University Presidents --
Then and Now
Harold T. Shapiro
President and Professor of Economics and Public Affairs
Delivered at Princeton Conference on Higher Education
Princeton, New Jersey
The position of a university president has certain prism-like qualities in the sense that a change in one's perspective or position yields somewhat different colors.
There is a good deal of misinformation, mystery, and nostalgia abroad regarding the work of contemporary university presidents. Are they giants of intellectual vision, fund-raisers, unprincipled propagandists, or "merely" thoughtful managers and/or leaders of some of society's most important and successful institutions? In this essay, I have attempted an initial characterization of the changing nature of a singular and -- some would say odd -- occupation; namely, the American university presidency. On the one hand, this position involves the nurturance, safeguarding and sponsorship of a venerable -- some would say sacred -- public trust. In any case it is, in part, an ethical endeavor in that the president provides leadership to an institution that deals with matters society believes to be important, and is an enterprise based on the belief that the future is of ethical significance. On the other hand, the position also involves its share of shallow, frivolous, sentimental and occasionally demeaning activity. Whatever else it may be, the presidency of a university is a very human endeavor and, therefore, a very humbling and humorous experience. The essay is written, therefore, with both a more serious and a more lighhearted approach to its subject. I hope the reader will recognize which is which! I begin with some background material.
Ostensibly similar institutions (i.e., organizations with broadly similar inputs and outputs) are often structured in somewhat different fashions in the sense that authority, responsibility, and leadership expectations -- both de jure and de facto -- may be distributed in different ways. Thus, although contemporary British and European universities exhibit many similarities to their American counterparts, the role, authority and responsibility of the administrative head of the institution often differ. These disparities stem principally from the particular history and social role of higher education in these different localities.
When I speak of university presidents, I am referring to the administrative heads of these institutions of higher education (who may or may not be faculty members as well). To borrow a convenient phrase from corporate vocabulary (always a dangerous move in academic circles), university presidents are their institutions' CEO, although in contemporary times they are often faced with more constraints on their authority than their corporate counterparts. All modern universities have such a position, but in different geographies titles vary. Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Rector, and other titles sometimes reflect varying expectations and responsibilities, but in other cases they merely reflect some local preference or historical accident and have little on-going operational significance. In any case, the particular package of roles that has, over time, made up the American college presidency is, in a comparative context, quite distinct. In other venues, alternative arrangements are in place, where the administrative head of the university may, for example, be a "non-academic" civil service position or a faculty member elected for a purposefully short time (the responsibilities being too great or too trivial for a longer term of office) and have a different portfolio of rights, responsibilities, and expectations. The focus of this essay (in the original sense of trial effort) is on the American university presidency and, to some extent, how it may have evolved over the years. The nature of the American university presidency (i.e., its particular bundle of authority and responsibility) grew directly out of the special history of American higher education. American universities began not as student/faculty "communes" or guilds of masters, but as community-based efforts to gather together faculty and students for particular civic purposes. As a result, ultimate responsibility and authority have always resided in an external board, and the President -- appointed by this external board -- became (among other roles) the campus-based representative of this external authority. The U.S. college president, however, has always served not only the needs and objectives of this external authority (often focused on fiscal responsibility, tranquillity, and particular notions of virtue and civic responsibility), but increasingly has represented -- to this external community -- the needs and objectives of faculty, students and the worlds of education and scholarship (more often focused on the growth of programs and the need for academic freedom, autonomy, and independence). Despite much rhetoric to the contrary, at times members of the external board show little sustained interest in the needs and aspirations of the members of the academic community and vice versa. Consequently, the role includes representing and promoting external interests to the university community and vice-versa and, therefore, always contains important interpretive, mediative, and integrative facets. That is, there has always been the necessity for the American university president to champion the interests and aspirations of the academic community to the broader society and to play a role in ensuring that the academic community is in touch with society's interests and needs. This particular role took on a new urgency in the immediate post-World War II decades when the increasingly pervasive role of the scientific ethic (approach, ethos, culture, spirit) on the nation's campuses was often thought to require a certain isolation from social and political influences in order to achieve its fullest flower and thus meet its obligations to society. As the university community has become an ever more complex tapestry of ideas, values, commitments, educational and scholarly themes, this has became a more complex, more difficult, riskier, and, correspondingly, a potentially more rewarding responsibility. In the American context, therefore, a key leadership challenge for the university president is to ensure that the external governing board -- in public or private universities -- comes to view the education and research programs of the university and the internal intellectual culture necessary to support these, which need both nurturance and autonomy, as providing a very valuable social product, one well worth considerable investment despite the many risks. In the context of a modern university, this task is rarely easy since many people wonder why a community -- public or private -- should support, respect and honor, with enthusiasm and treasure, a set of activities designed, in part, to be critical of just those arrangements within which most (if not all) members of the governing board -- including the president -- have prospered. To quote George Stigler: "The university is by design and effect the institution and society which creates discontent with the existing moral, social and political institutions and proposes new institutions to replace them.... Invited to be learned in the institutions of other times and places, incited to new understandings of the social and physical world, the university faculty is inherently a disruptive force." 0f course, the modern university also has many functions (e.g., education, research, and even entertainment programs of various stripes) which directly serve the existing needs of the society. Nevertheless, the issues of balance, control and direction of the educational and scholarly agenda provide a continual source of potential tension between the campus-based community and both the external governing board and other external patrons of the university (e.g., government). As a result, an important and on-going task for the president of an American university -- and allies he or she must mobilize -- is to provide sufficient leadership to ensure that both the patrons and the members of the academic community, each with their own specific preferences, not only continue to understand and to value the social product of the university but commit themselves to the conditions necessary (e.g., free inquiry, intellectual autonomy, the acceptance of an organized and disciplined skepticism, thoughtful and considered debate, a long-term perspective, cross subsidization of programs) to generate maximum social dividends. Given the need of the contemporary university to serve society as both a faithful servant and thoughtful critic, controversy -- both internal and external -- is difficult to avoid and it falls, in part, to the president to prevent such controversy from either distorting the internal intellectual culture or seriously undermining external support. The leadership required of a university president in these respects is not the mere task of managing to placate the different interests involved until they reach some type of sullen agreement. It is rather the type of moral act that involves not only the assertion of a "vision" of the contemporary academic enterprise and its legitimate social functions but the energy to pursue this vision and the capacity to inspire others -- including faculty -- to support this remarkable venture despite the inevitable criticism that arises when an institution's success often includes leaving the familiar for new territory. It is difficult to say how many contemporary presidents meet this challenge successfully. We would do well to understand, however, that the scope, size, and complexity of the American university often make it difficult to mobilize enough energy to lift one's vision beyond the demanding tasks of management to the essential task of leadership. This is especially true in an environment where neither the academic nor non-academic community expects and/or desires such leadership from the president. At the same time it is helpful to note, as Nannerl O. Keohane pointed out over a decade ago, that exciting and effective presidential leadership usually involves a creative collaboration between the president and other key members of the academic community (e.g., faculty, trustees, students -- etc.). It is, therefore, a shared rather than a solitary activity. Decisions must be made, problems must be articulated and solved, and new arrangements often must replace existing ones. However, this is often the shared responsibility of those members of the academic community who share a passionate commitment to the ultimate purposes of the enterprise.
Nevertheless, at times all this goes quite well. That is, internal and external interests are sufficiently overlapping and/or the president and others not only have the necessary "vision," courage and commitment but successfully mediate between and among internal and external constituencies in a manner that sustains the intellectual environment. At other times, of course, various groups -- either internal or external -- are dissatisfied and expect the president to do something -- anything -- to establish a more satisfactory state of affairs. On one issue, however, all sides nearly always agree: it is the President's responsibility somehow to mobilize the resources (from students, alumni, government or whomever) necessary to accomplish the work of the institution.
