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Erskine Bowles' uncommon quality

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, October 3, 2005

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It’s Erskine Bowles.

This name is the answer to the question the University of North Carolina Board of Governors asked itself: Who is the “uncommon individual who can provide extraordinary vision and leadership for the University as it meets the growing demands of the State and the nation for the Twenty-first Century?”

The “uncommon individual” language came from a “leadership statement” the board’s presidential search committee developed to guide its search for the new president.

Although some people have registered criticism of the presidential search process, most public comments have agreed that Bowles is an excellent choice.

I think he will make an excellent president, too.

His talents, experience, commitment to public service, and willingness to accept the job if offered made him an obvious candidate—and perhaps the obvious choice. This “obviousness” was a challenge for the board’s search committee. How could it recruit and fairly consider other candidates when there was widespread public and political support for Bowles?

Like many others in North Carolina, I have known and admired Bowles for a long time. He sometimes laughingly blames me for getting him back into politics for the first time since his father’s campaign for governor in 1972. In 1986, I asked him to lead a fundraising effort to support my political efforts. I lost the election, even though, thanks to Bowles, the fundraising effort was a phenomenal success.

Afterwards, other politicians, including gubernatorial candidate Bob Jordan and presidential candidate Bill Clinton sought his help. The connection with Clinton ultimately led to Bowles’ service as White House Chief of Staff and then to his own candidacies for the U.S. Senate.

These political experiences, along with Bowles’ proven capability in business, were good training for the presidency of a public university.

Like a U.S president or the governor of a state, a public university president operates under the supervision of many constituencies. Just being selected to serve does not guarantee the resources and support that will be necessary to be successful. A good university president has to be more that a “good boss.” She or he must be a persuader and enabler.

Under state law, the Board of Governors oversees the operation of the university, and the president works at the board’s direction.

The president must be responsive, as well, to the legislature and governor. Failure to keep them happy can cost the university dearly. There are many other groups that claim ownership and demand attention: faculty, students, parents, alumni, athletic fans, donors, towns and cities where the university campuses are located, newspaper editors, and many others. Losing trust and support from even just one of these groups makes success more difficult.

Managing the staff of the President of the United States, as Bowles did, is good training for responding to multiple constituencies.

Beyond these political challenges, the leader of a public university is responsible for a complex group of organizations, each of which is a management challenge in itself. Bowles’ business background can serve him well, if he remembers that universities are not businesses and the university’s faculty and staff are not ordinary business people.

Dealing with his new responsibility to manage an academic enterprise might be a difficult assignment for Bowles. He would do well look to the example of former president C.D. Spangler, a business leader, who quickly looked for a strong academic leader to work side by side with him. Spangler persuaded William Friday’s academic vice president, Ray Dawson, to remain in place. Dawson’s loyalty, both to Spangler and to the university’s traditions, helped Spangler successfully deal with a number of academic challenges.

Bowles’ main problem, I think, will be meeting the high expectations we have for him. He cannot please all of us all the time.

But he has a secret weapon.

Once he told me that his father advised him to write 10-15 handwritten notes to different people every day.

Bowles follows that advice. I have a few of those scribbled one-liners, and so do hundreds, maybe thousands, of other North Carolinians.

Bowles is the master of that kind of personal touch that keeps people on his side even when they disagree with him.

It is the kind of touch that will help make him a great university president.


[i]D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week’s (October 9) guest is Mary Kay Andrews, author of “Hissy Fit,” a murder mystery, laced with human interest and a sense of humor.

Upcoming NC Bookwatch programs, all at 5pm, Sundays on UNC-TV:

Oct 9 Mary Kay Andrews Hissy Fit

Oct 16 Jerry Shinn Loonis! Celebrating a Lyrical Life

Oct 23 Michael Parker If You Want Me to Stay

Oct 30 Lawrence Naumoff A Southern Tragedy

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Erskine Bowles' uncommon quality

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