Presidents of top-tier universities have a strong combination of education and experience. In private conversations, any of them can display fiery ambition and contentious opinions.
And so it is unfortunate that their position requires them to be cautious in public speeches and campus directives so as to minimize controversy.
Each incident of against-the-norm thinking causes journalists to discuss the obligations of college leaders. Outside of fundraising responsibilities, should a president be expected to do more than ensure parking for faculty, housing for students and football for alumni? Upsetting parts of your school community and challenging the academic culture are roads rarely taken.
Top positions in education require a knack for politics, and most of the leaders who have risen to the top have done so by only supporting initiatives that are popular within their school community. Openly supporting diversity and Affirmative Action is not a very dangerous platform.
It seems that most of them were told that putting delicate issues on the table and taking a stand on them would not be a job requirement. Grade inflation is a problem when over half of all grades given at your school are A’s, and Harvard University President Larry Summers was correct to openly admit it.
He also made waves by working to revise undergraduate curriculum, place more focus on hard sciences (which are rarely among the top programs in the Ivy Leagues) and change admissions to accommodate more low-income students. But his true public battles have been with faculty, and that should be applauded.
Responding to the death
of a freshman at a fraternity event, University of Oklahoma President David Boren has outlawed
alcohol from his campus. The response has not been completely supportive.
There is no doubt that American universities have a drinking problem but discipline is arguably the best method. Telling college students what they cannot do only invites rebellion. More conservative and possibly more successful attempts to curtail binge drinking involve educating students, giving them more options and prodding without forcing.
Awareness programs, more Friday classes, late-night coffee houses and penalties for underage drinking are argued to be effective.
Fraternities have earned their reputations through their history and need to be saturated with regulations. But they are also the victims of publicity.
Many of them have above-average students, hold responsible social events and contribute to their community. Presidents who force them to go dry may only be pushing a drinking problem outside of their boundaries rather than stopping it.
When former University of California President Richard Atkinson originally proposed eliminating the SAT as a requirement of admission, critics at first suggested that his Oakland office was too close to Berkeley. His statement has since led to a change in the test format and revised thinking at schools across the country.
Fearing that college sports were becoming too commercialized, former Stanford University President Gerhard Casper banned all advertising at home football and men’s basketball games. Any athletic department would cringe at the thought of losing millions in revenue. School supporters voiced concern at the time, but an enormous athletic endowment certainly helped cushion the blow. Knowing that they could still compete financially, Cardinal fans eventually took pride in the decision.
Egos, tenure and popularity aside, no professor or administrator should be immune to criticism. The challenge for presidents is effective communication and diplomacy. Presidents will find it much easier to say what they truly feel if they have earned the respect and commitment of their constituencies. Schools are not corporate hierarchies; deans and department heads respond much better to invitations than to orders.
Summers was not wrong when he reprimanded prominent professor Cornel West and pushed him away to Princeton. He should also be allowed to give his personal thoughts on women’s abilities and the importance of patriotism. Presidents have a difficult job and can face intense scrutiny, but criticism would be less magnified if more of them spoke their mind more often.
Leaders of colleges should start debates. They must be careful to listen to all opinions and not dominate discussions but should not shy away from doing what they think is correct.
Academia should be focused on discourse, provided that any proposed idea has some merit and rigor.
Informed discussions are well worth the storms that accompany them. Schools should not worry about Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton showing up and claiming controversy; the public knows that they leap at the slightest chance of publicity.
A good university president must make some compromises to earn the support of their faculty,
but should worry if they are too comfortable and have not
ruffled any feathers. Although many battles should rightfully be judged too difficult to fight, true research universities should take the lead when they feel it is necessary.
Anthony Wirth is a graduate student in demographics.