Yet another expectation is rooted in the close association of the early American colleges with the aims and aspirations of the various religious denominations. The university president was "endowed" with the expectation that he, like some of the early Oxford tutors, would see to the appropriate moral development of the student. Moreover, he would be expected to ensure that members of the faculty had the "right" moral commitments. Indeed, in colonial and 19th century America, the college president was often specifically identified with the capstone course in moral philosophy, which was frequently his responsibility to offer to graduating seniors in order that they leave the college with an adequate dose of "right thinking." As a result, presidents of this earlier era seem enshrined (i.e., "reigning" from above) in our collective memory not only as Renaissance figures -- at "home" in many disciplines (i.e., not simply an intellectual gadfly!) -- but as ethical leaders both on their campuses as well as on the broader civic stage.
In contrast, today's American university president in our contemporary public imagination does not choose or cannot afford to be the philosopher king of his or her institution let alone the society at large. The new scale and scope of these institutions require -- for good or ill -- the careful balancing and blending of a wide range of "interests" rather than the striking of a particular moral and/or prophetic pose. In fact, the moral imagination of the American public has always been very skeptical of the words of the "explaining classes" (e.g., priests, professors -- et al.) or indeed of authorities of almost any sort. Moreover, in recent years, the "reverence" for authority, for good or ill, has decreased even further, and if contemporary college presidents do capture the public imagination at all, it is often the result of perceived moral, social, or political failure. In this latter respect, however, many of my less well remembered 19th century colleagues and many other contemporary "authorities" have received the same reception. Finally, there are simply many more university presidents (and other "voices") about these days, and their individual influence may have become somewhat more diffused for this reason alone.
Memory -- however inaccurate -- is a wonderful thing, making it much easier for us to imagine some long-departed university president as engulfed in the flowing robes and farsighted vision of the prophets who warned us of the error of our ways, or mobilized entire institutions (however peripheral to society's concerns at the time) to a new level of understanding and a new or renewed set of commitments. After all, even a judicious and thoughtful combination of understanding, values, courage, and fairness in balancing the many obligations and "interests" of today's institutions of higher education -- a significant accomplishment for any contemporary university leader -- may be no match for the more prophetic figures that reside in our imaginations and who had a clear notion of what was right for almost everyone. Nevertheless, some of my earlier predecessors were genuinely heroic figures who mobilized anew or transformed entire institutions. I will return to the moral responsibilities of the contemporary college or university president -- as I see them -- below.
Of course, I am not the first to elaborate on the job of an American college president. Seeking usually to prescribe, rather than to describe a president's duties, several students of the office have been quite clear -- if rather limited -- in their views. "A university president is supposed to go down town and get the money. He is not supposed to have ideas on public affairs; that is what the trustees are for. He is not supposed to have ideas on education; that is what the faculty is for. He is supposed to go down town and get the money." So, at least, opined one author in Harper's in 1939. The legendary William Rainey Harper of Chicago expressed himself in somewhat more edifying terms: "How does the president of a university spend his time?" he asked. And answered: "Largely in seeking ways and means to enable this or that professor to carry out some plan which he has deeply at heart -- a plan, it may be, for research and investigation, or for improving the work of instruction."
In Harper's view, "the office of the college president is an office of service." And he rightly recognized the consequence that "everything good or bad which connects itself with service is associated with this office."
Certainly, alongside the high ideal of service, we find such pronouncements on the college president as: "for one purpose is he really selected and coached: he must develop proper skill and tact in securing large legacies, gifts, or legislative appropriations . . . ." (This, rather poignantly, from the President of Adelphi College in 1906.) And Harper himself notes (in a paper written in 1904 but published posthumously) that "a superficial observer will find much to substantiate the very common accusation that the college president is professionally a prevaricator." In this latter respect, Harper may have had in mind the differences that can arise between the private beliefs and sentiments of a particular university president and those opinions that he or she may feel comfortable expressing in public. For many presidents, public expression may be "constrained" to those cases where the perceived benefits exceed both the expected costs of being misunderstood and the anticipated penalties imposed for expressing unpopular opinions. Among the highly conflicting characterizations of the presidency, Princeton's Harold Dodds' measured view strikes a welcome note: "the only course is to accept it for what it is, a queer vocation, infested with worries but rich in satisfactions and opportunities."
University presidents have also been described in various "academic novels," many of them written by faculty members. In these venues we read (once in a great while) of presidents who are modest, self-effacing, and dedicated to their university. More commonly we encounter presidents with serious failings of one kind or another. We meet presidents filled with vanity and ambition, whose behavior is arrogant, aloof and haughty, presidents who sponsor deeply flawed academic programs, presidents who oppose all new ideas, presidents unable to deal with student protestors, and even presidents who lead sexually unconventional lives. On the fictional front, even "good" presidents (e.g., those protecting faculty interests) are often dismissed for their efforts by various heathens pursuing other agendas!
II. Then and Now
Whether today's chief executives of universities do their jobs better or worse than their predecessors may be a moot point. First, the answer probably does not matter. The important issue is whether university presidents today could do a better job. Second, this question of comparing past to present is probably unanswerable, since the nature of the institutions themselves, the environment within which they are operating, the resource base available, and the civic objectives they pursue have changed in such significant ways. Specifically, in the last century, the scale and scope of the institutions have been transformed almost beyond recognition, as has the secondary school system that supplies the students. It is helpful to recall that even by 1850 the average American college had an enrollment well under 100 students, and scarcely one percent of white males aged 15-20 attended college. Moreover, the nation's secondary school system had yet to be mobilized. As compared to the 19th century American college or university, contemporary higher education features, among other characteristics, increased size, scope and responsibility; new curricula in engineering, science, social science, applied science and the humanities; more serious preparation for advanced (i.e., graduate) education; a much greater commitment to graduate/professional programs; a discipline-based (and professionalized) organization of the faculty and curriculum; a new focus on innovation and critical thinking; and a novel concept of the structure and aims of liberal education. Finally, over the last century American colleges and universities have been transformed from a Trustee/President "imperium," to a more faculty based hegemony, to a somewhat more broadly based sovereignty that includes the government (state and federal) and students. The most important of these changes has been the rising influence of the scientific ethic and the related and dramatic shift in our expectations regarding the nature of undergraduate education. This has changed the role of universities in a manner that has had a direct impact upon the role and responsibilities of American college and university presidents. With respect to undergraduate education, the focus has shifted from the promotion and nourishment of a particular set of values and traditions to the development of cognitive and technical skills, and from a rather narrow Renaissance/Humanist curriculum to one that was much more open and speculative. As a result, the aim of a university education, especially undergraduate education, moved from the production of one particular character type to quite another. New values and commitments have displaced older ones, and, in the process, sharp changes occurred in attitudes toward the relative importance of such issues as the role of authority of all types (including that of university presidents), access to higher education (i.e., who is education for?), the role of traditional values, the uses of reason, the social function of innovation and new ways of thinking, and the appropriate overall balance among and relationship between liberal, vocational, and professional education. In short, the balance shifted somewhat from tradition and conviction, on the one hand, to innovation, skepticism, and tolerance, on the other.
In this respect, it is important to recollect once again that the curriculum of universities in 19th century America although slowly evolving (e.g., to include science, history, and vernacular literature) still reflected the basic notions of the Renaissance/Humanist curriculum that had been imported into colonial America. This tradition, we should remember, placed very little emphasis on speculative and critical philosophy, preferred rhetoric over logic, and focused on the aesthetic qualities of the text, a very particular sense of virtue, and a moral philosophy that emphasized moral control, obedience and deference to authority. It was a humanist education that focused on the Bible and classical literature with a passing exposure to Renaissance art and literature. What is also striking about this approach was that the same curriculum was considered optimal both for "liberal arts students" and for the professional training of public servants and clergy. In any case, innovation and critical thinking were devalued or ignored. How different this is from the free, open and thoughtful debate now expected or the prevalence of non-coercive deliberative and critical practices that we now find, to say nothing of the "new" idea that the university must be a center of the development of new knowledge of all kinds. For many 19th century American university presidents, this new environment and transformed academic culture would not only have been a difficult and different challenge, but a quite novel and unfamiliar moral space.
