RIT Presidential Search LogoLet me preface this by saying that I hope I’m wrong. I’m writing this to vent a concern and hope that in some little way it might help.

The Rochester Institute of Technology’s eighth president, Albert Simone is retiring at the end of this academic year. Over the last few days, the two candidates for his position, Dr. William Destler (curriculum vitae), currently the senior vice president of Academic Affairs and provost at the University of Maryland (College Park) and Dr. James Watters (curriculum vitae), RIT???s senior vice president for Finance and Administration and treasurer of the Institute, met on campus with students, faculty, staff, alumni and trustees.

One of these men is eminently qualified for the position. One isn’t.

Unfortunately a number of signs suggest that the better man will not get the presidency.

(Before I go on, if you know what I’m talking about and want to have an effect on the situation, e-mail your feelings to the RIT Board of Trustees – RITBOT@rit.edu– I’ll reproduce this link at the end too.)

I’m not mincing words, I support Destler. From what I can tell, so do a large amount of the faculty and students. In his two days on campus he showed himself to be a smart, straight shooter with a strong vision for RIT. We, including the most cynical of my fellow staff members, had the same reaction: He get’s it. We resepect him. We’re willing to work to his vision.

From an academic standpoint, Destler’s qualifications are solid. While his school is in the sciences, he comes from a family of humanities scholars. A mechanical engineer, his PhD and post doctorate work was conducted at Cornell. Drestler rose through the ranks at Maryland, starting as a professor and advancing to the role of Provost. He’s served as the head of PhD committees and authored and coauthored a large number of papers.

In administration and fundrasing, he’s no slouch either. He helped bring a significant number of endowments to Maryland (including negotiating the naming rights for the their sports arena with Comcast). He also spearheaded the development of a number of multidisicplinary programs at Maryland as well.

Destler sees RIT as a place where he can make a difference. In an open discussion he explained that he had turned down a leadership position a “Big 10” school for the chance at the RIT presidency. The reason why? He felt he really could make a profound difference here, something that wouldn’t be possible in the other setting. Destler believes that RIT can develop into a pragmatic research institution, focusing on the R&D needs of businesses that, due to the current economic climate, can no longer afford to conduct this work internally. He also emphasized the role of the humanities and arts play in this type of problem solving. He acknowledged that for all it’s bluster, RIT has a lot of “maturing” to do, and now is the time to do it. In short, he had a vision that got all of us excited.

But, like I said, I don’t think he’s going to get the job.

His competition is RIT’s CFO (in spirit, if not in title). Dr. Watters may be an excellent Treasurer, but he isn’t the leader we need (I’m still trying to figure out if he’s even a true leader). He isn’t an academic. By that, I don’t mean to infer that his PhD is in Higher Education Administration isn’t a legitimate degree. Rather, beyond a total lack of published scholarship, he’s never held a full time teaching position or gone through the tenure process (which we suspect is one of the reasons that the Board of Trustee’s likes him). His classroom experience is limited to adjuncting. While this might not seem like a big issue, the fact is that he is lacking an understanding of the life and pressures that a significant number of his employees lead. And while I am new to the teaching game, I cannot articulate how much my perspective on things has shifted as I’ve made the transition from adjunct to visiting professor. Nor can I think of any major university headed by someone who hasn’t gone through this process.

Watters lack of academic grounding isn’t the only issue. His talks to the campus were anything but inspiring. He regularly used the words “training” and “educating” interchangeably. While this might seem like a picky note, it concerns me deeply that he sees RIT’s role as training people. I’m sorry, vocational schools train. The job of the university is to educate. Does that mean that we shouldn’t prepare people to enter the sphere of industry? No. But given the choice, I’ll take education over training any day.

Watters also discussed that he felt the job of a university president is to be a CFO (which is troubling because his current job is to be the CFO). In his opinion it’s the provost who should oversee academics on campus. The problem with this naive view is that the Provost is ultimately beholden to the president. This is not a power sharing arrangement. As has been demonstrated by the often chilly relationship between our current provost and president, in matters academic the President’s word carries the day. For a presidential candidate to deny that will be the case seems ignorant at best and disingenuous at worst.

He also displayed a distinct lack of vision. Where Destler continually built upon a the idea of fostering innovation on campus, Watters vision was to “continue the 135 points of excellence plan.” I’ve been here for a year and have no idea what the “135 points of excellence plan” is. And any vision that is articulated across 135 points is, quite frankly, too unwieldy to execute anyway.

In the end, Destler’s message is RIT has come a long way, but to reach the next level we have a lot of work to do. Watter’s message was, we’re very close to our goal and our primary problem is that we are not marketing the school well enough.

Utimately, Watters is a “Carp.” Please note that this is a comparison between him and Kodak’s former CEO, not the fish. As a former Kodak employee, I see a number of comparisons between him and Dan Carp. Both were individuals who, while good in financial roles, were leaders without vision. They are “company men” through and through, chosen because they were known commodities. And at points where a bold vision was necessary, they were content to play caretaker and hope for the best. And I truly believe that as Kodak ultimately suffered under Carp’s lack of decisive vision (particularly in the digital space) so RIT will suffer under Watters. And much like Carp, given how young he is, I expect that Watters will stay in his post for far too long.

So the choice seems clear. But the problem is that I expect the board will go in the opposite direction and choose Watters. This is in part because Watters has been groomed for years as Simone’s heir apparent. At his open campus forum the board member who introduced Watters referred to him as “eminently qualified for the position” (an introduction that Destler did not receive). Much of Watters presentation was about how he would work with the board as opposed to the staff. He joked with board members during his talk. I couldn’t help but feel that we were all sitting in on a “boys club meeting.”

And that leads the crux of the issue. Over the last decade, intentionally done or not, an almost adversarial relationship has formed between the faculty and the board. The rumblings I hear is that the board would prefer a so-called “business straight shooter” as opposed to a “woolly academic.” Perversely, there is a strong chance that they would reverse the campus pick for these reasons (something that has happened a number of times during the last year).

The sad part is, such a choice would be so Rochester – choosing a known and safe commodity over a visionary (see the example of Carp). And while in the end Watters wouldn’t hurt RIT, I don’t think he will help it. I think that under his reign, we will remain what we are today: A solid regional university desperately trying to convince ourselves that we’re top tier — all the while shying away from the hard work that it takes to make those words a reality. In other words, the curse of smugtown continues.

Like I said, I hope I’m reading the tea leaves wrong. And even i I’m right, I wish I really felt like there was more that I could do about this decision.

Update: There is something that can be done. E-mail your feelings to our Board of Trustees – RITBOT@rit.edu!