The legal profession could learn something from the events culminating in Tim Wolfe’s resignation as president of the University of Missouri system. So could all of higher education. But those lessons have little to do with race.
Who is Tim Wolfe?
He’s a businessman.
Wolfe’s family moved to the Columbia, Missouri area when he was in fourth grade. For 30 years, his father was a communications professor at the University of Missouri. Wolfe quarterbacked his high school football team to a state championship. He earned an undergraduate degree from MU in personnel management.
After college, Wolfe became a sales rep for IBM where he worked his way up to vice president and general manager of its global distribution center. After 20 years at IBM, he became executive vice president of a consulting services company. From there, he moved to software maker Novell Americas, where he was president when another company acquired Novell and left him unemployed.
In December 2011, the University of Missouri’s board of curators announced Wolfe’s selection as its 23rd president. His base salary was $459,000.
What Happened? For a While, Not Much
As recently as August 2014, the board of curators thought that Wolfe’s performance had earned him a contract extension from February 2015 through June 2018. A year later, his troubles began.
On September 12, the president of the Missouri Student Association posted a Facebook item about vile racist slurs he’d received. By October 10, a group calling itself Concerned Student 1950 (the year Mizzou first admitted black students) staged a homecoming parade protest. On October 20, the group issued eight demands, including the ouster of Wolfe.
Exactly what he did to make such a shortlist is far from clear. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal put some blame on his proposal to close the university’s respected press as a cost saving measure. But he withdrew that proposal after hearing from objectors.
The Times and the Journal also implied that Wolfe was responsible for canceling health insurance for graduate students. But that situation is more complicated. As the graduate studies office announced in August, new Affordable Care Act requirements prevented the university from paying those premiums. Instead, the university would provide a one-time stipend to all qualified graduate students. Under the ACA, the university said, it was unable to link the stipend to health insurance or to ask whether recipients needed or planned to purchase a policy. Failure to implement the new IRS regulations would have resulted in fines of $100 per student.
Was It Race?
After a swastika with feces appeared in a campus bathroom on October 24, Concerned Student 1950 met with Wolfe personally. Three days later, one of the protest organizers announced a hunger strike. On November 6, a student posted a video in which protesters asked Wolfe to define systematic oppression.
“I’ll give you an answer, and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer,” he said. “Systematic oppression is because you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success.”
“Did you just blame us for systematic oppression, Tim Wolfe?” shouted a protester. “Did you just blame black students?”
Wolfe’s insensitive comments were unfortunate. But they’re not the sort of thing that costs a university president his job. And they didn’t cost Wolfe his — until the football team weighed in.
On Saturday, November 7, the entire Mizzou football team — 84 scholarship players and their coaches — proclaimed unanimous solidarity with the protest movement. Within 36 hours, Wolfe resigned.
Like many universities, the University of Missouri created the monster that can devour it. College football is big business, especially in the Southeastern Conference. The average SEC head football coach makes almost $4 million a year. President Wolfe’s base salary was about one-tenth of what the school pays coach Gary Pinkel. Throughout the country, college football generates enormous revenues that pay for coaches, athletic scholarships, and stunning athletic facilities.
Whether and to what extent this circle of riches makes its way back to support a school’s principal mission — educating young people — isn’t clear. Earlier this year during its dispute over whether college players could unionize, Northwestern University claimed that, considered as a whole with other sports that football subsidized, the athletic programs were money-losers for the school. On November 7, Northwestern broke ground on a new $260 million athletic facility.
The tipping point for Wolfe came when the football team — with a mediocre record of four wins and five losses — said it would boycott its November 14 game against BYU. That game alone would have cost the university $1 million. But the potential impact could be far greater if the team fails to win the two more games needed to qualify for a postseason bowl appearance.
Now we come to the lesson for big law firms. The internal gap between the highest and lowest paid equity partners at most firms is enormous and growing. Likewise, the frenzy to recruit lateral rainmakers continues unabated. Those trends have produced a “don’t-get-me-angry” group that is analogous to what many college football teams have become. A handful of individuals exerts disproportionate influence over an entire institution, but the resulting culture affects everyone.
Football Cognitive Dissonance
Society is conflicted about football. Every weekend, millions of people watch college games. I’m among them. Our behavior creates market demand that gives college football an outsized influence over higher education.
At the same time, we’ve become uncomfortable with some of the adverse individual consequences that the market doesn’t consider, such as lifelong brain damage from concussions. Economists call these externalities. It’s one reason that half of Americans don’t want their sons playing tackle football. When things get personal, they’re somehow different.
Big Law Cognitive Dissonance
Likewise, most law firm managing partners admit that recruiting high-powered rainmakers doesn’t usually improve their firms’ financial performance. Independent studies confirm that lateral hiring is dubious strategy. Yet the lateral frenzy continues as newly hired partners parachute into the top ranks of many firms.
Unfortunately, short-run disappointment with the financial impact of a lateral hire is the least of the problems associated with aggressive inorganic growth. The strategy can destroy a firm’s cohesion, impair its sense of professional mission, and increase its vulnerability to financial shocks. In the resulting environment, everyone in the institution suffers.
Living through the financial and cultural consequences of lateral hiring failures could have prompted law firm leaders to rethink their strategic plans. But that hasn’t happened. After all, such a reversal would require leaders to overcome their confirmation bias, transcend hubris, and admit mistakes. That’s less likely than a major university relegating football to its proper place in the institution’s broader educational mission.
By the way, Mizzou may also offer a lesson to some law school deans: make friends with your university’s football coach.