All this, together with the changing demographics of the student body and the changing relative importance of various revenue streams, has also led in the most recent decades to the increasing importance of a continuously enlarging central bureaucracy. This qualitatively new dependence on the central administration was, for most members of the university community, an unwelcome but apparently unavoidable (i.e., genuinely tragic?) evolutionary step. Although no alternatives have been proposed, this did not prevent what is often a kind of sullen hostility to this development as well as to those members of the academic community -- or outsiders -- who accept appointments as, to use the dreaded "A" word, administrators. The most common response of faculty to the news that a colleague has moved to an administrative post is that they must have -- until that very moment -- overestimated their associate's IQ! Because of such attitudes, you may hear many a former faculty member, who is now a university president, reciting the following phrase from a contemporary folk song: ...I'm tired of this war I want the work I had before... In many cases a sort of grateful but rather reserved (suspicious?) relationship developed between the faculty and the administration. On the one hand, the faculty -- quite understandably -- are grateful that they do not have to trouble themselves with this kind of work and yet still may be the recipients of financial and other support (e.g., protection of academic freedom). On the other hand, they resent the fact that resources of any kind have to be devoted to such tasks and fear that sooner or later the faculty's aspirations may not be adequately understood and/or supported by the central resource allocators (i.e., chair and/or dean and/or provost and/or president!).
It is important to recall, however, that this new relationship of faculty with the central administration (which exists, as does the modern university, both to serve and to lead) is qualitatively much different from the "moral dependence" that reigned in the 19th century. This new dependence is designed to relieve faculty of administrative chores (new and old) -- recall that 19th century faculty meetings were primarily devoted to student discipline -- and to focus responsibility for relationships with trustees and other external patrons as well as for resource mobilization in the hands of others. In most cases, it is no longer even imagined that this dependence is designed to accept guidance from the President and/or Trustees on moral issues. On the other hand, it is important to note that on certain moral issues (e.g., South African divestment, defense of the values supporting the university's intellectual culture, Affirmative Action) leadership may still fall -- from time to time -- to the president and the trustees, who may themselves be responding to external pressures of one kind or another. This new-fangled co-dependency between the faculty and the administration (i.e., the delegation of a wide variety of necessary administrative chores to a cadre of functionaries) has been aided and abetted by the increasingly specialized and professionalized (i.e., self regulating by discipline) faculty which has, in many cases, left effective faculty governance and many other community-wide issues in shambles. What remains in many cases, as others have pointed out, is active competition among the various specialized departments which, once again, acts to increase the influence of the central administration, who may suddenly seem to be transformed into taskmasters! It is now difficult to recall that in its early years the administration of U.S. colleges was a model of simplicity, as was the college itself. There were few administrative tasks and no separate cadre of administrators. The simplicity was in good part the result of very small scale, sparse budgets and narrow curricula. These latter characteristics also permitted every detail of the administration to remain under the direct scrutiny of the president, who also had time to maintain a significant academic role. Among the earliest purely administrative functions were those of the librarian, who might also serve as bursar, treasurer, and business manager. At the turn of this century, the entire administration of many colleges consisted of the president, the registrar, a bursar, a librarian, and a part time secretary. Growth in size, scope, and complexity put an end to this!
Why then look back? For one thing I am curious, but I also hope that a review of the archival record might help to articulate more carefully just what in fact was the job of a college or university president. That is, what specific tasks filled the working days of a 19th century college and/or university president -- and have those tasks changed significantly for the contemporary incumbents of these positions? This is the specific point on which I wish to focus my attention in the next portion of this essay.
The initial research I have undertaken has been an attempt to characterize the nature of some of the distinctive issues and activities that occupied the professional lives of earlier college presidents. I have focused on a handful of principally 19th century figures who loom large in the mythology of the college presidency -- the kind of names that come to mind when the claim is made that "there were giants on the earth in those days." More specifically, I have tried, through the use of archival material, to get a more accurate understanding of what university related issues occupied the minds and time schedules of some of my distinguished predecessors. In particular, I have begun by studying some of the available material on Wayland (Brown), Eliot (Harvard), Angell (Michigan), and Wilson (Princeton). There were, of course, other nineteenth century "giants" (e.g., White (Cornell), Gilman (Johns Hopkins), Tappan (Michigan) and others, but I have not yet had time to review the archival material on these -- and other -- leaders, distinguished and otherwise. This essay, therefore, must be considered work in process. One final comment before presenting some of the outcomes (i.e., inferences regarding what these "giants" actually did) of the archival research: The quantity and quality of the actual surviving archival material varies a great deal, and the overall power of the inferences I am able to offer, therefore, is not as high as I would like. Nevertheless, there is some real information here that has at the very least improved my understanding and perspective on the work of my predecessors. With respect to the current situation of American university presidents, I have relied on my own characterization of their contemporary role.
As I have already noted, I have focused my attention initially on four university presidents: Francis Wayland, president of Brown University from 1827 to 1855; James Angell, president of the University of Michigan from 1871 to 1909; Charles Eliot, president of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909; and Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910. Each of these men made a distinguished mark on his respective institution, often reforming the college's curriculum dramatically and in the process substantially transforming the institution's educational mission and/or self-conception. In each case as well, the perceived leadership of these educators extended beyond the campus to the community, the state, and even the nation. With the help of research colleagues utilizing archival material at each of the four institutions, I have sought to gain some understanding of the day-to-day lives of these giants of the past -- not necessarily the grand educational philosophies they promulgated and more occasionally implemented, but the tasks and concerns which occupied their daily working lives.
Before beginning to detail these, however, it is extremely important to consider rather specifically a contextual factor noted above -- namely, the size of the institutions they led. When Francis Wayland became President of Brown (in 1827), the school employed three faculty members; at his retirement almost 30 years later, Brown boasted a faculty of eight. At the University of Michigan, 33 faculty members taught 1,100 students when Angell arrived in 1871. By 1909, when Angell retired, there were 400 faculty and 5,400 undergraduate students at the University of Michigan. Harvard University at the time of Charles Eliot's inauguration was a university of 23 faculty members and 529 students. On Eliot's retirement, there were 160 faculty and 2200 students. One of Woodrow Wilson's extraordinary actions at Princeton was to effectively double the size of the faculty within 6 years of assuming office; his hiring of 47 young "preceptors" (each of whom he personally interviewed and selected) created a vastly expanded faculty of 113, who taught a student body of 1,400. There is no question in my mind that the sheer factor of size -- to say nothing of a vastly expanded scope -- must constantly come into play as we consider the activities of the college president -- and the evolution of those activities.
IV. What Did They Do?
One major distinction in the schedules of the earlier and the contemporary college president is the time allocated by the former to teaching and other interactions with undergraduates (there were, of course, few graduate students). Wayland -- in the second quarter of the 19th century -- spent a good deal of time each day reading and preparing for his classes. Further, when he found the texts in the subjects he himself was teaching (and that range was broad) inadequate, he wrote new ones! Thus, for example, in 1835 he published The Elements of Moral Science, in 1837 The Elements of Political Economy, and in 1854 -- the year before his retirement -- The Elements of Intellectual Philosophy. In addition to teaching his own classes, he also visited the classrooms of others (though, here again, we must remember that the entire faculty numbered only a handful of men). Before taking up his appointment at Michigan, Angell made clear to the regents of the university that it was important to him that he have contact with undergraduates in the classroom. Although he had originally been a professor of modern languages and literature at his alma mater, Brown, Angell's teaching and scholarly interests ultimately turned to politics and law, and at Michigan he taught -- effectively as far as we know -- international law and treaties, offering one course each semester throughout his career. Such a shift in disciplinary affiliation -- which is difficult to imagine in contemporary terms -- is itself a comment on the changing structure of teaching and scholarship.
