Robert “Doc” Foglesong was a bit of an unconventional choice when the state College Board selected him as Mississippi State University's 18th president two years ago.
And he went about his duties as president in anything but a conventional way – playing in a rock band at university events and flying jets overhead at football games, among other pursuits.
To some, it was endearing and refreshing. To others, it smacked of too much attention-grabbing.
Ultimately, though, it was the unconventional background for a college president – a career as a high-ranking military officer – that may have prevented Foglesong's stay at Mississippi State from being longer and more productive.
Comments from faculty, alumni and some students after Foglesong announced his resignation Friday suggested that he approached his job as if he were still in the military, with a top-down attitude that called for others to fall in line. If so, it's no wonder he ran into difficulties managing the multiple and diverse constituencies of a university, from independent-minded faculty to major alumni donors.
A university doesn't and shouldn't operate like the military. It's a much more collaborative and collegial environment of equals.
That's not to say that strong leadership isn't vital to a university, and that a chief executive can't make a big difference by pulling institutional constituencies along to places they may at first be reluctant to go. But such leadership can't be by edict; it has to be persuasion built on trust.
Mississippi State has enjoyed two years of growth and success on many fronts under Foglesong's presidency. But in spite of his engaging personality and obvious enthusiasm for the university, he never fully connected in a way that would translate into the broad-based support necessary for long-term leadership success.
Mississippi State now will be looking for its fifth president in just over a decade. There will no doubt be calls for the College Board to consider a more open selection process this time around. Each circumstance is unique, and it could be that a different approach might be helpful – especially given the divisions the last few MSU searches have engendered.
Mississippi State University is an invaluable asset to the state, educationally and economically. This is a pivotal time in its history, and it needs and deserves steady, stable, top-notch leadership. “Doc” Foglesong, unfortunately, won't be the one to provide it.