Presidential Politics, College Edition

I’m reading Game Change, which is every bit as juicy as I’d hoped it would be. I recommend it highly.

As I read about primary fights and smoke-filled rooms, though, my thoughts are carried back into the past, and try as I might to resist this tide, I can’t. So I will share with you reflections on how presidents of another venerable American institution, our liberal arts colleges, are selected. The money involved and the stakes at risk are teeny-tiny compared to our national elections, but the hubris and the ego of the players every bit as supersized.

Much soul-searching takes place campus-wide when a president announces she’s leaving. Such an announcement comes for a variety of reasons; it could be because the president has gained a new perch on a higher branch of the tree of learning, or because he’s ready at last to start living large on his pension, swollen as it is by deferred compensation, or because the faculty is coming after him with flaming torches and weaponized copies of the college’s governance documents. No matter. The trustees will gravely instruct the faculty to think deeply about the qualities most important for the institution’s next leader, and will themselves endeavor to answer the same question. Not, you understand, that they actually will do the q-and-a themselves. No, for that and other time-consuming tasks they will hire an executive search firm, just like Fortune 500’s do.

The real fun begins when the board, which—contrary to faculty conceit—is the hiring authority for bodies presidential, inevitably must choose between the lady or the tiger: academic vision or fiscal know-how. There is not a board of trustees of a liberal arts college, even the ones with bloated $1 billion-plus endowments, that does not agonize over this awful decision.

The board at a small Ursuline women’s college, the College of New Rochelle, recently had to decide. In justifying the board’s choice, the chairman said,

“Although financial needs and educational needs are both part of the picture, in the College of New Rochelle’s case, financial needs are absolutely paramount at this time,” said Michael N. Ambler, a former lawyer at Texaco and a member of the college’s board since 1993. “We felt that the crying need for the college over the long haul was financial in order to keep it alive, and without that, we were nowhere.”

To pull the CNR back from the brink of nowhere, the board in its wisdom dispensed with a search and named the vice president of finance, eight-year employee Judith Huntington, president. Ms. Huntington is a former audit manager at KPMG and holds a baccalaureate degree.

The chairman elaborates on the board’s choice:

With “virtually no endowment” (about $20 million, for an enrollment of 6,000 students), “the financial requirements of CNR are very difficult to meet,” Ambler says. “We have balanced our books, based on regular revenue and rather small gifts from alumnae, and Judy has been responsible for a great deal of our ability to do that.”

Huntington, he says, has nearly a year to more fully “familiarize herself with the educational side, to the extent she didn’t already have it.” Hiring a president with stronger academic credentials and lesser financial bona fides could have put the college’s future at risk, he suggests. “If we had an educator as president, I’m not sure the college would survive.”

There are two sets of Monday morning quarterbacks that sit in judgment of a board’s actions: the faculty and the alumnae. Both groups at the College of New Rochelle began full tilt analyzing the decision, writing letters and issuing statements. Did these manifestos take the board to task for its failure to consider the academic mission of the institution? Did either group question if the board investigated whether the education offered by CNR might be the reason for its shaky finances? No, of course not. In fact, education seems to have been the last thing on the quarterbacks’ minds. They were upset—stop me if you have heard this one before—over process. Seems the trustees conducted their “search” under cover of darkness, so sure enough

a group of alums wrote an impassioned letter (which was soon followed by others) urging the board to “recognize that more than anything else, at this critical time, the College needs a rigorous, open, inclusive and transparent process to identify the best person to lead CNR.”

The head of the Council of Faculty had these fighting words to offer: “I understand the concerns of others and respect and share the concern for the procedures that were followed in this case, we’re all best served at this juncture to be behind [the board’s decision].”

I wish President-elect Huntington all the best. She seems like a nice lady with a big job ahead of her. But I weep for my former professional home, of which CNR is but a leading indicator of the demise of liberal arts colleges should they continue down the path it has blazed. The choice between academic vision and fiscal know-how is no choice at all, because if you don’t have the former you don’t need the latter. A sustainable budget that sustains a poor curriculum is sustainable in name only. The financials might be balanced, but after the students have gone and the faculty are left scratching their heads trying to figure out what happened, the accountant can shut off the lights on his way out.

The College of New Rochelle isn’t the first institution to make this potentially fatal mistake; it’s just taken it to the next level. For years many colleges have instructed their search firms to find them a president who can raise money. The search firms do their best to comply, but with this “or else” dictum guiding their actions they must range further and further afield from the traditional academic leader, a man or woman of scholarly accomplishment, comfortable in the classroom and capable of making informed decisions about the business of education—teaching, learning, and research. Instead, they offer up pseudo-executive types, who may or, more likely, may not have had up-through-the-ranks academic careers, but who know their way around a spreadsheet and a cocktail party of high rollers.

Sadly, the colleges who look for this kind of savior in a pinstripe suit often get exactly what they want. The new president arrives. The beans are counted. The procedures are put in place. The outside experts are brought in. Never mind that the faculty is in turmoil, so distracted are they by the thought that something new or, horror of horrors, something additional might be asked of them, that they fail to realize the Sturm-und-Drang of the new regime has sapped them of any capacity to invigorate what very possibly is an anemic academic program much in need of a transfusion of new ideas, new commitment, and new passion. The place grinds to a halt, but, by golly, it can account for every bean!

I am a great fan of capitalism. Maybe I even think that greed is good. But as a capitalist I look at liberal arts colleges who hire accountants as their presidents and I scratch my head. Isn’t the first principle of capitalism to make your product so good it’s the one everybody wants to buy? Are penny-perfect spreadsheets and word-perfect governance documents an acceptable substitute for an education that will enable students to stretch their minds, test their principles, and expand their aesthetic capacity?

I don’t think so.

NOTE to readers: All quotations are from “Finances First,” by Doug Lederman in the Febuary 8, 2010 edition of Inside Higher Education.

4 thoughts on “Presidential Politics, College Edition

  1. Many liberal arts college campuses face sure foreclosure in the near future, but they will make lovely senior citizen communities when sold at auction. Alas, the former faculty will be unable to afford the high-priced living costs. College administrators may be luckier (if the Grand Jury does not catch them).

  2. Pingback: Still More Amy Bishop: I Don’t Remember. I Might Be Sorry. Do I Still Have a Job? « Call Me "Miss"!

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