New England All-Stars: The Best of the Best College Presidents

Earlier this week news crossed my desk that yet another (former) Rocky Mountain College employee had filed a civil suit, for wrongful termination, harassment and intimidation, against embattled President Michael “Mug Shot” Mace. I filed the report, thinking I would use it eventually as the source for another post on Mace’s uniquely hands-on management style.

But even I have my limits. Enough with the bad (OK: alleged bad) apples, I thought. Surely there must be a few good college presidents.

Forget the good ones, there are some great ones. And I didn’t have to look too far to find them, for all of them call New England home. When I despair about the future of higher education, I think about the accomplishments of these gifted men and women and feel a renewed sense of optimism for future classes of undergraduates. Perhaps you will, too.

Lawrence Bacow, President, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts
. Larry Bacow assumed the presidency of Tufts in 2001, under circumstances that occasioned a bit of a dust-up: never once did he appear on campus for the ritual charade of meeting with faculty and students. The Tufts board conducted the presidential search in complete secrecy, and only at its conclusion did the trustees present Bacow, late of MIT, as fully empowered top dog. For a lesser candidate this could have meant at best a rocky start and at worst a short tenure. Last spring President Bacow announced that this, his tenth year at Tufts, would be his last, keeping a promise of sorts—“ten years feels about right”—he made early on in his administration.

That Tufts has flourished under this remarkable man is no surprise, for he possesses a wisdom that combines rigorous intellect with clear-headed analytics; judgment informed by standards that inspire and elevate; and an understanding kindness that animates his encounters with students and colleagues.

Tuft's mascot Jumbo lights up the room. So does President Bacow.

Two examples will give you a sense of this exemplary president. A couple of years after assuming the presidency, Bacow reported on the state of the university to the Tufts board of trustees. He went on to give the same presentation to various audiences within the Tufts community, eventually putting it all down in writing for the Tufts Magazine in an article entitled “A University Poised.”

From one perspective “A University Poised” is nothing special: it is easy to read, easy to understand. The language Bacow uses is unadorned by Latinate phrases or impenetrable, irrelevant rhetorical complexities. Nor is it larded with personal references to assure readers of Bacow’s smarts. In “A University Poised,” Bacow’s smarts simply are. And from this perspective, it is special indeed. For too many college presidents, the institutional motto becomes “C’est Moi.”

Then there is President Bacow’s kindly concern for students. The Boston Globe recently ran a story on Bacow’s policy of hauling students who have drunk themselves into a visit to the emergency room into his office for a stern talking-to. Even on precious liberal arts campuses far smaller than Tufts, such personal presidential attention to the disturbing, pandemic behavioral problem that campus drinking has become is rare. Hung-over students are usually left to residential staff or counselors to deal with best they can. Bacow’s up close and personal intervention with these students may not convince all of them to change their behavior, but it convinces many and has the even more far-reaching effect of empowering others on campus, including students, to speak up when observing such potentially disastrous conduct.

I hope Larry Bacow enjoys his retirement. But even more I hope that someone in Washington taps him for a big, big job. We should all be as lucky as the folks at Tufts.

Janet Eisner, SND, President, Emmanuel College, Boston, Massachusetts. Sister Janet first came on my radar back in the 1980’s, when as president of Emmanuel she was appointed to the Massachusetts Board of Regents of Higher Education. The regents, as a board, did not last too long in the roiling waters of Massachusetts politics, but Sister Janet was as steady a helmsman as any imperiled craft could hope for. Surrounded by political appointees whose grasp of even fundamental educational issues was flaccid, Sister Janet patiently explained the realities of life in the college classroom. As a young woman hoping to make a career of academic administration, I watched Sister Janet from the public peanut gallery and tried as hard as I could to learn from what she said and how she said it.

Sister Janet Eisner transformed Emmanuel from a fading regional haven for Catholic girls into a co-education college with a conscience. On top of that, she made a smart—really smart—deal with the college’s property holdings to give her institution a previously undreamt-of degree of financial security.

You don't have to be a saint to be a college president, but it sure helps if they're on your side.

This spring President Eisner celebrated her thirtieth year as Emmanuel’s CEO. For a less extraordinary woman and college president, I would say another thirty years is too much to ask for. But in Sister Janet’s case, I am not so sure.