I have found no evidence that Charles Eliot taught during his presidency. In his book University Administration, where he delineates the responsibilities of a university president, Eliot never mentions teaching. Of course, this is not to say that he was not concerned with pedagogy. As a faculty member, he had not been regarded as a top-flight researcher, but he was admired for his innovative classroom practices. In fact, he made his name by publishing a Chemistry text that relied on the lab method of teaching. As president, he drew on his past experiences to reform teaching practices in the laboratory sciences and also brought about teaching reforms in the Law School by introducing the case method. In many ways, Eliot seems a forerunner of the more modern full-time administrator, and while he remained throughout his career a committed advocate of excellence in teaching, he did not himself continue to teach.
Woodrow Wilson assumed the presidency of Princeton as a faculty member with a stellar teaching reputation. "Year in and year out," notes his biographer, Arthur Link, " he was voted the most popular teacher on the faculty." Throughout his tenure as president, Wilson continued to teach. His own profound vocation for the classroom is evident throughout his writings and speeches. In an essay of 1907, he touches upon the intense, spiritual relationship between teacher and pupil: "No system of teaching which depends upon methods and not upon persons, or which imagines the possibility of any substitution of the written word for the living person, can work any but mechanical effects. The teacher's own spirit must, with intimate and understanding touch, mold and fashion the spirit of the pupil; there is no other way to hand the immortal stuff of learning on." Yet his lofty ideals for the teaching profession are also tempered by the humor and pragmatism of the true teacher; as in his words to a Jersey City high school class in 1908: "The pathos of the situation [is] that I cannot impart to you from my experience anything that will keep you from being just as great a fool as I was at your age." For the presidents we are considering, responsibility for the intellectual training of their students was intimately bound up with a personal and direct responsibility for their moral training and sensibility -- indeed, the two frequently merge imperceptibly. At Brown, for example, Wayland instituted a system according to which study hours for the community (including both faculty and students) were fixed and enforced. These hours, during which faculty were expected to be found in their offices working, extended until 10 in the evening. Each faculty member was also assigned a cohort of students whose room he was supposed to visit, for the purposes of checking on the student's studying, at least twice a day. Students were not permitted to deny access to the faculty member -- who was encouraged to kick the door down if such a refusal were offered. Wayland himself assumed oversight for one of these groups of boys as well. Angell, fearing that his own specialty of law would not bring him into close enough contact with the students of Michigan's Literary (i.e., liberal arts) Department undertook the decanal duties of registering all students, granting or refusing each excuse for absence, and investigating disciplinary cases. "The result," he notes with pride in his reminiscences, "is that I knew every student and could call him by name."
Moving further toward the realm of purely moral responsibility, we find presidents responsible for not only weekly but sometimes daily religious services, including the delivery of a sermon or at least appropriately edifying remarks. For Wayland, for example, these duties were discharged twice daily, at both morning and evening services. A good deal of the time was also spent meeting with, counseling, and praying with or for the individual boys. (In a 1838 letter to Basil Manly, President of the University of Alabama, Wayland admits that these private meetings with students occupy a significant portion of his time, but he also expresses regret that he has not had an opportunity for a private conference with each and every student before graduation.) Angell had considered the ministry as a career and, having entered higher education instead, carried over to this profession the sense of Christian vocation. He spoke and wrote about Christianity, conducted several surveys on the religious life of state universities, and (in the words of George Marsden) "continued throughout the first decade of the twentieth century to preach Christ to Michigan." In fact, Angell's explicitly Christian conduct of his presidency led to a complaint against him filed with the state senate, alleging that his views and actions effectively negated the nonsectarian status of the state university.
Eliot's assumption of moral responsibilities was in some ways at the opposite end of the spectrum from Angell's "preaching." Intensely aware of being a lay President in the context of an institution evolving from a denominational to a secular nature, Eliot opens his memoirs Harvard Memories with the history of lay presidents at the college. He felt that the university was constricted by its Unitarian heritage and worked hard to open Harvard to various religious beliefs. He pursued this goal, in part, by reforming the Divinity School, ridding it of its Unitarian domination and bringing in scholars of various beliefs. Further, he created a multi-denominational board of preachers to oversee chapel services and, in 1887, went a step further by abolishing compulsory chapel services for students. Eliot himself lists his "re-building of the Divinity School on a scientific basis" and "establishment of religious services on a voluntary basis" as two of his greatest accomplishments.
While Eliot may not have perceived his role as "moral leader" of the institution in the way more clerically-minded presidents had, he certainly took upon himself the burden of enforcing standards and upholding strict codes of integrity. One anecdote has it that, on a hot spring day, Eliot happened to see Law Students busily working in the Library in their shirtsleeves. Appalled at this breach of etiquette, he demanded that the librarian post a sign, forbidding students to use the library while in shirtsleeves. (Eventually, Eliot consented to having the sign removed.) His moral scruples famously came to the fore on another occasion, when two students were apprehended stealing library books. When caught, they also lied about their names. Eliot immediately suspended them. As it happened, both were to have rowed in the upcoming Harvard-Yale crew regatta. Word of the suspension spread to the White House, and Teddy Roosevelt, himself an alumnus, urged Eliot to reconsider his actions and permit the young men to participate in the event. Students who impugned their own characters and that of Harvard would certainly not represent the school, was Eliot's terse reply, which leaked to the newspapers -- as the President of the University upbraided the President of the nation.
When Woodrow Wilson described "my ideal of the true university" for a periodical of the time, he spoke of it as "a place intended...not for intellectual discipline and enlightenment only, but also for moral and spiritual enlightenment." Himself the son of a pastor, Wilson was the first non-clergyman to preside at Princeton. For him, the university and the moral life were deeply intertwined -- indeed, inseparable -- and he devoted his own oratorical gifts to both alike. In addition to his many addresses before civic groups, in which he expounded a vision which melded intellectual, moral, and civic commitment, on campus he regularly led the meetings of the Philadelphian Society (the campus religious organization) and the Layman's Conference, as well as the services in Marquand Chapel and at the University Place Presbyterian Church. On a continuum with the moral exhortation of various types for which presidents took time in both private and public contexts was the responsibility for discipline which occupied a great deal of faculty and indeed presidential time and effort. Eliot provides a noteworthy exception in this regard. The year before he assumed office, the position of Dean of the College was created, to ease the presidential burden in disciplinary matters. While Eliot's predecessors spent as much as three-quarters of their working time on student discipline issues, he apparently spent little time on them. Again, these duties had both private and public dimensions. Not only was the president liable to decide upon disciplinary penalties or responses to a student's misbehavior, but not infrequently correspondence with students' families and others was involved as well. A large number of Wayland's letters are addressed to fathers whose sons were not applying themselves sufficiently to their school work, were too often absent (generally, the President indicates the specific number of absences), or were otherwise misbehaving (as by stealing wood from the neighbors, spending too much time in the city acting like "gentlemen," keeping "spirituous liquors" in the dormitory, or having young women in their rooms at night). Angell, as another example, is involved in correspondence with a mother from New York whose daughter has informed her that a Michigan student whom the family befriended has "been the cause of her ruin." (Some things never change.) The mother importunes the president to compel the young man to marry her daughter and save a family from disgrace. Barring that, she maintains, President Angell should certainly expel the student from the college "as a libertine and a liar, unfit for the society of honorable men or respectable women." The personal attention of the president seemed required in another way when a Harvard student died in the infirmary. His parents complained to Eliot that the college administration had displayed little sympathy for their loss. Subsequently, Eliot ordered that student medical records be moved to the Office of the President so that he personally could respond to the parents of ill students.
Undoubtedly, correspondence was a major component of a president's day (and evening)! In these pre-xerographic days, there was also the matter of a copybook, in addition to penning the original document. In Wayland's case, for example, at least a portion of his correspondence is copied into the university letterbook in the hand of the college registrar, Lemuel Elliott; but the record shows that his predecessor, Asa Messor, both wrote his own letters and then copied them into the letterbook himself. In return for financial donations or gifts of any kind made to the university, Wayland wrote to each person a letter of thanks. To inquiries made about the course of studies, the availability of scholarships for indigent students, or other university policies, the President responded, often enclosing a college catalogue as well as providing answers. Until late in his presidency, Angell answered all of his own correspondence as well, including a tremendous volume of correspondence with high schools in the state, since the university had assumed the burden of accreditation for the state's secondary schools.
