Saturday, June 19, 2010

Chapter 2

Ten minutes after the scheduled noon start of the press conference, George Michaelson strode into the NDU Board of Trustees room where the dozen journalists who had shown up were busily helping themselves to the buffet lunch that had been planned for thirty. He quickly made his way to the head of the table where a lectern with the NDU seal had been placed. "Welcome to NDU, ladies and gentlemen," he said affably. "I'm sorry for being late, but my previous meeting ran over."

Actually, there hadn't been any such meeting--nor would he have scheduled one before anything as important as a press conference. He had been waiting in the next room in the hope that more journalists would arrive. But when it didn't look like anyone else was coming, he and his media relations director thought he'd better get started before he lost what audience he had.

Michaelson knew most of the twelve journalists who had shown up. Some of them were actually NDU staff members and not "real" journalists. One was the director of the campus radio station, WNDU, while another was the editor of What's New at NDU, the information sheet which was distributed to faculty and staff. They would print or broadcast the press release exactly as it was worded, but were always invited to these things out of courtesy.

Also present, Michaelson noted unhappily, was Tricia Raditz--the overweight student who had just taken over as the new editor-in-chief of New Dominion, the student newspaper, at the beginning of the school year. She too was invited out of courtesy--though this was something that the paper itself had already displayed a distinct lack of under her leadership. He hoped she wouldn't say anything today.

However, in addition to these three (whose primary purpose at these press conferences, Michaelson thought, was to help make the room look full), there were also some real journalists. These included reporters from the Northern Virginia offices of both the Washington Post and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Michaelson was a little irritated with the Post. It always sent Kate Morgan out to his press conferences, but the story usually appeared somewhere in the Metro section covering local news instead of the front section which covered national and international issues. The Post, though, had been generally friendly to NDU--unlike the Times-Dispatch which reflected downstate hostility toward the increasingly prosperous and populous Northern Virginia suburbs around Washington. Michaelson had to be especially careful with the Times-Dispatch since this was the paper read by most of the state legislators. Others present included reporters from some of the smaller papers which circulated in Northern Virginia and a couple of local radio stations. The entire event was being filmed by News Channel 108--a local cable TV company's 24 hour news service. Also present was NDU's provost, Jeannette Bobier.

"The press release which was passed out to you," he continued, "announces the new Public Policy Institute we're establishing here at NDU. But before talking about the details of that, let me just put this in context by reviewing the highlights of what we've accomplished here over the past decade." After several years of having to make a deliberate effort to do so, referring to himself in the plural had now become second nature for Michaelson.

"A decade ago, someone described NDU as being little better than a finishing school for academically challenged community college students. Now that was a bit unfair," he said jovially. Actually, he thought, it wasn't unfair at all.

"Over the past decade, though, we have grown the student body from less than ten thousand to over twenty thousand and the faculty from less than three hundred to over six hundred.

"Numbers alone, of course, don't tell the whole story. The quality of the students we attract has improved dramatically over this period." That, he knew, was something of an overstatement. About half the students were as low quality as when he first became president. But an increasing number of better students were coming here, he believed, as a result of his successful efforts to enhance NDU's reputation.

"Through our New Dominion scholars program, we attract some of the very top students from across the state."

This program was one of his first initiatives designed to ingratiate himself with the state legislature. Through it, an incoming freshman from each of the forty state senatorial districts was granted a full four year scholarship. The program generated positive publicity for NDU across the state each spring when the new New Dominion scholars were announced. What NDU did not publicize, though, was that each year an embarrassingly large percentage of these students transferred to other schools--sometimes even though they didn't receive any financial assistance from them.

"And as everyone knows, NDU is building one of the finest faculties in the nation. In recent years, we've attracted bright young Ph.D.s from virtually every major university in the country. Depending on the field, our announcements for tenure-track assistant professorships can result in a hundred, two hundred, or even more applicants. The fact that so many high quality young scholars want to teach here is a gratifying tribute to NDU's increasing stature in the academic world."

