The President and the Professor, Part Two


So “Obamism” feels at worst like a hodgepodge, at best like a to-do list — one that got way too dominated by health care instead of innovation and jobs — and not the least like a big, aspirational project that can bring out America’s still vast potential for greatness. Thomas Friedman, NYT, February 21, 2010.

I may have to reevaluate my knee-jerk animus against New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. His repetitive hectoring that President Obama should be nation-building is chalk-on-blackboard irritating, but to my astonishment, I found myself nodding in agreement with Friedman when I mentally erased “President Obama” and “nation-building” and substituted “College President” and “visionary thinking.”

Over the last several months, Friedman has taken the US president to task for his failure to create and sustain an “overarching narrative” about the direction he hopes to steer the ship of state. Friedman’s earlier and more gentle suggestions about story-telling in the service of nation-building have given way to a harsher critique of the administration’s attempts at leadership as “at worst like a hodgepodge, at best like a to-do list.” If you are Rob Long at The National Review, you would shrug and say what do you expect from a callow politician who has not paid his dues (February 22, 2010, print edition); I, on the other hand, in keeping a promise to the doctor who worries about my blood pressure, think as little as possible about President Obama and instead reflect on Friedman’s stepped-up rhetoric as it applies to academia.

Small liberal arts colleges are like tiny principalities, their presidents the heads of state. The president can be a benevolent dictator, an ideological tyrant, a self-absorbed narcissist, even an actuary. Those are the ones who tend to fail at the job. Those who succeed at this most difficult of endeavors do so because they are first and foremost visionaries. Understanding to be sure of the harsh environmental factors that conspire to bring about the demise of small colleges, they are also clear in their own thinking about the value such institutions provide their students; committed to their institution’s contribution to the preservation, transmission and expansion of knowledge; tough-minded in their expectations of faculty, student, staff and themselves; and talented in the celestial navigation required to stay the course. Such captains are in short supply.

I know exactly why Friedman wrings his hands in despair over the “hodgepodge” that is President Obama’s agenda. On a college campus, a new and often neophyte president more than anything else wants to be seen by the trustees, faculty and anyone else who cares to watch as a can-do leader. This means he or she will immediately, very often with very little thought of the consequences, make sweeping changes. The kind of change you can believe in until the inevitable moment comes when you find yourself wondering to what end a new policy here, an overpaid, over-titled administrator there are all hurtling toward. By this time you hope that a kindly board chair will have a quiet word or two with the president.

Taking a page from Friedman’s play book, the trustee will say something along the lines of, “you know President, you need to let the faculty and students see the same fine mind the trustees saw when we hired you. Why don’t you share your thoughts with them so that they can see and appreciate the full flower of your vision and aspirations for our college?” The president will thank the board chair and get right to work envisioning the college of the future. It will be “diverse.” It will be “international.” It will “exploit technology” in service of teaching “critical thinking skills.” It will develop a “signature program.” Oh, and, lest you forgot for a moment, the college of the future will be “diverse.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? And familiar too. Jumping on the diversity/critical thinking catamaran is the journey du jour for a college president seeking to advance a bold vision for his campus. That banshee howl you also hear is the dashing of this sodden vision as it collides with the trimaran of what faculty actually do, what students want and need, and what parents are prepared to subsidize. Could this catastrophe have been adverted? Perhaps, had the president not chosen the one-size-fits-all vision for the campus and instead called for all hands on deck to craft a genuine plan for the college.

This is not to say that faculty do not believe in (or at least pay lip service to) the chimera of “diversity” or what is essentially a vocational school concept, “critical thinking skills”; of course they do. But this shaky common ground of feel-good academic clichés is no foundation for securing the future of an institution whose survival depends on its ability to offer and deliver an education that is transformative for each student, at a minimum enhancing the student’s innate intellectual, moral, and creative capacities and from that base adding significant value to the student’s post-graduate years. “Value” in this sense has many meanings: productive and satisfying employment, extended aesthetic horizons, judgment informed by reasoned analysis and ethical principle; and a consciousness joyfully aware of and eager to participate in an ever-expanding universe of knowledge.

Until and unless the president and the faculty agree that it is in their and the college’s best interest to jettison the hodgepodge of change and the pedantic to-do list and undertake a holistic appraisal of the college, its merits and its flaws, the will for the college to thrive let alone survive will simply not be there. And this is why is it is so fundamentally important that the president be a man or woman of vision. For appraisal is just the beginning. Once an institution has sound knowledge of itself it can begin to chart its future, but it needs the map that only a president’s vision can provide. A wise president will devise this map (or narrative, in Friedman’s terms) drawing from the appraisal and matching the strengths of the faculty with the steps the college must take to become the transformational institution it must be in order to survive. The relationship between the president and faculty must be symbiotic: the big picture is the buck that starts and stops with the president; the fine lines and details belong to the faculty, whose expertise and creativity add color and nuance. If a president lacks vision, or does not possess a vision grounded in the reality of the institution, then all of that expertise and creativity seeps from the canvas and becomes a disorganized, diffuse waste of resources.

The greatest tragedy of all, however, is when for whatever underlying neuroses or shortcoming presidents cannot tear themselves away from the codex that is their to-do list, and so the status quo remains, gradually devolving into a miasma of bickering and malaise. When this happens, if you are President Obama, you blame your predecessor; if you are a college president, you do the same.

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