In 1901, thirty years after assuming office, Harvard's Eliot hired Jerome Greene, a graduate of the Law School, to be his secretary. Prior to this, however, Eliot had shared a stenographer with the Dean's office and had responded to all letters personally, sending handwritten notes alike to applicants for positions and Presidents of other colleges and universities. Having employed Greene as his secretary, however (promoted a few years later to "Secretary of the Corporation"), Eliot brought an abrupt halt to his habit of responding to all letters. Henceforth, he scribbled only a two-or three-word indication to Greene, who then composed the President's response. When Eliot traveled, Greene served as his eyes and ears on campus, corresponding with him virtually every day. Indeed, when Eliot retired, he hoped the corporation might name Greene his successor; but they chose instead A. Lawrence Lowell.
Wilson as well appears to have done without a full-time secretary for the most part, writing many of his own letters. He was a prompt, faithful, terse, and excruciatingly dry correspondent. While Wilson's business and personal correspondents wrote to him in styles ranging from the formal to the familiar to the jocular, invariably he returned their letters in the same formal, impersonal style in which he wrote both letters of acceptance and letters of condolence. One astounding characteristic of Wilson's correspondence is its rather drab and unemotional character. Although Wilson was among one of the nation's most moving orators, little of this passion is found in his correspondence. While his correspondence yields little hint of his views on the university presidency, he had the following to say in a 1909 speech welcoming the president of Union College into: ...the questionable privileges of the fraternity of college president. It is a very happy life, sir, for those who love strife; it is a very interesting life for those who like to tell their fellow men what they really think of them. It is especially a life of an extraordinary demands upon one's energy, one's time, one's brains...College faculties are sometimes touched with as much sensitiveness and personal jealousy as church choirs....
In some ways what is most noteworthy in Wilson's correspondence, at least, is what is missing. We know, for example, that he was an important collaborator in the ouster of his predecessor, President Patton. Yet none of this appears in his own correspondence. Letters between other faculty leaders and trustees contain repeated requests that the letter "be shown to Wilson" or that his opinion be consulted, but the only letter from Wilson is written late in the negotiations for Patton's resignation and is no more than a critique of one proposal on parliamentary grounds. In the midst of Wilson's tenure, the absence of written correspondence with some of his closest colleagues seems to indicate their very proximity and the frequency of informal ad hoc consultation. Again, as Wilson's Princeton presidency draws to a close, the absence -- or perhaps redirection -- of correspondence tells a story of its own. As his own efforts at reform and modernization of the university's organizational structure had spurred an administrative apparatus of deanships, standing committees, and increasing self-governance by the departmental faculties, his correspondence with any faculty member below the level of department chair diminished substantially. By 1909, Wilson's memoranda are addressed to deans and chairs rather than to individual faculty, and they request summaries and reports on actions taken rather than breakdowns of figures and recommendations. The absence of the latter signifies that Wilson had moved -- in less than a decade -- from the administration of the university as an autocratic, 19th century President to a 20th century mold of the management of that administration by others.
In a period without telephonic communication, of course, the vast majority of business dealings must be carried out by letter. And -- to a much greater extent than today -- a great deal of the minutia of the college's business was carried out directly by the president. Of greater significance, however, was the direct role of the president in the hiring of individual faculty members, who generally applied directly to, were interviewed by, and were selected or rejected by the president. Indeed, it was one of Eliot's principles of presidential leadership that "the President's judgment should be brought to bear on every question of promotion within the permanent staff, and on every selection for an appointment without limit of time, or for a long term." So absolute was his authority in this regard that the law faculty, at their meeting of June 3, 1898, submitted a written request to the president that "the faculty should be consulted before the appointment of professors and instructors in law." Eliot himself was a member of every faculty at the university, and he made it a point to preside over every meeting of the faculty. During his first year in office, he presided at 45 meetings of the College Faculty and 39 meetings of smaller faculties (graduate programs, Lawrence Scientific School, etc.). During one long faculty meeting in which attacks on his motives and ideas were especially pointed, Eliot seemed to remain calm and poised. When he left at the end of the meeting, however, the faculty noted that the arm of his chair had broken off from the intensity of his grip.
In addition to the personnel function, the president seems also in many instances to have carried out the purchasing function. Woodrow Wilson is so minutely involved in these matters as to be ordering laboratory supplies. And an importunate Brown faculty member wrote to Wayland requesting new blinds for his office windows. Wayland even advised another university president on what sort of chairs one should purchase for the classroom. Curricular decisions fell to the president as well. When faculty proposed new courses, they didn't submit their ideas to a curriculum committee, department chair, or dean, but to him. In the spring of 1877, for example, a young assistant professor of history, Henry Adams, sent President Eliot a long, detailed note outlining a proposed course and asking that he "give this subject favorable consideration." Unable to phone, fax, or e-mail their colleagues, presidents also corresponded with one another, seeking information and advice. Angell, for example, queries President Barnard of Columbia about annual operating expenses, President Porter of Yale concerning commencement traditions, President Dwight of Yale about the constitution of academic departments (a new development at this time), and President Eliot of Harvard also about departments, as well as the conditions upon which Harvard accepts bequests. Eliot had written of Harvard's finances as well to Acting President Frieze of the University of Michigan, and Frieze sent back a note of thanks on March 15, 1871: "Thanks for your letter of information as to the wealth of Harvard. It has helped us materially in securing an appropriation of $7500 for our poverty stricken university."
In addition to their substantial interactions with students -- often involving not only academic but moral instruction, their personal oversight not only of every faculty appointment and decision but also of virtually every operational aspect of the campus, and their prodigious output of correspondence, each of the presidents I have been examining was also engaged more or less extensively in activities in the broader off-campus community.
Wayland, for example, was actively involved in a number of community matters. He donated his time and worked for various charitable organizations in Providence. He forged associations with several Bible Societies and even began a weekly "Ladies' Bible Class." He established strong ties with the public school system of Providence and proposed certain reforms, desiring to expand the number of primary schools (which was done) and to create public high schools as both academies and trade schools (which was not accomplished). His zeal for providing the largest possible number of people with the opportunity for self-improvement through learning led him to donate to the town of Wayland, Massachusetts -- named after him -- the sum of $500 to build a public library (with the stipulation that the townspeople raise what we would call today "matching funds"). This philanthropic act led the state of Massachusetts to pass a law which ultimately enabled a number of free public libraries to be built.
Wayland's evangelical enthusiasm for what he called "the new system" at Brown kept him busy on the topic of collegiate education beyond the campus as well. In 1849 he was invited to open a course of lectures before the Association of Mechanics and Manufacturers. In 1850 he traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia, to observe the university and the way its version of his "new system" worked. In 1850 as well he addressed the Rhode Island legislature on the subject of the new system. In 1851 he delivered the annual address to the Rhode Island Society for the Encouragement of Domestic Industry, tackling the issue of how farmers and manufacturers might raise productivity. And during the winter recess of 1852 he spoke in Albany to a group of people seeking to establish a National University. In a memoir of their father, his sons note that Wayland, working year round from Monday mornings through Saturday evenings without a break, suffered from strain and mental anxiety. Even in the earliest years of his tenure, Wayland's first wife (who died in 1834) noted in correspondence that he was so constantly busy that she feared for his health. When, in 1855, Wayland's physician insisted that it was time for him to resign on account of his ill health, the corporation asked him to stay on, with reduced responsibilities. Wayland replied that he would never be able to keep himself to a reduced schedule!