Michaelson knew, of course, that NDU's "stature" alone wasn't responsible for this trend. It was greatly aided by the fact that the major research universities as a group turned out far more Ph.D.s than there were assistant professorships available for, and by the Supreme Court ruling that had struck down a mandatory retirement age for professors, thus constricting the number of openings that mandatory retirement at age 65 used to create. NDU's highly desirable location just outside Washington, D.C.--but not actually in it--was also a draw.

"In addition, the university professorship program we initiated has drawn two dozen academic superstars to NDU."

It was this program, Michaelson knew, which had been most responsible for quickly boosting NDU's reputation. The main business of a university is to teach, but its reputation is made on the basis of faculty research. However, the faculty he inherited when he first arrived--especially the tenured ones--had done precious little of this. And what little they had done was not exactly on the cutting edge of anything. In what Michaelson regarded as a conspiracy of the mediocre, it appeared to him that they gave each other tenure after serving time for six years and publishing a few token articles in third rate journals which were rarely cited (except, of course, by their authors in self-citations).

Michaelson had shaken up the faculty's complacency when he first came to NDU as president by rejecting half the candidates for tenure three years in a row. There was nothing, though, that he could do about the mediocrities that already had tenure. In fact, many of the tenured professors on the faculty when he first started ten years ago were still here now. Not many had retired, and except for a few who had been unable to keep their hands off their students or the secretaries, he had not been able to fire any either.

But Michaelson had made the most of a bad situation. He had thought up the university professors program in order to bring senior professors who had outstanding publications records to NDU. More importantly, though, he had made this program happen. Michaelson had approached the chairmen and chief executive officers of various corporations based in Northern Virginia and persuaded many of them to endow professorships with salaries high enough to attract superstars. Just the announcements of the gifts for these chairs had generated a lot of publicity, as had the high profile appointments to them. Finally, Michaelson's insistence that these university professors take an active role in promotion and tenure decisions both in their departments and at the college level had shamed the "ordinary" tenured professors into raising the standards they applied to others, even though they had not met them themselves.

"And we hope to continue to bring more university professors to NDU in the future."

This, however, had become increasingly difficult. Michaelson feared that he had had just about as much success with the local CEOs as he was going to have. Those who had been willing to endow a chair had already done so; those who had not been willing before were unlikely to become so now. In this region, however, there were always new firms going public. And when they did, he would be there to point out to their newly enriched CEOs how they and their corporations would enhance their reputations as good corporate citizens in the region through endowing a university professorship at NDU.

But just as the university professorship program had worked for NDU, it had also worked for George Michaelson. He had befriended some of these CEOs, and half a dozen of them had appointed him a member of their corporate board of directors. Michaelson had heard that being a director of a corporation could be lucrative, but he had had no idea how much so until becoming one himself. The boards he was on paid between $12,000 and $30,000 per year, plus $500 to $1,000 per board meeting attended, plus stock options. And these were by no means Northern Virginia's biggest or best paying corporations. One of the corporations whose board he served on had been bought out by another firm. Although he had not been appointed to the acquiring board's corporation, he had reaped a handsome profit from the dramatically increased value of his stock options. He wouldn't mind if that happened again!

Michaelson loved the world of the corporate board room with its smartly dressed men and women who spoke softly but acted decisively. It was so different from the down-at-heels world of a public university where everyone whined, took seemingly forever to make the simplest decisions, and then resisted implementing them. There was no tenure in the corporate world. If you didn't produce, you were history! And that's the way it should be at universities too, he thought.

"Excuse me, Dr. Robertson, may I just ask a question?" It was the woman from What's New at NDU. He could never remember her name. "It's been noted that all of the university professors who have been appointed so far have come from outside NDU. Has there been any thought given to the possibility of elevating any of the outstanding professors already here to this rank?"

What the hell was this? Wasn't this bitch under orders to keep her stupid mouth shut at press conferences? Had she somehow convinced herself that she was a real journalist? The non-academic staff was even worse than the professors. At least professors could be gotten rid of during the six years they normally worked before receiving tenure. The non-academic staff, by contrast, was protected by state civil service regulations. After only one year's probation, it was virtually impossible to get rid of them. Unlike professors, though, non-academic staff could be transferred from one division of the university to another relatively easily. He would see to it that this idiot was transferred to one of NDU's many little Siberias by next week.

