Summary:

Scott Thompson’s mythical computer science degree not only took him down as CEO, it forced a board change, gave shareholder Daniel Loeb a way in and made the focus on how the company is run — not what it is doing. Can Ross Levinsohn change that?

Ross Levinsohn Head Shot

The brief Scott Thompson era is over and a new board formed in compromise with activist shareholder Daniel Loeb is in charge at Yahoo. But the board stopped short of making a full commitment on new leadership, appointing Ross Levinsohn as interim CEO instead of giving him the job outright.

Levinsohn, who was hired by Thompson predecessor Carol Bartz and was considered for the CEO opening when she was fired, was appointed global head of media by Thompson. He surely has been vetted upside down and sideways by now so why go interim? Starting another CEO hunt at this point when you have a qualified in-house candidate just prolongs the drama and raises another series of questions when the focus should be on answers.

Picking CFO Tim Morse as interim, as the previous board did, would suggest a business-as-usual tone without anything dynamic behind it. Going with Levinsohn, even on an interim basis, gives them a salesman who can pitch Yahoo inside the company and out.

The changes include an immediate replacement of Roy Bostock as head of the Yahoo board by Fred Amoroso. Amoroso was leading the investigation into Thompson’s credentials and how the board that was in place in January chose him as CEO either without picking up on a discrepancy in his credentials or passing it by.

The new board will include Loeb, CEO of Yahoo’s largest institutional investor hedge fund Third Point, and two of his nominees: Harry Wilson and Michael Wolf. Former NBCU CEO Jeff Zucker withdrew as a nominee. The changes were first reported by AllThingsD and detailed in a company press release Sunday afternoon.

Thompson’s explanation eroded

The Yahoo board that was in place through this weekend stuck with Scott Thompson as CEO as long as it could — and there was strong sentiment for finding a way for him to stay. It seemed unlikely that he could stay after Patti Hart, the head of the search committee, announced she was leaving. (Loeb’s group also showed that Hart’s description of her degree differed from reality.) He was given a chance to explain how he wound up claiming an unearned degree in computer science; that explanation included blaming a junior headhunter for introducing the error and then maintaining he had never read any of the materials that referenced the degree in the intervening years. Unfortunately, those materials included at least one Yahoo SEC filing that he signed.

I’m told that any remaining support for him eroded completely when the search firm produced files that undercut his claim of how the false degree claim started. The frustration and dismay from rank-and-file Yahoos added to the sense that Thompson couldn’t stay.

Hart, Bostock, VJ Joshi, Arthur Kern and Gary Wilson had planned to leave the board at the annual meeting. Instead, they have all resigned now, making it very clear that a new board is in charge.

Closest to a clean slate

That new board can’t be worse than the old one and the variations of it over of the past few years. It is the closest Yahoo has come to a clean slate in a long time,  and it now includes no one tainted by the Microsoft failure. Can it be better? One test will be how quickly it wraps up the CEO question.

In the meantime, Levinsohn has to deal with a layoff round of 2,000 started by Thompson, the re-org that kicked in at the beginning of the month, and a lot of skittish employees wondering why they shouldn’t leave. He has to manage the Microsoft search negotiations, as well as the Alibaba negotiations, and decide how to handle Thompson’s aggressive patent stance, including the lawsuit against Facebook.

All of it will be harder to do from an interim position.

And, as Om pointed out earlier, none of this changes the challenges Yahoo faces as an aging Internet company.

One more note: Now we’ll see how Dan Loeb functions inside the tent instead of as the outside activist with a sharp way with words. He doesn’t have enough votes on his own to force action but from here out he has the recognition and official voice he wanted — and the responsibility.

Update: And, yes, because it can get stranger … WSJ is reporting that Thompson told the board and several colleagues before resigning that he has thyroid cancer and that it contributed to his decision to step down.

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