Quiet approach drawing criticism: President’s lack of visibility hurts IU, some complain

Never mind the Herculean task of leading the state’s largest college system in a difficult economic climate; he knew that would be hard. But after two years of long weeks and late nights, he’s facing a more surprising challenge-defending himself from critics who question his ability to get the job done.

IU seems to be adrift, naysayers argue, and so far Herbert doesn’t seem to be doing much to get it back on course.

“It is with great regret that I’m forced to conclude that … Adam Herbert has nothing to show for his nearly two years in office,” alumnus Zach Wendling wrote on Weblog In the Agora this year. “He has not shown the leadership, vision, or energy required to revitalize IU, and we can no longer look to him for reform.”

“The criticism is out there. I hear it every day,” acknowledged Stephen L. Ferguson, chairman of Bloomingtonbased Cook Group Inc. and the ranking member of IU’s board of trustees. Some dissatisfaction is to be expected, he said, but “you don’t like to have the extent and amount of criticism that’s occurring now.”

Among the biggest complaints: a perception that the university president is missing in action. On and off campus, opinion leaders say they don’t see as much of Herbert-and what he’s doing-as they’d like.

“For all I know, his strategy may be to focus more on a national level, activities that will bear fruit as we go down the road,” said Indianapolis businessman William G. Mays, a member of the IU Foundation’s board of directors. “[But] there is absolutely no question that visibility matters.”

That’s not news to Herbert, 61, who nevertheless says his first priority was to get the university’s operations in order. That process is nearly complete, but he admits his face time has suffered.

“When I came in, I spent more time than I anticipated on the internal affairs of the university,” he told IBJ last week. “… What you’ll see going forward is a much more aggressive IU presence” in the communities it serves.

Laying foundation

Still, Herbert disputes the notion that the university hasn’t made progress under his watch.

While he’s been handling internal issues-wrestling with funding cuts, filling senior-level positions and bulking up IU’s government relations team, for example-the new president has been setting goals and rallying the troops to chip away at them.

One of his more ambitious objectives is to double externally funded grants and contracts within a decade, an effort Herbert said is already succeeding. Last year, the university brought in more than $476 million in external funding, nearly 25 percent more than the $383 million it posted in 2002.

He credited IU’s quality faculty and the support they receive from the university.

“It’s a realistic goal for this university to reach $750 million to $800 million a year in sponsored research,” Herbert said. “The momentum we have suggests we’ll get there.”

Herbert cited other accomplishments, too, including success in attracting more of Indiana’s best and brightest students. The mean SAT score for this year’s incoming freshman class is 1147, he said, an improvement over last year and 140 points above the state average.

The university also is making progress in its quest to become one of the nation’s top cancer centers, he said. Plans are in place for a new cancer hospital in Indianapolis, and IU has managed to attract a number of world-class faculty members to join its already-impressive staff.

“I believe in the concept of selective excellence,” Herbert said. “We can’t be outstanding in every area. But in some, we can truly achieve national distinction. This is one of them.”

Maintaining other programs’ national reputation, in fact, was also on Herbert’s list of accomplishments. Sustaining excellence is important and keeps the university moving forward, he said.

“I don’t see us treading water,” he said, dismissing the criticism. “We are laying a firm foundation on which we are building an even better university. Some of these things you just can’t see from the outside.”

Traveling man

But perceptions still can present a problem.

In fact, rumblings about IU and Herbert have reached such a pitch in central Indiana that trustees are asking the president to quiet the critics in the coming year.

“Adam has articulated what he wants to do … but he just hasn’t gotten all the various university constituents on the same page in the hymnal, if you know what I mean,” said trustee Patrick A. Shoulders, an Evansville attorney. “That’s where the board would expect him to go next.”

Shoulders, elected to the board this summer when his appointed term expired, spent a lot of time talking to alumni about the state of affairs at Indiana. While his alma mater has many things to be proud of, he acknowledges there is room to improve.

“The perception in some circles is that IU has been wandering in the wilderness without a strategic direction,” he said. “There is frustration and impatience and I understand that fully-I even share in it some of the time. … Let’s get back out there and be the leader we need to be.

“It’s like we pushed the pause button on the VCR. It’s time to hit play.”

But the university may want to make sure the tape is cued up first. Herbert’s visibility problem is complicated by the fact that he spends a good deal of time off campus-and often out of the state.

An IBJ review of his appointments for the first six months of 2005 showed Herbert was gone for the equivalent of six workweeks, albeit mostly on university business. He visited alumni chapters and major donors from New York to Los Angeles and attended an IU Foundation board meeting in Arizona.

