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The Gates that got away

Bob Gates, despite some courting by the U.W., settles for a genial post at William & Mary College. Would he have been what the doctor ordered for the Huskies?

Bob Gates: heading for his alma mater.

Bob Gates: heading for his alma mater.

Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates surprised many by accepting the chancellorship at tiny William & Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia. The University of Washington is apparently a scorned suitor for this big prize. Gates, the former president of Texas A&M as well as a greatly admired top administrator in Bush I and II and Obama administrations, was reportedly wooed because he has a home near Mount Vernon and lots of family ties to the area. Plus, the U.W. has vigorous programs in international relations. Others hoped, by living nearby, that he could teach some classes and otherwise grace the campus.

One source tells me that the search committee got a quick brushoff from Gates, who is 67. The William & Mary position is largely honorary, requiring some time on campus meeting students and spreading the good word. He succeeds former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in the post.

The little college in Virginia lies right next to restored Williamsburg Village. Gates is a graduate of the school, famous for its programs in early American history, and a trained historian himself, holding a Ph.D in Russian history from Georgetown. He's a native of Kansas and a longtime Republican. He has led a fascinating life, reminding some of Harry Truman for his blunt way of speaking simple truths.

Would the U.W. have been a good fit? A few regents have occasionally pushed for a non-academic choice such as Gates, or former Sen. Bill Bradley or Al Gore, on the grounds that they could relate better to the public and the Legislature than a president steeped in academic ways, and put the university on the national map. In a few instances, such as Sen. David Boren going to the University of Oklahoma, this gamble has worked out.

Bradley was reportedly quite interested in the job in 2002, backing away from full consideration at the last minute. The Rhodes Scholar certainly has the brains for such a job, but his Ivy League manner and vacillating politics might have been a challenge. (Still, one laments not having the spectacle of the towering Bradley trying to charm the pugnacious House Speaker, Frank Chopp, the university's nemesis in Olympia.) It's hard to imagine how long Al Gore would have stayed or have been loved.

Instead, the majority of U.W. Regents prefer well-rehearsed presidents, who have run large public universities with strong football programs and powerful medical schools. (All true for the new president, Michael Young, as well largely true for the previous line of Charles Odegaard, Bill Gerberding, Richard McCormick, and Mark Emmert.) Such proven properties are unlikely to rock the boat too much, and they don't come into office with the faculty brushing them aside because of being from a private university, from a school with minor league sports teams, or not having advanced degrees. Gates, despite being a Republican like Young, probably could have survived such scrutiny.

David Brewster is founder of Crosscut and editor-at-large. You can e-mail him at david.brewster@crosscut.com.


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