Richard Freeland, President (Emeritus), Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts
. Richard (never “Dick,” never “Rich,” never “Rick”) Freeland was always the smartest guy in the room—and you didn’t even have to wait for him to tell you to know this was true. You knew it as soon as he started to talk. President Freeland acquired his administrative chops at the University of Massachusetts, where he was a whiz kid in the president’s office, then, eventually, dean of UMass Boston’s College of Arts and Sciences. From there he went south to City University in New York for a spell, returning triumphantly to Boston when in 1996 he was named president of Northeastern University. Somewhere during all of that administering, Freeland wrote the highly readable, meticulously researched Academia’s Golden Age: Universities in Massachusetts, 1945-1970, a tome that is well worth its $145 price tag.

The Northeastern Huskie: Go, Richard!

Richard Freeland is a planner. He believes in numbers, goals, and accountability. But even more than that, he believes in important ideas and the powerful, beneficial role the university can play in contemporary society. What makes him one of the all-time greatest university presidents, though, is his genius for putting plans into action.

Under his leadership, Northeastern was transformed from “that school where they have a co-op program and don’t let you live on campus,” to a university distinguished for the quality of its professional programs and partnerships with the City of Boston. Northeastern blossomed from a grotty architectural blight on the Green Line to an oasis of thoughtful urban design.

Too many college president botch strategic planning, either passing it on to unqualified underlings, or failing to marshal faculty talent and expertise, or simply talking about it but never getting around to doing it. Others make an earnest stab at planning but allow themselves to be foiled by inadequate budgets or unreasonable goals. A few are successful in carrying out their plans. President Freeland stands above them all.

Charles Longsworth, Adele Simmons, Gregory S. Prince, Jr., presidents emeriti, Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts. This improbable trio (businessman, heiress, adventurer) presided over the infancy, childhood and adolescence of a precious liberal arts college of the kind that both delights and infuriates me. Hampshire wears its reputation as an offbeat, off-center institution proudly, and with justification. For just shy of forty years, it has offered students an educational experience unique in American higher education.

By rights, Hampshire shouldn’t exist: its highly individualized educational program, in which each student works with faculty committees of two or three for a solid year is incredibly labor intensive (aka incredibly expensive). Opening its doors in 1970, the college got underway just as the glory years of higher education, fueled by the GI Bill, the National Student Defense Loan Program and a sunny optimism that the baby boom would continue expanding national need for higher education, were coming to an end. Virtually all—as in every single one—of the financial assumptions on which Hampshire was predicated were proven to be untrue almost immediately. The place, examined by cold logic, should have closed before it opened. But it did not. The faculty who swarmed around its intoxicating ideas about pedagogy in turn drew classes of incredibly bright, intellectually ornery students. While they were off doing what teachers and learners do, it was left to Longsworth then Simmons then Prince to do the impossible.

And they did. Each experienced dark days of horrible student tragedies, unfair (perhaps) lampooning in the press, and always, always unrelenting lack of funds. Lesser presidents, those who believe the story of a college is told only by its balance sheets, could not have survived at Hampshire then. Lesser presidents would have performed the kind of budgetary cuts that allows them to declare the operation a success, even as the patient is moribund, sapped of its energy and spirit.

In the face of such daunting odds, and with other avenues open to them, Longsworth, Simmons and Prince chose the harder path of pressing on, feeling the fetid breath of debt ever at their backs, but always making it to the next payroll, always finding new resources or making due in some creative way. Is that any way to run a college? Of course not, and Chuck, Adele, and Greg would tell you that in unison. But they did what they had to do, also making personal financial sacrifices to work at a college that could not afford to pay them what they were worth.

It's not true that Greg Prince taught a class in alchemy...but he could have!

And for their sacrifices, Hampshire can boast of graduates who have won MacArthur Awards and served their country in the Foreign Service, the Marines, and the White House. Graduates who conduct transformational research on autism, artificial limbs, and other persistent health issues. Graduates who write achingly beautiful prose and poetry. Not bad for a young college, and very much a testament to the remarkable abilities of these three presidents to keep the lights on and the water running, even as others might have just handed the keys back to the bank.

So there you have it six—count ‘em, six—college presidents I admire without reservation. For those of you keeping score, that’s double the number whose leadership I have found wanting. Alas, I don’t think that score will remain so lopsided for long.

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5 thoughts on “New England All-Stars: The Best of the Best College Presidents

  1. I’d add a vote for Robert Brown of BU. Not smooth, but smart and strategic. And think of the legacy he had to undo.

  2. Heres hoping that Congressman Bob Etheridge (SC-D) gets his chance to impact the lives of college students someday as a college prez and makes it to a select group

  3. Pingback: Nancy Pelosi’s Alter Ego: Hampshire College Professor Margaret Cerullo Assures Students, “You Don’t Have to Read It to Know What’s in It” « Call Me "Miss"!

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