December 20, 2014

Wanted: College Presidents Who Matter | From the Bell Tower

What exactly is it that we expect from our college and university presidents? We want them to be courageous and visible leaders who will take us in the right direction. Do they need to be national leaders too? Preferably outspoken.

Depending on the size of the institution, the library staff may get to know the president well. My experience is that this tends to happen more at small, more intimately sized colleges. At a large research university, sightings of the president in the library are rare. The larger the institution, the bigger the challenges—such as raising lots of money—so, as long as the provost can handle it, the library stays off the president’s agenda. Despite infrequent sightings, we still hold high expectations for our presidents. We want them to stand for what’s right, to maintain impeccable standards of honesty while being down to earth and approachable. More typically, our presidents let us down. Even when there’s little to criticize, limited transparency leaves us wishing for more. Now the higher education pundits ask what has become of the noble president, that larger than life leader who weighs in on important societal issues. It leaves us wondering if our presidents matter at all.

Self-Destructing Credibility

The decline in respect for college and universities presidents expands every time one becomes embroiled in a new controversy—which happens with increasing frequency. Just look at what happened at Rutgers University. An incident involving a basketball coach who abused his players made national news. The coach was fired, and no one questioned that action. Then the question became, “What did President Robert Barchi know, and when did he know it?” Apparently he knew about the incident before a shockingly revealing video of abuse went public, but only decided to fire the coach afterwards. That leaves many, including a group of faculty, calling for Barchi’s firing, wondering how the president could tolerate this—but more importantly, miss the opportunity to use this incident to make a point about abuse and corruption in college sports. Thanks to an athletic director taking the fall for this bad judgment, the Rutgers president will survive, but his reputation is badly tarnished.

This is but one example of presidents who destroy any trust they’ve established. Even ignoring the presidents who embarrass themselves with DUIs or poor ethical choices, increasingly, faculty find them not worthy by way of “no confidence” votes. Where are the presidents who instill our confidence in their leadership and inspire us by speaking about the issues of the day? The answer? They are in short supply, and ever more difficult to detect.

Presidents Must Do More

An interesting debate broke out about the significant degree to which the status of the American college president has changed over time. Presidents from the past established a much nobler presence, often known for inspirational speeches on matters of societal import. In the essay “University Presidents—Speak Out” Scott Sherman laments the lack of presence displayed the modern university president. He provides examples of past presidents who distinguished themselves for taking stands, being recognized as outspoken leaders, or daring to challenge the establishment. He asks a good question: “When was the last time a college or university president produced an edgy piece of commentary, or took a daring stand on a contentious matter?” The finest presidents of the past, he writes, leaders such as James Conant, Robert Hutchins, Kingman Brewster, and Clark Kerr, “were not perfect men, but they exercised potent leadership, and sometimes they were quite courageous.” So why have things changed? One possibility is the intense media coverage that outspoken individuals attract. The case of Lawrence Summers at Harvard comes to mind. Back in their day Kerr or Conant could probably slip up, make a bad decision or two, and have no fear of media exploitation. Enter YouTube and paparazzi. Despite years of accomplishment at Penn State, Graham Spanier had no chance to survive the media onslaught brought on by the Sandusky case.

Pleasing the Trustees

Perhaps you can hardly blame contemporary presidents for keeping a low profile beyond campus. What president dares to willingly enter the limelight in order to engage in controversy? If your core mission is to raise money, what’s the point of doing anything even remotely controversial that might anger a potential donor? What it might ultimately come down to, writes Sherman, is that the president is beholden to the trustees, and they typically just want the president to be out there raising money, not taking a stand on social issues. There is also a trend towards bring in non-academics, primarily business people, to run our institutions. These leaders may have no sense of the traditions of great presidents, and may care little to engage in controversy or attract media attention. Instead, they are intent on getting to the business of bringing in the donors and keeping the trustees happy.

Expecting Too Much

As is often the case with nostalgic feelings about “better days,” the present is hardly as bad as we imagine it, nor is the past quite so golden. We will find bright spots if we look for them. Brian Rosenberg, the current president at Macalester College, does a good job of bringing some of those spots to our attention in his response to Sherman’s essay. The college presidency is certainly far more diversified now than in the past, on racial, ethnic, gender, and religious dimensions. By refraining from speaking on certain issues, Rosenberg believes the president does a better job of avoiding the alienation of different campus groups, because there are so many more student groups representing many different causes. Being a president is hard enough, and Rosenberg ought to know, so let’s help our presidents out by lowering our expectations for a dynamic outspoken speaker in favor of the real work of the president—which is, according to Rosenberg, “careful judgment about what is in the best interest of the institutions that we hold in trust.” If I were a cynic, I might accuse Rosenberg of just trying to stay out of trouble, but I suspect he is right to conclude that, as great as the mythical outspoken president was, what worked in the ’40s and ’50s would now simply hamper the president’s efforts to improve the institution.

What Should Matter To Us

As an academic librarian, I do look to my university president for vision and inspiration. Where there is little offered, I am disappointed. A president who spoke out on key library related issues, such as supporting, if not championing, open access, would encourage me to pursue these causes with greater enthusiasm. I also understand that being a college or university president is one of the toughest jobs out there, and that so many different constituencies hold high, perhaps impossible, expectations. It’s no surprise that today’s presidents hold their jobs for far fewer years than their outspoken predecessors. However, the presidents of our institutions need not create controversy in taking time to understand what’s important right now in the information environment. In doing so they could use their influence—which can be considerable—to work for causes such as individual privacy, intellectual freedom, copyright, and other issues that cry out for support from academic leaders. Our presidents, I think, could make a difference. Channeling Clark Kerr or James Conant is of less importance than winning me over by being about more than fundraising and campus construction projects. Asking the president to play great American hero may be a bit too much. An occasional walk through the library with a “How are things going here?,” on the other hand, would be much appreciated.

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Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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