President Angell put a great deal of time and effort into the relationship with secondary schools in the state. Michigan pioneered a system, loosely modeled on the relationship between German gymnasia and universities, whereby the university would agree to accept the graduates of approved schools upon receipt of the school's diploma, without examination. This system entailed visits of a faculty committee to the individual schools around the state; for twenty-five years Angell chaired the committee. On the broader civic stage, Angell was appointed minister to China by President Hayes in 1880. He successfully negotiated a new treaty with the Chinese government, dealing with the immigration of Chinese laborers and the wage and job-competition concerns this had raised in America, particularly California. Expecting to serve for a year, he did not in fact return to Ann Arbor until 1882. Later, he took a second, briefer leave from his presidential duties in 1887, when he was appointed to the Fisheries Commission to settle with Great Britain questions relating to fishing rights in "British North America" (i.e., off the banks of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick). This appointment lasted only a few months, and the treaty negotiated was in fact rejected by the Senate in 1888.
As indefatigable as Wayland in his zeal to promote ideas of educational reform was Charles Eliot. Not only was Eliot's liberalization and restructuring of the undergraduate curriculum to include "electives" a landmark in American higher education, but he also transformed graduate professional education. Eliot was the first to introduce the notion that professional programs in medicine and law should require students to have completed undergraduate degrees. Prior to this, the only admission standard for most graduate programs was that the young man be "of good character." When Eliot, for example, insisted upon rigorous written examinations at the Medical School, the dean objected adamantly, stating that "more than half (of the medical students) can barely write." Much -- indeed, most -- of Eliot's external activity was an extension of his grand transformative project at Harvard. There are more than 900 speeches, articles, and books by Eliot on record (with most of the articles and books being compendia of speeches). He also wrote regular articles for the Atlantic Monthly. This public outreach was, in large part, a strategy to strengthen Harvard's resources. Eliot believed that "the president need not engage in personal solicitation of gifts to his university." Rather, financial support could be attracted by institutional integrity and providing information to the educated public.
Woodrow Wilson was one of the foremost orators of an era that produced the likes of William Jennings Bryant. He was a nationally known and widely traveled popular speaker well before he assumed the Princeton presidency. While his correspondence is dry, value free, and matter-of-fact, his oratory is vibrant, witty, moralistic, and always persuasive or instructive -- and usually both. So well-received was a speech he made in Indianapolis, for example, that a newspaper editorial in that city seriously proposed Wilson for United States President in 1901, more than a year before his name first surfaced as a possible Princeton president. Prior to his assuming the Princeton presidency, Wilson's calendar had been heavily laden with public speaking engagements to a broad range of groups, including not only educational interest groups but Boards of Trade, various types of Christian societies, and political organizations. On average, these commitments amounted to about 60 days of travel and 50 speaking engagements per year. In fact, when Wilson became president of Princeton his external commitments actually declined somewhat. Within a year of his inauguration, however, he did make a "Grand Tour" of the Princeton alumni, hosted at a series of alumni-organized dinner parties, which introduced him to the elites of whatever region he was visiting.
After this initial tour, the nature of Wilson's other outside commitments began to change. As president of Princeton, he began to be consulted by industrialists, politicians, and others on an individual basis, often meeting with local leaders in New York, Philadelphia, and environs for small dinners or task-oriented gatherings. Beginning in 1906, he also began to be extraordinarily active in the work of the Carnegie Foundation, particularly in its role as precursor to TIAA/CREF. By 1909, the number of Wilson's commitments involving large groups and the mass public was surpassed by meetings with such smaller, specialized, often privileged groups. Unlike contemporaries at Ann Arbor or Chicago, Wilson benefited from Princeton's central location in the nation's already well-developed rail and steamboat infrastructure. He seems to have traveled to New York as readily as any modern commuter, not infrequently visiting the city two and three nights in succession for dinners and after-dinner meetings. Wilson's engagement and stature as a political and moral, as well as educational, leader is inseparable from his facility with the spoken word, whether at a large religious revival or in tàte-a-tàte discussion with the cultural elites of his time. He devoted a considerable amount of his time to these encounters, apparently averaging about 70 days of travel per year during his tenure at Princeton.
Where are the giants? What do you do?
Two issues rise quickly to people's lips when engaging in casually reflective conversations with the presidents of present-day colleges and universities regarding the nature of their curious and perplexing (not to say odd and eccentric) metier. One is an observation -- usually nostalgic or yearning in nature -- and the other a direct question -- usually desperate or derisive in nature. The observation has many subtle variations, but typically reduces to the wistful comment that there was a time when great figures presided over our nation's campuses -- intellectual giants who led their faculty, students, alumni, trustees, and nation with grace, vision, and moral purpose. In most cases, this observation is the interlocutor's rather indirect vehicle for informing the listener -- a polite but often harassed leader (i.e., scholar, ambassador, manager, fund-raiser) of some university -- that he or she lacks all of these admirable qualities. Since this latter conclusion is the main point, the reality of the historical claim is quite secondary. If the conversation moves beyond this point and really gets businesslike (i.e., serious), the speaker will take note of the lack of real purpose and direction of today's colleges and universities, their inefficiencies, their self-aggrandizing rhetoric, and, most revealing, the unwillingness of today's so-called leaders to do anything about it. In an effort -- finally -- to force the accused to provide evidence of his or her own inadequacy, the speaker may turn from observations and opinions to the question -- "Just what do you really do?". Presumably, the answer sought refers to activities besides spending time with individuals interested in such interrogations. This question normally is aimed at shifting the attack to the "president's court" to demonstrate that even on friendly turf the issue is hopeless. Surely the president's response will be so self-incriminating that even the president will conclude that the office itself has come to have certain rather dubious properties.
It is surprising how defensive or tongue-tied most of my colleagues become in the face of such an inquiry. There are, of course, many ways to begin addressing this question, although very few short responses that might turn the quiz in your favor and cause the interrogator thoughtfully to scan the many staggering accomplishments of the modern university that their administrative leaders somehow seemed unable to prevent. Depending on one's morale, patience, and objectives, one might consider the following set of alternative responses that ally oneself with the great American folk hero -- the manager -- namely:
"I manage to survive; I manage to plan, organize, staff, coordinate, budget, report, and make decisions regarding the future of this organization; I manage to serve this organization as part figurehead, part pastor of interpersonal relations, part spokesperson, part disturbance handler, part negotiator, part resource allocator and general disburser of institutional propaganda and positive reinforcement to students, faculty, alumni and trustees; I manage to be an unprincipled (at times) promoter and principled (at other times) huckster of the institution and its objectives; I manage to bring forward the historical traditions of the institution and give some of them new life and meaning in a different world; I manage to articulate a set of goals for the institution that, despite all odds, actually covers all the activities of what increasingly has become a general service public utility; I manage an organization of bewildering scope with at least a little dignity, respectability, some authority and (occasionally) wisdom." I manage to preserve some sense of community in a sea of independent and fiercely self-regulating disciplines; I manage to blur the contradictory obligations the modern university too eagerly assumes; I manage to convince others that our elitism is not of the unjustified sort; I manage to persuade our patrons that no single university can address all the needs of modern life.
Unfortunately, most of my colleagues -- not being economists (thankfully!) -- might miss the distinction between manager (i.e., overseeing the on-going efficiency of a continuing but relatively static process) and the entrepreneur (who may be a manager too), who is characterized as someone who -- in contrast to the "mere" manager -- is actually putting new ideas into effect, even if this means -- as it usually will -- stirring up things a bit. In the economic sector one associates such adjectives as imagination and leadership with the entrepreneur, not with the manager. Perhaps this is what the partially informed questioner really is concerned with; namely, that neither university presidents, faculty nor trustees any longer expect and/or will allow the exercise of leadership and imagination by the administrative head of a college or university. In view of all this -- depending on one's objectives -- it might be best at this point to find a way to lob the ball back into the interrogator's court.