Considering the intensity of these thoughts, Michaelson exercised admirable self control. Not only was this a press conference, but it was being recorded on film. "Thanks for that question," he beamed. "We always conduct a national search whenever a new university professorship is endowed. Professors with a national reputation from any university are encouraged to apply, including those right here at NDU. And while no one already here at NDU has yet been appointed a university professor, we are hopeful that one of our own--perhaps one of our up and coming younger scholars--will be able to win the competition for this coveted academic honor."

Michaelson knew that this was a source of discontent among the regular professors--especially the older ones--at NDU, but that didn't bother him. It wasn't his fault that they couldn't qualify for a university professorship. If they didn't like it, they could always leave. In fact, he wished they would. But of course, they would not since no university would give tenure to a tenured professor from another university with a poor publications record. For if they didn't produce much at their old university, why would they produce more at a new one?

Michaelson had hoped that the younger faculty appointed during his watch would emerge as academic superstars. But despite having Ph.D.s from leading universities, not as many as he had hoped showed signs of doing this. He realized that teaching three and three was a heavy load and didn't leave much time for research. He also knew that the old guard in the departments who would vote on their tenure cases placed a heavy service burden on them. But if these young people really were up-and-comers, they'd be out there winning the fellowships and grants which would buy them the time off to crank out those books and articles--like that young Rob Barnes was doing over in the poli sci department.

But what really annoyed Michaelson was the fact that all too many of the superstars who came to NDU as university professors basically stopped producing once they got here. Instead of raising NDU's low research productivity, many of them sunk to its level. And this occurred despite the fact that they only taught two and two, received much higher salaries, and had much fewer service responsibilities. NDU, though, still benefited from the reputations they earned from their previous productivity, and from the fact that most of them were publicly visible, often making TV appearances or writing op-ed pieces.

Still, there were some problems even when they did this. There was that one bastard whom Michaelson had lured away from Stanford with a salary of $130,000. He appeared on the news often enough, all right--but he was usually described as still being affiliated with Stanford. For $130,000 a year, you'd think he could remember who the hell was paying his salary! If it happened again, Michaelson would have to have a little talk with him.

Here again, that young Rob Barnes was much too savvy to do anything like that. In that Wall Street Journal piece he'd published recently, Barnes's bio at the end listed him as being affiliated both with Harvard and NDU. His media relations director had expressed annoyance that Barnes didn't list himself as being affiliated just with NDU, but Michaelson was pleased to have him identified with both institutions. He liked the idea of the Journal's readership, which numbered in the millions, seeing Harvard and NDU in the same sentence. In fact, he'd be happy to see NDU linked with Stanford too. He'd have someone suggest this to that overpaid prima donna--or better yet, to his secretary.

"With this background of progress in mind, it's time now to turn to today's news," said Michaelson. "We are very pleased to announce the creation of a Public Policy Institute here at NDU, which will serve as a research center on public policy issues--whether regional, national, or international--of special concern to Northern Virginia.

"The institute, of course, is not up and running yet. It will take a year before it is. In the meantime, we are announcing a national search for the directorship of the institute. In addition, we are announcing a million dollar capital appeal for it which we are confident that many of the region's corporations--as well as businesses and foundations outside of it--will want to contribute to."

Actually, Michaelson wasn't as confident as he sounded. He had spent the summer trying to solicit a large corporate donation for the institute. No one had turned him down outright, but no one had made a firm commitment either. The problem was that each corporation wanted the institute to be named after it, but was unwilling to provide anywhere near the million dollars needed to fund it. Yet if he allowed anyone's name to be attached to it for a lesser amount, no one else would want to give anything. He hoped--he prayed--that announcing the creation of the institute would trigger a series of donations in the 100K range. It was a risk, but as was often said in corporate board rooms: no risk, no reward.

Todd Rawlings from the Times-Dispatch wiggled his index finger, signaling that he wanted to ask a question. "How much funding from the state legislature are you seeking for this institute? I don't recall any discussion of this down in Richmond. And will there be any personnel associated with this institute besides the director your searching for?"

