future of the city. Others may be bigger or more visible. UT will shape our collective future.

All sorts of questions are going to be with us for the next five to 10 years: Should the law school move downtown (UConn’s is in Hartford); the future of the University of Toledo Health Science Campus, the former Medical College of Ohio, (Pitt has a great one); and how to build town-gown interaction.

But maybe the immediate task is to present UT to the world and to keep building its academics. To sell and lift.

The trustees have hired a search firm. It will be looking at pure academicians as well as eminent medical professionals. UT Board of Trustees Chairman Joseph H. Zerbey IV says, “We can’t make a mistake.” Mr. Zerbey, who is president and general manager of The Blade, adds that the trustees will take as much time as necessary, and even restart the process, if need be, to get the right person. All the applicants will be good fund-raisers and administrators. Visionaries are hard to find.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.



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