But Herbert also attended to other matters, blocking out the better part of a week to attend board meetings for two companies he serves as a director-State Farm Florida, an affiliate of the Illinois-based insurer, and The St. Joe Co., a real estate developer in Jacksonville, Fla.

His calendar also shows a week of “personal time” in Jacksonville, where he and wife Karen maintain a 5,100-squarefoot home in the gated Glen Kernan Golf & Country Club.

For this interview, in fact, he spoke to IBJ by phone from Florida, where he returned after a 13-day Mediterranean cruise with IU alumni and supporters. He is not scheduled to return to Bloomington until mid-August, university spokesman Larry MacIntyre said.

Shoulders defended the president’s travel schedule, saying he is getting the job done wherever he is. In fact, Herbert’s calendar also reflects work commitments on 12 of the 26 weekends in the first half of the year.

“It is a mistake to assume just because he’s not in Indianapolis or Bloomington that he’s not working,” Shoulders said. “That’s just wrong. Any attempt to make a judgment on his job performance by looking at his calendar is misplaced.”

Judging performance

Trustees consider the balance of Herbert’s efforts in assessing his perform- ance, Ferguson said. The board gave the president a 16-point to-do list when he arrived in 2003, and the majority of those tasks are complete.

“We always felt it would take about two years and we’re almost there,” Ferguson said. With the mostly internal issues under control, “I think you’ll see more and more external activity. That’s the plan.”

So far, trustees have kept the president’s performance review informal-Ferguson and former board President Frederick F. Eichhorn met with Herbert a handful of times to offer feedback-but that’s a process Ferguson wants to improve if he assumes the board presidency later this month, as expected.

That’s a smart move, said Raymond D. Cotton, a Washington, D.C., attorney who specializes in higher-education compensation.

“The board should be working with the president to set specific, yearly goals,” he said. “And he should be judged by how he’s meeting them.”

So far, so good, Ferguson said, all things considered.

“I would give him an A or A+ in some areas and a C in others,” he said when asked to grade Herbert’s performance. “When you balance it out, he is the man to run Indiana University. I’m more impressed by him each day.”

And he’s not the only Herbert fan. Most of the faculty, students, alumni and others contacted by IBJ tempered any criticism of the president with a vote of confidence in his abilities.

Herbert has done a good job filling important positions at the university, they said, and has worked wonders on IU’s relationship with state and federal legislators.

His so-called mission differentiation project got regional campus leaders thinking about how they fit into the big picture. And a similar assessment of the university’s many economic-development efforts is nearly complete.

Some say Herbert was wise to take his time.

“Adam is providing good leadership,” said IUPUI Chancellor Emeritus Gerald Bepko, who served as interim president for seven months following Myles Brand’s departure in late 2002. “He wanted to make sure he learned about the very complex organization that is Indiana University. He didn’t try to rush into things.”

Raising expectations

Still, conventional wisdom suggests the honeymoon is probably over.

New presidents generally spend their first year in office getting acclimated and carrying out tasks started by their predecessors, said Cotton, the higher-education attorney. The second year is a mixture of old and new priorities.

“The third year should be all his,” Cotton said. “That’s when you’ll know how he’s doing.”

The expectations will indeed be high.

Some faculty members are looking for Herbert to take the lead in advancing IU’s efforts in critical areas like the life sciences, said former University Faculty Council leader David Daleke, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.

They’d also like to see more of him-both on campus and in the community.

“There’s only so much time in the day, but a lot of faculty-most faculty-wishes that we would feel his presence more,” said IUPUI math professor Bart Ng, the incoming UFC leader. “… After two years, I’m sure he will turn his attention more in that regard. He’s savvy, a quick study. I’m sure he will get around to it.”

As for Herbert, his goal is to “move Indiana University higher among the ranks of the best research universities in America,” and he’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.

He said the current discontent regarding IU shows him he still has a way to go.

“It just clarifies the challenge for us if folks within our own state don’t realize how good we are and all we are accomplishing,” he said. “That’s something we can easily fix and will do so over the next year.”

And the more personal criticism? It’s just part of the job, Herbert said.

“This is a very demanding job. Everyone wants to see you-[faculty and students on] eight campuses … alumni across the state and country, elected officials, the business community. This is not a job for everybody,” he said. “But it’s one I enjoy.

“I’m excited about being in Indiana and you’re going to see me in a more visible context going forward. … There are great opportunities here. We’re going to exceed the highest aspirations of the people of this state.”

Ferguson is similarly optimistic, predicting the furor will die down long before Herbert’s contract expires in 2008.

“At the end of five years, everyone’s going to be begging him to stay,” he said.

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