Asking More from Our Next Chancellor

February 24, 2013 | Blog

Over at the Nation, Scott Sherman makes an excellent case that we are obligated to sift and winnow for a college president or chancellor who will address the real social and economic issues confronting public higher education– rather than merely “adapting” to the new normal.

Sherman writes, “Why should we fret about the presidents of our colleges and universities? Because American higher education is plagued by severe difficulties on many fronts—from soaring tuition and runaway student debt to the loss of public funding, the endemic corruption in college athletics and the erosion of the liberal arts—and the presidents won’t resolve those issues by kibitzing in the gilded suites of Wall Street. The time has come to demand more from them, and to hold them to more elevated standards. The finest presidents of the past—Conant, Robert Hutchins, Kingman Brewster, Clark Kerr—were not perfect men, but they exercised potent leadership, and sometimes they were quite courageous.”

As we move through this chancellor search process, I concur with Sherman that we should seek a man or woman with courage.  We must avoid technocrats, those agile climbers who reach the top without making too many enemies or mistakes.”  It seems to me that we have at least one in the current pool (more on that later).  On this point, like Sherman, I think folks like William Bowen are entirely wrong to advise presidents to speak rarely and carefully on matters of public policy.  I agree firmly with Jonathan Cole of Columbia, whom Sherman quotes as stating the following:

“Presidents have done a very, very poor job of using the bully pulpit for higher education…They have done particularly poorly at educating the American people about the value of the university—its centrality to the future welfare of this country. They have done abysmally on the humanities, failing to educate the public about why the humanities are central to the university, and why they are even central to the sciences in the future.” For Cole, it comes down to guns or butter. Presidents “have failed to explain why the public ought to be supporting the universities as a nondiscretionary item in the budget. You can train three or four students at Berkeley for what it costs to incarcerate a prisoner in California.”

Cole told Sherman that “there aren’t many presidents who are fighting against the powers that be.
Well, that’s tragic, and so so sad indeed.  We absolutely must look for the possibilities of one in the candidates coming soon to visit our campus.  Perhaps s/he can grow into such a leader.

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