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.
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.)