University Presidents—Speak Out! | The Nation


University Presidents—Speak Out!

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Columbia University. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

In May 1943, James B. Conant, the president of Harvard University, published an essay in The Atlantic Monthly titled “Wanted: American Radicals.” Conant was on the lookout for “a group of modern radicals in the American tradition,” whose ideas would encompass Thoreau and Whitman, Emerson and Marx, and who would be “lusty in wielding the axe against the root of inherited privilege” so as to prevent the growth of “a caste system.” His proposal? The imposition of “really effective inheritance and gift taxes and the breaking up of trust funds and estates.” Conant, whose essay infuriated Harvard’s well-heeled trustees, was hardly a radical himself; he was, and would always remain, a man of the establishment. But in those days, college and university presidents did not limit their activities to fundraising, shmoozing, paper-pushing and administration. They had access to bully pulpits, and they occupied them. 

Richard Kreitner contributed research to this article.

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Scott Sherman
Scott Sherman is a contributing writer to The Nation and the author of Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and...

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Think about it: 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? 

It’s a familiar lament. The university president, Upton Sinclair wrote in The Goose-Step, was “the most universal faker and the most variegated prevaricator that has yet appeared in the civilized world.” William Honan, writing in The New York Times in 1994, wondered why college presidents no longer “cut striking figures on the public stage.” “Small Men on Campus: The Shrinking College President” was the headline of a New Republic cover story in 1998. In their 2010 book Higher Education?, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus declared, “Once upon a time, university leaders were seen as sculptors of society.” Now they “are chiefly technocrats, agile climbers who reach the top without making too many enemies or mistakes.” 

Recently the old concerns about higher education leadership were revived by controversies concerning two Ivy League presidents: Ruth Simmons of Brown and Lee Bollinger of Columbia. Not so long ago, both were seen as public-spirited, visionary leaders: Bollinger, when he led the University of Michigan, spearheaded the fight for affirmative action in college admissions; and Simmons, in 2003, initiated a far-reaching investigation into Brown’s historic connection to slavery and the slave trade. (She stepped down last year.) 

Those actions won praise, but serious questions have since been raised about what these people do in their spare time. In 2010, the Times reported that Simmons had served on the board of Goldman Sachs and was partly responsible for a $68 million pay package awarded to its chairman, Lloyd Blankfein, in 2007. (Simmons ultimately left the Goldman Sachs board with stock worth $4.3 million.) In June, Bollinger, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s board of directors, defended the right of Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, to remain a member of that same board, despite the fact that Dimon’s bank had contributed money to Columbia. Those who thought Dimon should resign, Bollinger reportedly said, were “foolish.” Criticism came quickly: economist Simon Johnson, in blog posts for the Times, lashed Bollinger for serving on the Fed’s board, for sidestepping an obvious conflict of interest and for lacking the credentials to serve. (Bollinger’s term ended December 31.) 

Why should we fret about the presidents of our colleges and universities? Because American higher education is plagued by severe difficulties on many fronts—from soaring tuition and runaway student debt to the loss of public funding, the endemic corruption in college athletics and the erosion of the liberal arts—and the presidents won’t resolve those issues by kibitzing in the gilded suites of Wall Street. The time has come to demand more from them, and to hold them to more elevated standards. The finest presidents of the past—Conant, Robert Hutchins, Kingman Brewster, Clark Kerr—were not perfect men, but they exercised potent leadership, and sometimes they were quite courageous. 

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In the late 1970s, shortly after he took over Bard College, Leon Botstein paid a visit to the president of Yale, A. Bartlett Giamatti. “I was in his office,” Botstein recalls, “and I was so impressed and filled with envy. I said, ‘Boy, you have a really great job.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘You’re not as smart as I thought you were. I can’t do anything in this job. You have a great job. You actually might be able to get something done.’ ”

Given the nature of the job, one would think it’s a position few would aspire to. “The university president in the United States,” former University of California president Kerr wrote in The Uses of the University, “is expected to be a friend of the students, a colleague of the faculty, a good fellow with the alumni, a sound administrator with the trustees…a devotee of opera and football equally, a decent human being, a good husband and father, an active member of a church.” 

But the job has changed radically in recent decades, and these days we have a generation of presidents who tiptoe around public controversy. “We now think of the president as the CEO of a very large corporation,” says Stanley Katz, a higher education expert at Princeton. “That’s how we justify paying these people so much. Top-earning university presidents make up to $3 million,” which, he says, “would have been inconceivable to James B. Conant. He wouldn’t have wanted it.” Structural changes in universities have irrevocably altered the job. “We have created money-eating machines,” says Katz. “They consume finances so fast that it’s virtually a full-time job of a university president to raise money. That simply wasn’t the case in Conant’s era.” 

In Conant’s day, presidents were expected, first and foremost, to provide educational and intellectual leadership at their own institutions. But that aspect of the job has eroded. In the mid-1990s, Katz assisted a major Southern university in its search for a president. Another member of the search committee, a professor, asked the candidate, “What is your educational vision?” That person, who eventually got the president’s job, replied, “I don’t have an educational vision. That’s the job of a provost.” 

Hunter Rawlings is the president of the Association of American Universities (AAU), in Washington, which represents sixty-two leading research institutions. Rawlings formerly served as president of the University of Iowa and Cornell University, where, in 2005, he delivered a blunt speech assailing the “intelligent design” movement; he got a standing ovation. Rawlings agrees with Katz that presidents are increasingly handcuffed by fundraising and administration. In the age of the “enormous megaversity,” he says, universities comprise “all kinds of businesses: hospitals, very large medical schools, sports franchises, overseas operations. Institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Penn, Columbia—they’re all now large property owners in their neighborhoods. The position of president, then, has to be somewhat more managerial than it used to be. We are talking about institutions with budgets of three, four, five billion dollars a year.” The presidents, as a result, “are somewhat inhibited by the demands of the office—by the need not to offend folks in different quarters.” 

Not every recent president has abdicated the bully pulpit. “Larry Summers spoke out a lot while he was president of Harvard,” says Henry Bienen, who led Northwestern University from 1995 to 2009. “He may be a good reason why [presidents] have stopped being so outspoken.” (In 2005, Summers raised questions about the ability of women to excel in science and 
math and lit a firestorm.) But Bienen insists that today’s presidents have not abdicated their public role, nor have they abandoned the bully pulpit. What has changed, he says, is that presidents choose to focus on matters “close in to higher education” and K–12 education—a trend he approves. He mentions the Chicago public schools, where he is one of seven board members appointed by the mayor, and the efforts of outgoing Yale president Richard Levin to push for changes to US visa policy, which, since 9/11, has restricted the ability of foreign students and professors to work here. But are the presidents making a difference in educational policy? Says Rawlings of the AAU: “Yes, many presidents are engaged in that kind of a discussion, but not in a way, I think, that makes a lot of impact on the political scene. In this last presidential campaign, you didn’t hear many university presidential voices contributing to debate and discussion.” 

Bienen concedes that pressure from trustees, who do the all-important work of hiring presidents, shapes and limits the extent to which they can function in a public capacity. A president who wishes to raise vital questions about climate change, foreign policy or taxation may find it hard to do so: “I don’t think their boards have wanted it,” says Bienen. “On the whole, the trustee view is: you should be speaking out on those issues that are close in to the university, and there are plenty of them.” 

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