COLUMBIA (AP) - University of Missouri system President Gary Forsee resigned Friday to care for his wife, who was diagnosed with cancer in December. Forsee has been on an extended leave of absence since then.
School officials emerged from a 90-minute closed meeting at Mizzou Arena to announce the former Sprint Nextel chairman and chief executive's departure. Forsee, 60, had been president of the four-campus system since February 2008.
Steve Owens, the system's general counsel, will continue to serve as interim president until a replacement is chosen. Owens said he is not a candidate for the permanent job.
Forsee's departure comes as state lawmakers return to Jefferson City to wrestle with a budget shortfall expected to result in the university system's first tuition increase in three years. Forsee and Gov. Jay Nixon were the chief architects of plan that froze tuition at Missouri's public colleges and universities for two years in exchange for relatively modest budget cuts in higher education.
"Gary raised the credibility level of the University of Missouri at the state Capitol, and he leaves the system in better shape than when he came in," said state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia.
Warren Erdman, chairman of the university's Board of Curators, credited Forsee with boosting the system's commitment to research and economic development, reorganizing the university health care system and generally bringing a more business-oriented approach to the campuses in Columbia, Kansas City, Rolla and St. Louis.
Forsee spent 35 years in the telecommunications industry with AT&T, BellSouth and GlobalOne before he took over Sprint in 2003. He resigned four years later under pressure from board members and shareholders unhappy with declining stock prices and a loss of customers after the 2005 merger of Sprint and Nextel. He received a $55 million severance.
In October 2008, Forsee and his wife tapped some of their personal wealth to donate $1 million to help pay for a new distance education technology network linking the four campuses. Forsee had graduated from the University of Missouri-Rolla, now known as Missouri University of Science and Technology.
As system president, Forsee earned $400,000 annually. He was entitled to an additional $100,000 in performance-based incentives, but Erdman said Forsee had declined those and wouldn't receive any severance pay.
"We all know that Gary didn't need to take this job three years ago, but he took it for the right reasons," Erdman said. "And he tackled it with a vengeance."
Erdman said Forsee announced his decision during a two-hour private meeting Monday night in Kansas City, where Erdman lives and Forsee keeps a home. Curators plan to discuss the selection of an executive search firm and the hiring process at their next scheduled meeting in Columbia in late January.
The decision was made public in an open letter from Forsee to university employees.
"After a long working career, lots of moves and working regularly from multiple locations, it is clearly time for us to get Sherry's next six months of treatment completed and to focus on our family and great friends," he wrote.
Erdman said he will urge the other nine curators to support a confidential presidential search. Some public universities announce the names of finalists for community input, but Missouri has typically opted to keep its preferred candidates under wraps.
That approach didn't prevent the premature identification of New Jersey businessman Terry Sutter as the preferred candidate to replace Elson Floyd when the former Missouri system president left for Washington State University in 2007.
Sutter instead opted to become chief operating officer of a Florida steel manufacturer. Former congressman Kenny Hulshof, a Columbia Republican, also was a finalist during that search but was not offered the job.
"If you want to attract the best candidates you have to have a commitment to confidentiality," Erdman said. "Many of the best candidates cannot afford to have their interests become known."
Forsee's replacement could be chosen by as many as four new curators yet to take office. The terms of three board members expired at the end of 2010, but they will remain on the governing board until Nixon selects their replacements. And curator Bo Fraser of Columbia resigned in November with two years remaining on his six-year term.
Campus leaders repeatedly commended Forsee for his commitment to his wife's health. She is undergoing an unspecified treatment regimen following an emergency appendectomy in November that detected the cancer.
"We're clearly saddened to lose such a leader," Erdman said. "But we know his place is with Sherry."