First in a series on the movers and shakers behind the Monaco US Business Roundtable.We all have that moment. No matter how long you’ve lived abroad, when baseball’s World Series rolls around in October (the 21st this year, 2014), we can’t help but relive our country’s pastime. Whether it was Boston’s long awaited pennant win in 2004 that broke the curse of the Bambino, or the fact that the Mets remain unwinnable, the late fall brings back memories even for those who don’t follow Major League Baseball (or any sport for that matter) religiously.
For Gene Budig – a member of the Monaco US Business Roundtable – easily the most unforgettable World Series was in 1994. Four days after he accepted the post as President of the American League, Major League Baseball underwent the longest strike in its history, and the World Series was cancelled; this happened only once before, in 1904. For a man who is a self-described workaholic, the 232-day strike was, to say the least, frustrating. Besides offering opinion, Gene’s role as President meant he could not participate in strike negotiations and so this man of action was benched.
When asked about the ’94 World Series that never was, Gene tells me, “I was worried that baseball was being hurt badly by such uncertainty. I saw what the game meant to people, they saw something very special at risk and so did I.”
With a PhD in Education – Gene had previously served as President of Illinois State, West Virginia University and then Chancellor of the University of Kansas – his involvement with the Major League was the culmination of a lifelong dream to be an integral part of professional baseball. Gene fondly recalls as a boy going with his father to see the semi-pro McCook Cats, a team he would later work for as batboy; at one point he even hoped to play in the Majors. He would have to settle as part- owner of the minor league Charleston RiverDogs, the Class A baseball farm team of the New York Yankees; he co-owns with none other than Bill Murray.
While Gene, who lives with his wife Gretchen in Charleston, South Carolina, will be an avid follower of this year’s World Series – he’ll also be busy with the Monaco US Business Roundtable co-founded by Mike Powers and Susan Feaster. Gene was introduced to the Roundtable by old friends from Omaha, Nebraska, Mike Yanney, Chairman Emeritus of Burlington Capital Group and Dr Jim Yanney, a well known American business investor and maxillofacial surgeon. Gene and Mike Yanney are longtime business partners of Warren Buffett.
This initiative aims to build stronger relations between the two countries in the realms of education, government, business, culture and sport. A quick look at Gene’s bio will tell you he could very well provide valuable insight into any of these areas.
In fact, Gene’s resumé reminds me of the adage “they don’t make ’em like that any more”. A full-time student at university, he worked as a reporter and graduated with a degree in journalism in 1962. He picked up his Masters in English the following year – when he also served in the Nebraska Air National Guard and worked in the governor’s office – then earned his Doctorate in Education in 1967, the same year he managed to become Illinois State University’s youngest professor at the age of 34, before holding the top position at three American universities for twenty years.
I ask the retired Major General what drove him to such achievement at an early age. “I wanted my hometown to point to me with pride. I also wanted to emphasize the importance of a college education.”
Gene Budig sees the potential of the Monaco US Business Roundtable to share his expertise in higher education.
He believes that study abroad programs are essential to holding sustained dialogues between American and foreign universities, and a way for American schools and corporations to attract foreign graduates. The fact that many overseas universities have accepted American programs as an educational model is not only a source of pride for Budig, but proof of the efficacy of American higher education.
Talking about the challenges for American universities today, the former chancellor has one word: “Relevancy. You have to offer young people opportunity. A degree must have a tangible advantage which is not easy in today’s job market.” He adds that university administrators have to meet these new challenges as well. “You are an employee of the taxpayer. Just as on a major league baseball team, the administrator must provide a program that serves the interests and entertainment needs of millions.”
When it comes to commitment to higher education, Gene is not just paying lip service. While serving as Chancellor of Kansas University (KU), he became the first state employee with a yearly salary over $100,000 (he earned $100,001). He donated a large portion of his pay to the KU Endowment Association for student scholarships. He did so because he believed in the mission of the institute and, as he tells me, he wanted to show other financially fortunate individuals that “one cannot have a distinguished university without private investment.”
After serving the world of higher education for so many years, Gene seems an odd choice as a Major League President but he puts it in perspective in citing both institutions have huge operating budgets that must meet the public good. Also, all American universities have sports teams. While discussing the link between professional sports and education, Gene says, “What you need to do is find the most effective way to tie the public good through the institution. The most direct path to do that is through a well administered athletic program. Running a sports team and a university, you need academic and financial expertise with unusual creativity.”
I ask Gene, 75, if he has any plans to slow down. “No. I’m more curious than ever. Plus, I want to share with others what I have learned.”
With careers that have spanned journalism, higher education and professional sports, it seems that Gene Budig will be a heavy hitter at next year’s Monaco US Business Roundtable Forum.