President Barack Obama picked a former corporate CEO to lead the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs. But Robert McDonald may have never received this nomination if it wasn’t for a partnership between the military and the University of Utah in the 1970s.
After studying engineering at West Point, McDonald thought he would continue his studies while in the Army. The only program that fit with his schedule was a business degree offered through the U., which relied on the Air Force flying in professors for weekend classes.
He recalls taking his books into the jungles of Panama, studying business theory at night huddled under a poncho with a flashlight in one hand. His wife, Diane, would type up his handwritten work.
In 1978, he earned his master of business administration (MBA). Two years later he retired as a captain in the Army. He immediately joined Procter & Gamble, launching a long and successful career that culminated in his ascension to president and CEO in 2009.
The V.A. is mired in a scandal over the medical care given to veterans and untenable wait times for appointments, which in some cases have resulted in deaths. Secretary Eric Shinseki, a former Army general, resigned his position.
McDonald’s nomination may signal a desire to place a person with major managerial experience in the top job.
While McDonald didn’t attend classes in Utah, he has maintained a relationship with the university. He has served as an adviser to the David Eccles School of Business and in 2010 was honored as a distinguished alumni. During a 2012 speech at the university, he credited marketing professor Gary Grikscheit for helping him become a successful business leader.
The admiration is mutual. In an email sent to The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday, Grikscheit said of McDonald’s nomination: “He is an inspired choice.”