On the other hand, one could try to persist for a while longer and, for example, attempt to describe briefly particular dimensions of the task of most university presidents and note: "Whatever I am doing, the pace of work is unrelenting, and the demand for my time remains remarkably high despite the low value some others, especially spectators, place on it." The latter "economic paradox" is explained by the simple fact that most people seeking my attention are not charged anything extra for this "indulgence"! In any case, my days, therefore, can too easily become characterized by too large a variety of tasks, brevity of attention to each one, and an almost inevitable fragmentation of effort. As a result, I work continually with the fear of responding and even acting in a rather superficial manner." On a "difficult" day, the president might even go on to confess that "to alleviate this fear or anxiety, I often find myself focusing on current and well-defined alternatives, if any are available, rather than important long-term issues where uncertainty extends even as to the right question to be considering." Alternatively, on a more reflective note, the president might comment on the constant reality that leadership in higher education involves the difficult task of implementing new combinations to achieve old goals in a changed world or newly defined goals, and as long as you are engaged in this process, you are guaranteed to be enraging some who have feelings of affection for a previous time. You are, therefore, in the business of creating loss as you move ahead or losing ground by standing still!
On the other hand, it is unfortunately much more common to proceed on a more defensive or exasperated note (i.e., with little faith in the transformative possibilities of dialogue) that asks the visitor to distinguish between the common external illusions concerning the presidency of a contemporary college or university (that focus on rights, power, and "glory") and the reality which often consists of a rather more prosaic and limited field of action. If you have read Arthur Link's majesterial sixty-nine volume collection of Woodrow Wilson's papers, you might quote the former Princeton President as follows: The truth is that there are no more big things in a college president's day than in any other man's, and there is no use in his posing and pretending that his life is not made up of trifles -- made or marred by them.
Indeed, it is commonplace at this point to observe that -- for good or ill -- many believe that the reality for many contemporary university presidents consists either of reacting to the unpredictable and/or trying to reconcile the conflicting demands of various citizens and/or patrons of the university community. As a result, many observers have concluded that the university or college president's job is largely symbolic, his or her influence -- if any -- sporadic, as the pace and direction of activity are determined by events over which the president has little control. Therefore, if the visitor is concerned with the leadership of change (forward or backward), he ought to speak to someone else!
If this line of inquiry continues, your visitor may try to help out (i.e., allow the president to maintain some modicum of self-esteem) by posing a more narrowly defined (i.e., easier) question by asking if universities (and perhaps even their presidents) have any well-defined goals that guide the entire institution and a well understood strategy that moves the university community towards these objectives. For those of us who are both presidents of research universities that are still not overwhelmed by professional schools, and not risk adverse, we might, in these circumstances, sally forth with an articulation of the idealist conception of the university (first developed in Germany) which is based on a "technology" that relies on the organic unity of both teaching and research and the acceptance of a set of scientific values (i.e., the scientific ethos). According to this model, we could go on to explain that students who are taught to locate and operate on the scientific frontier (i.e., understand how their knowledge base is changing) develop into autonomous subjects with a unique capacity to serve their society by shaping new ideas and concepts that can transform (and enhance) social and technological relations. Moreover, since the scientific community is structured around a set of values (i.e.,the scientific ethos) that exerts its own appropriate discipline and authority, it is to be free of normal forms of public accountability. This ethos has been described in a number of ways, but some of its key values are: honesty, free inquiry, an open and critical examination of relevant evidence, an open sharing of results, universalism, disciplined skepticism, tolerance, and a certain anti-authoritarian and anti-provincialism stance. It is, you might boldly state, its own democracy which serves us best through its own self-direction! If, however, life's experiences have made you too risk averse for such an audacious approach, you may, rather defensively, be reduced to noting that the various constituents and/or patrons of the college have separate and largely inconsistent objectives which they will pursue -- as best they can -- on their own. It is, you may ruefully report, an illusion to imagine that the university's faculty and students are anxious to behave as a community with a shared interest in education, scholarship, and public service. The reality is that most members of the university community do not care a lot about most community-wide issues since they seem to have little relevance to their immediate highest priority tasks, which require resources, independence and disciplinary commitments, not shared interests, not the pursuit of a new vision, and certainly not something as amorphous -- and oppressive to some -- as the idea of community. In this latter respect, you may go on to note that higher education is simply one of latest institutions of western liberal democracies to substitute a kind of self-regulating (hopefully!) individualism for what had previously been an intricate web of mutual responsibilities that had sustained the academic community for centuries! Moreover, in recent decades, society's support for higher education has come to be taken so for granted that faculty and administrators alike have lost sight of the necessity of ensuring a broad base of support and understanding of the social role of the academic enterprise.
If the conversation is still cordial, the president may exclaim that he or she would like to stand firmly (against the advancing horde) for the old and tested truths (i.e., convictions and traditions), or boldly take the institution (against the weight of tradition) toward the top of a new mountain (i.e., innovation and pluralism), but the reality is that different parts of the contemporary university community will view any such initiative of the president as parochial or forward looking (depending on their particular concern), courageous or cowardly, and, in any case, convincing evidence that he or she was discharging his or her duties without the right (i.e., their) set of fundamental principles! Indeed, some may go so far as to claim that presidential behavior is non-purposeful, inconsistent, governed by emotion, indifferent to evidence, and constantly being governed by one kind of "group thinking" or another.
Since this type of defensive and exasperated rhetoric is unlikely to serve anyone's interest, it may be that a far superior tactical approach would be to finally get the ball back in the interlocutor's court by asking a question of your own, such as: "What should a transient trustee of an institution's health and purpose -- especially one that is changeless but ever-changing -- do?" or, better still -- especially if you are talking to someone from the business sector -- hopefully also a CEO -- "Just what do you do?". This latter question often helps focus the attention of the interlocutor in a manner that has them anxiously changing the subject to the weather, or -- if they are still on the offensive -- to the football team's inadequate win-loss record! VI. Concluding Comment My preliminary attempt both to examine the day-to-day working lives of an earlier era of university presidents and to characterize the contemporary nature of this distinctive position is by no means comprehensive, but I believe it does yield some fruitful provisional conclusions. First, it seems clear that the tremendous demands for communication and interaction with a president, the intense "busy-ness" required in his (or her) day -- at least during the academic year -- has not dramatically changed from the 19th century. While the phone call, the fax, and -- most recently -- e-mail may have substituted, in some part, for the tremendous volume of written correspondence passing through the president's office, the need for a very high volume of communication with constituencies both internal and external has remained constant. What has changed, however, is the much wider portfolio of both responsibilities and constituencies (i.e., interests) that the college or university president must now deal with. Foremost among these, of course, is the relationship with the federal and state governments. This has greatly increased the complexity of a president's interactions with both external and internal constituencies. A single day often requires contemporary college and university presidents' concerns to traverse back and forth from alumni to Washington (or a state capital), from public policy issues to student discipline and from faculty appointments to curricular reforms. All this in a necessarily endless quest to help provide for the needs of his or her institution and to help secure the broadest acceptance of higher education's needs and responsibilities.
Another example of apparent evolution in form yet underlying consistency in function is the president's engagement with the full panoply of campus activities. While today's president will probably not be involved in ordering laboratory chemicals, venetian blinds, or classroom furniture (as were Wilson and Wayland), he or she is almost certain to be involved in a broad spectrum of decisions which represent comparable commitments of resources in universities which have become much larger and more complex administrative entities. Decisions on parking garages, patent and licensing policies, equitable health care and pension plans, safe disposal of chemical wastes, child care facilities -- these and many other legitimate university concerns represent, perhaps, the contemporary equivalent of decisions on physical plant or purchasing made by presidents such as Angell or Eliot.
While the media and the scope for exercising some presidential responsibilities have changed, their structure seems in many ways to have remained relatively stable. Yet, despite these similarities, I believe there is at least one area in which we do see a distinct change between the 19th and the late 20th century university president. That is in our predecessors' traditional responsibility for ethical leadership -- which they originally carried out by teaching the college's capstone course in moral philosophy and/or ensuring an adequate amount of "right thinking" in the faculty. It might be argued that, in the more complex modern university, this ethical dimension of presidential leadership has evolved from a more strictly delimited and almost rule-governed activity into a more diffuse but no less significant role of helping to set the moral tone for the academic community -- and beyond -- via one's choices, policies, actions and words.