These were just the sort of niggling questions he would ask. But Michaelson was ready for him. "We're not looking for any state funding at all." Michaelson knew they wouldn't get it anyway, so there was no point in asking. "Assuming the capital appeal reaches its target, we're assuming that this will cover the initial cost of setting up a state-of-the-art office complex plus salaries for the director and two support staff for five years.

"And there will, of course, be other personnel: the scholars who will be carrying out the institute's research. Their salaries and other costs will be paid for by the grants received by the institute for specific research projects. Aside from the director, then, the institute will not have a permanent staff. Only those working on research grants--either from the existing faculty or elsewhere--will have appointments there. We anticipate, though, that the institute will be highly successful in obtaining research grants, and that ten or more fellows will be working there at any given time."

"If I can just follow up," Rawlings continued. "Where will these grants come from? Have any been awarded yet?"

"In that we've just announced the Public Policy Institute today, I think it would be a bit much to expect it to have won any research grants yet, Todd," Michaelson replied, trying to hide his annoyance. "Obtaining grants for the institute will clearly be the number one priority for the new director. A strong record of grantsmanship will be one of the criteria for selecting him--or her." Actually, it would be the most important criterion.

Michaelson tensed up as Tricia Raditz raised her plump hand. "President Michaelson, could you please tell us how the new institute director will be selected? Will there be any student input into the decision?"

Michaelson was relieved: these were actually good questions. "As a matter of fact, Tricia, two students will be appointed to the selection committee, which will have eleven members altogether: two students, five faculty members, and three business or community leaders. The eleventh member--and its chair--will be the provost, Jeannette Bobier."

This will keep her pre-occupied, thought Michaelson. He had appointed Jeannette Bobier as provost--the university's chief academic officer--eight years ago. She had served him well, especially through her willingness to issue negative recommendations in promotion and tenure cases, all of which had to go through the provost's office before being turned over to Michaelson for a final decision (positive decisions on his part then had to be ratified by the Board of Trustees, but this was a formality since it always did). Unlike the provost he inherited when he first arrived who had prided himself on protecting faculty interests, Bobier had taken over the role of heavy that Michaelson had played by himself during those early years and had even replaced him as the focus of faculty discontent.

Recently, though, Michaelson had come to suspect that Bobier herself was showing signs of discontent. He had heard rumors that she had begun talking to various people around campus about preparing for the "post-Michaelson era" at NDU. Furthermore, there were disturbing signs that others took her seriously. Michaelson had very much hoped that he would be appointed to the board of Northern Virginia software giant ZARD Industries when a vacancy opened up on it. He had been furious when he found out that she had gotten the appointment instead of him. He had, of course, congratulated her effusively. But he had begun to suspect that she was angling for his job.

Putting her in charge of the selection committee would allow Michaelson to blame her if the new director or even the Public Policy Institute itself turned out to be a flop. Looking on the bright side, though, her joining the ZARD Industries board of directors might enable her to obtain a big donation for the it--something Michaelson had never succeeded in doing.

"How will the Public Policy Institute fit into NDU administratively?" asked Kate Morgan from the Post without having raised her hand. "Will it be in the College of Arts and Sciences, or what?"

"It will not belong to any college," Michaelson answered. "The institute director will be considered the equivalent of the dean of a college, and will report directly to the provost, just like a dean."

"Doesn't the political science department offer a master's program in public administration?" she continued. "Political science, public administration, public policy--aren't these all related? What will the relationship be between the Political Science Department and the new Public Policy Institute?"

None, as far as Michaelson was concerned. The senior faculty in that department in particular was especially incompetent. There would have been no need to create the Public Policy Institute if they had done what they were supposed to and gotten grants for the university.

"The Political Science Department already has its hands full managing its large undergraduate program as well as the MPA program that you mentioned," Michaelson replied. "It would be unfair to burden its new acting chair with running the institute as well."

"We, of course, would welcome--indeed, we expect--that several of the faculty from political science--as well as economics and other departments--will be actively involved in the work of the institute."

Sensing that the group was running out of questions, Michaelson glanced down at his watch. "Uh oh! There's another meeting I must attend. If you have any further questions, please direct them to our provost, Jeannette," he said, pointing toward her. After nodding toward the camera, he then strode out of the room.