Retiring Senate President Don Williams’ interest in the presidency of Quinebaug Valley Community College has sparked a much-need conversation about what it takes to lead an institution of higher learning.
The reaction to Williams throwing his hat into the ring has been largely negative, ranging from routine letters to the editor questioning his academic credentials to a scathing column by Courant curmudgeon Kevin Rennie suggesting a thin resume and a possible conflict of interest.
Williams’ lack of higher education leadership experience does not worry me. Many colleges and universities are moving away from the traditional model anyway. Gone are the days when a Ph.D. was a prerequisite for anyone seeking to lead an institution of higher learning. The old model, which is also embraced by most private secondary schools, was that the head must not only be well grounded in education management, but driven by an academic passion that infuses everything s/he does, thus earning credibility with students and faculty and inspiring them to be the best they can be.
Ten years ago I was a finalist to become head of a Connecticut boarding school. When the job was offered to a career independent school business manager, I was horrified. After all, I and the other candidates had started in the classroom, earned master’s degrees in academic disciplines, and worked our way up the administrative ladder. But the guy they offered the job to stayed for six years, fixed the school’s precarious finances, completed a successful capital campaign, and led the institution through a thorny transition phase. Not bad for a fellow who had scarcely written a lesson plan.
Similarly, Williams’ skills might be a good fit for QVCC. As the former Senate leader whose district included QVCC’s main campus, Williams would be well positioned to advocate for the college and secure funding and resources for everything from programs to bricks and mortar. But my question about Williams’ qualifications has nothing to do with clout.
What has Williams ever run in his life? Sure, he has managed his small Senate staff and the legislators within his purview. But it remains to be seen whether he could herd the cats of public-sector academia, most of whom have job protections lawmakers can only dream of.
Williams’ resume includes stints as first selectman in Thompson (pop. 9,458) and manager of the downtown New London satellite office of Connecticut College. He has authored and shepherded lots of significant legislation, but it’s hard to see how that prepares him to lead and manage a diverse college of 2,000 students and a professional and support staff of more than 100.
As he was eyeing retirement from the U.S. Senate in 2010, Chris Dodd was said to be interested in the top job at UConn. I wrote at the time that it would be a great fit. As for Dodd’s lack of administrative experience, UConn has literally dozens of provosts and vice presidents to run the show while the boss wines and dines donors and lawmakers. Not so in a small setting like QVCC
Further complicating the situation is the fact as a candidate for the top job at QVCC, Williams is still in a position to help the college. And, as Rennie was all-too-happy to point out, there is the matter of Democratic state Rep. Mae Flexer, who sits on the QVCC presidential search committee and is currently running for the Senate seat Williams is vacating.
At this writing, it is not known whether Williams will be offered the job, how much he would make, or even if he’s one of the three finalists out of 269 candidates the search committee has reportedly settled on. But his appointment will perpetuate a disturbing trend in state government.
It’s common practice for influential lawmakers to “retire” and get an appointment as a department commissioner or even a judge. Once settled in those six-figure posts, former legislators only have to work for three years to double or triple the pension payout they would have received if they had stayed in the General Assembly.
Tha last QVCC president made $174,000 a year. Even with his leadership and committee chair posts, it’s doubtful Williams ever made more than $50,000 a year at the Capitol.
Williams’ appointment would no doubt feed cynicism about the revolving door of state government and the spiking of state-employee pensions. Memo to the search committee: Look elsewhere for a leader. There are 268 other candidates available. Just make sure you stay away from Evan Dobelle.