Indeed, it is my own view that the moral requirements of a contemporary university president are no less than in some previous age but they are of a different sort. It is no longer the president's responsibility to teach other members of the academic community the precise nature of appropriate beliefs and "right thinking." It is rather to act as an example of personal integrity (i.e., accepting both the rights and responsibilities of academic life) and to both protect and project the academic vision of the modern American university (and the intellectual culture that supports it) as a social institution that serves the long-term interests of the society that supports it. Moreover, it is critical for the president and any allies he or she can mobilize within the academic community to be able to convey to others the notion that for universities the future is of great ethical significance. The issue of integrity -- both intellectual and personal -- is an important one. One could look at this question in the negative by equating it with a lack of intellectual and/or personal corruption. It is more helpful, however, to focus on the positive and think of integrity as reflecting such qualities as open commitment to a set of academic and social values; forthrightness, discernment, steadfastness in the pursuit of a vision; fierce in the defense of those cultural conditions (i.e., the university's cultural norms) required for intellectual inquiry and education (e.g., thoughtful debate, reasoned inquiry); compassion and -- despite the ultimate unwillingness to compromise all -- a capacity to compromise when that is what is required to move a community forward. It seems to me that one can project such qualities if and only if one acts from a set of principles that helps distinguish between right and wrong and articulates these principles for the entire community. To my mind, too few contemporary college and university presidents actually articulate their perspectives on such matters.
It is certainly the obligation of all members of the academic community to nourish those human qualities among its members and those social and cultural conditions that are critical to sustaining the vitality of educational and scholarly programs. Once again, these include such qualities as the ability to focus on important issues, a commitment to the thoughtful re-examination of current understandings, respect for evidence, creativity, productivity, and integrity. However, it is surely the task of presidents not only to visibly support this effort but to be able to grasp the meaning of current events (e.g., the explosion of information technology, or the globalization of economic, demographic, and environmental concerns) for the evolution of higher education, to anticipate transformation, and to pose questions such as the following:
What confidence should we continue to place in human competence? Should there be any limits to our desire to control all and possess all? Does scientific and technological progress allow us to avoid dealing with issues of values, justice, and interests? How do we achieve both intellectual autonomy and collective identity? To what extent are liberal democracy and free scientific inquiry tied together? To what extent, if any, should trust replace accountability? What rules, if any, should characterize citizenship and/or belonging to an academic community? Only if we engage such questions will we be able to sustain both the social responsibilities of universities and the intellectual authority (i.e., social acceptance) of new scholarly ideas in the face of a knowledge base that is both exploding and decomposing and dealing with phenomena that pervade our lives and yet are far from our everyday experience. Only by asking such questions will we develop the strength to continue to challenge the familiar, deal with the inevitable criticism and disappointment, build peaceful bridges across cultural divides, and help our society build a new understanding of the role of education and scholarship in a rapidly changing world. As we think of our 19th century colleagues, it is well to recall that in their world the building of character (e.g., piety, moderation, love of country -- etc.) was the chief aim of higher education. Indeed, for our now long-departed colleagues, the responsibility to impart a particular set of moral claims and beliefs suffused the entire educational effort. The emergence of the modern university, however, characterized by a more rigorous, speculative, probing and less dogmatic perspective, not only caused a certain loss of confidence in the particular moral consensus promoted by our predecessors, but a general reluctance to engage higher education's moral issues. Indeed, once the university's programs shifted from the fostering of a particular moral pose to encouraging students to think more carefully for themselves about complex moral issues, the role of the president and faculty with respect to these particular matters became more ambiguous, not to say murky. As a result, there was every tendency to avoid some of these difficult and contentious issues in favor of a focus on a rapidly growing set of more easily defined challenges. At the same time, however, an important new presidential obligation arose; namely, creating the conditions for enabling and encouraging this new intellectual autonomy to flourish. This has been a loss, since it seems quite clear to me that although we were right to welcome and promote a new vision of a liberal education -- one that liberated us from the constraints and limits of certain capricious traditions and customs -- the modern academic community and its administrative leaders have often lost sight of the fact that a life without a larger purpose loses its meaning. Since education remains a moral endeavor (i.e., it deals with those things we believe to be important), it remains important for university presidents -- and other members of the academic community -- to engage in a campus-based discourse that centers on the broad set of issues that help students focus for themselves on the meaning and purpose of life and what is involved in moral and virtuous action. This matter can be considered from a somewhat different perspective; namely, cultural adaptation. Any viable set of cultural arrangements -- including higher education -- must not only adapt to changing external circumstances but do so in a manner that allows individuals to feel a sense of attachment and/or personal integration with evolving circumstances. It seems to me, however, that although university and college faculty, as well as their presidents, have demonstrated considerable leadership in highlighting the need for societal responses to a changing set of external circumstances, they have been largely silent on the issue of what set of values would be most helpful in allowing individuals to feel a sense of attachment and belonging to a changed world. Assembling a group of very intelligent people and adequate resources is important, but so is a vision that structures the overall effort in a manner designed to give greater meaning to the effort and to the society. In examining the lives and activities of presidents of this earlier age, I cannot help but feel that they both perceived and enacted their moral responsibilities on a different scale -- at once more grand and more minute. On the one hand, these presidents frequently seem to have believed that they were both called and empowered (i.e., had a moral responsibility) to transform an institution that needed transforming on a grand scale. Today's leaders, by contrast, I would say are often more sanguine about the fundamental soundness of the institutions over which they preside, frequently believing that more gradual and thoughtful change, rather than utter transformation, is called for. On the other hand, the 19th-century presidents seem to have been much more atomistically engaged with responsibility for the moral and intellectual growth of each individual student within the college -- as we see by the time devoted to correspondence with parents, shared prayer with students, etc.. In comparison with this latter focus, today's president often seems to work with a more global sense of duty to promote and protect the soundness of the institution as a whole and its role in society, rather than intervening directly in each individual student's life. Thus, the grand transformative schemes of the past seem often to have been coupled with the tendency for quite local intervention in the individual lives of community members, while the more modest transformative goals of many contemporary leaders seem frequently joined with a rather global sense of institutional action, which frequently relies more on the power of new ideas than on direct intervention to affect the moral character of individual lives.
Clearly what I perceive to be changes in the president's sphere of moral action are explained, in part, by changes both in the scale and scope and the social transformation of higher education. The eight-man faculty of Wayland's day is clearly dwarfed by today's often massive academic communities, and the interaction of the president with that community must necessarily be quite different. Moreover, the social responsibilities of universities are now interpreted in quite different ways. Yet I think it is important to recognize that, as our colleges and universities have grown and been transformed -- and enviably so -- there have -- despite enormous gains -- also been some unfortunate losses. My own feeling, as I have tried to understand the similarities and the differences in the lives of great past presidents, is that the specific domain of moral leadership -- for which both they and their communities perceived them to have major responsibility -- is an area for which, in the contemporary university, we have not clearly enough identified, assigned or assumed responsibility. As our campuses, our student bodies, our faculties, and our associations with the extramural community grew, our need for ethical awareness and understanding did not decrease. Indeed, I would argue that a president's moral leadership is more challenging than ever when their responsibility extends to sustaining the conditions under which faculty and students are themselves encouraged to think and act on or by moral principles that they themselves can defend. With all due respect, this is a task -- for both presidents and faculty -- which is far more complex than teaching a required course in ethics or moral philosophy. Moreover, the more pluralistic and complex the university, the tougher and, arguably, the more important is this task of moral leadership. Yet by and large we have neglected to engage fully this growing need. This is a loss, I believe, which we must begin to repair, perhaps in part through a reexamination of presidential responsibility.