Where Are the Bold University Presidents?

(The Nation, March 11, 2013)

In May 1943, James B. Conant, the president of Harvard University, published an essay in The Atlantic Monthly titled “Wanted: American Radicals.” Conant was on the lookout for “a group of modern radicals in the American tradition,” whose ideas would encompass Thoreau and Whitman, Emerson and Marx, and who would be “lusty in wielding the axe against the root of inherited privilege” so as to prevent the growth of “a caste system.” His proposal? The imposition of “really effective inheritance and gift taxes and the breaking up of trust funds and estates.” Conant, whose essay infuriated Harvard’s well-heeled trustees, was hardly a radical himself; he was, and would always remain, a man of the establishment. But in those days, college and university presidents did not limit their activities to fundraising, shmoozing, paper-pushing and administration. They had access to bully pulpits, and they occupied them. 

Think about it: When was the last time a college or university president produced an edgy piece of commentary, or took a daring stand on a contentious matter? 

It’s a familiar lament. The university president, Upton Sinclair wrote in The Goose-Step, was “the most universal faker and the most variegated prevaricator that has yet appeared in the civilized world.” William Honan, writing in The New York Times in 1994, wondered why college presidents no longer “cut striking figures on the public stage.” “Small Men on Campus: The Shrinking College President” was the headline of a New Republic cover story in 1998. In their 2010 book Higher Education?, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus declared, “Once upon a time, university leaders were seen as sculptors of society.” Now they “are chiefly technocrats, agile climbers who reach the top without making too many enemies or mistakes.” 

Recently the old concerns about higher education leadership were revived by controversies concerning two Ivy League presidents: Ruth Simmons of Brown and Lee Bollinger of Columbia. Not so long ago, both were seen as public-spirited, visionary leaders: Bollinger, when he led the University of Michigan, spearheaded the fight for affirmative action in college admissions; and Simmons, in 2003, initiated a far-reaching investigation into Brown’s historic connection to slavery and the slave trade. (She stepped down last year.) 

Those actions won praise, but serious questions have since been raised about what these people do in their spare time. In 2010, the Times reported that Simmons had served on the board of Goldman Sachs and was partly responsible for a $68 million pay package awarded to its chairman, Lloyd Blankfein, in 2007. (Simmons ultimately left the Goldman Sachs board with stock worth $4.3 million.) In June, Bollinger, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s board of directors, defended the right of Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, to remain a member of that same board, despite the fact that Dimon’s bank had contributed money to Columbia. Those who thought Dimon should resign, Bollinger reportedly said, were “foolish.” Criticism came quickly: economist Simon Johnson, in blog posts for the Times, lashed Bollinger for serving on the Fed’s board, for sidestepping an obvious conflict of interest and for lacking the credentials to serve. (Bollinger’s term ended December 31.) 

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. 

In the late 1970s, shortly after he took over Bard College, Leon Botstein paid a visit to the president of Yale, A. Bartlett Giamatti. “I was in his office,” Botstein recalls, “and I was so impressed and filled with envy. I said, ‘Boy, you have a really great job.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘You’re not as smart as I thought you were. I can’t do anything in this job. You have a great job. You actually might be able to get something done.’ ”

Given the nature of the job, one would think it’s a position few would aspire to. “The university president in the United States,” former University of California president Kerr wrote in The Uses of the University, “is expected to be a friend of the students, a colleague of the faculty, a good fellow with the alumni, a sound administrator with the trustees…a devotee of opera and football equally, a decent human being, a good husband and father, an active member of a church.” 

But the job has changed radically in recent decades, and these days we have a generation of presidents who tiptoe around public controversy. “We now think of the president as the CEO of a very large corporation,” says Stanley Katz, a higher education expert at Princeton. “That’s how we justify paying these people so much. Top-earning university presidents make up to $3 million,” which, he says, “would have been inconceivable to James B. Conant. He wouldn’t have wanted it.” Structural changes in universities have irrevocably altered the job. “We have created money-eating machines,” says Katz. “They consume finances so fast that it’s virtually a full-time job of a university president to raise money. That simply wasn’t the case in Conant’s era.” 

In Conant’s day, presidents were expected, first and foremost, to provide educational and intellectual leadership at their own institutions. But that aspect of the job has eroded. In the mid-1990s, Katz assisted a major Southern university in its search for a president. Another member of the search committee, a professor, asked the candidate, “What is your educational vision?” That person, who eventually got the president’s job, replied, “I don’t have an educational vision. That’s the job of a provost.” 

Hunter Rawlings is the president of the Association of American Universities (AAU), in Washington, which represents sixty-two leading research institutions. Rawlings formerly served as president of the University of Iowa and Cornell University, where, in 2005, he delivered a blunt speech assailing the “intelligent design” movement; he got a standing ovation. Rawlings agrees with Katz that presidents are increasingly handcuffed by fundraising and administration. In the age of the “enormous megaversity,” he says, universities comprise “all kinds of businesses: hospitals, very large medical schools, sports franchises, overseas operations. Institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Penn, Columbia—they’re all now large property owners in their neighborhoods. The position of president, then, has to be somewhat more managerial than it used to be. We are talking about institutions with budgets of three, four, five billion dollars a year.” The presidents, as a result, “are somewhat inhibited by the demands of the office—by the need not to offend folks in different quarters.” 

Not every recent president has abdicated the bully pulpit. “Larry Summers spoke out a lot while he was president of Harvard,” says Henry Bienen, who led Northwestern University from 1995 to 2009. “He may be a good reason why [presidents] have stopped being so outspoken.” (In 2005, Summers raised questions about the ability of women to excel in science and 
math and lit a firestorm.) But Bienen insists that today’s presidents have not abdicated their public role, nor have they abandoned the bully pulpit. What has changed, he says, is that presidents choose to focus on matters “close in to higher education” and K–12 education—a trend he approves. He mentions the Chicago public schools, where he is one of seven board members appointed by the mayor, and the efforts of outgoing Yale president Richard Levin to push for changes to US visa policy, which, since 9/11, has restricted the ability of foreign students and professors to work here. But are the presidents making a difference in educational policy? Says Rawlings of the AAU: “Yes, many presidents are engaged in that kind of a discussion, but not in a way, I think, that makes a lot of impact on the political scene. In this last presidential campaign, you didn’t hear many university presidential voices contributing to debate and discussion.” 

Bienen concedes that pressure from trustees, who do the all-important work of hiring presidents, shapes and limits the extent to which they can function in a public capacity. A president who wishes to raise vital questions about climate change, foreign policy or taxation may find it hard to do so: “I don’t think their boards have wanted it,” says Bienen. “On the whole, the trustee view is: you should be speaking out on those issues that are close in to the university, and there are plenty of them.” 

That view is echoed by distinguished experts on the college presidency. William Bowen was the president of Princeton from 1972 to 1988, after which he spent eighteen years as head of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Bowen, 79, is the opposite of a university bureaucrat: for decades he has used quantitative data and calm, diplomatic reasoning to advocate for affirmative action in admissions and for the reform of college athletics. One of the central arguments Bowen imparts in his recent book, Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President, is this: be careful. “It is, I think, quite remarkable how willing public bodies in this country, and alumni, have been to tolerate the criticism and dissension that emerge from campus communities,” Bowen writes. “This willingness to accept the vigorous exercise of academic freedom is dependent on evidence of institutional restraint on the part of universities and their presidents.”

Restraint was the theme of our recent conversation at the Mellon Foundation. When I asked Bowen to respond to Hacker and Dreifus’s declaration about campus leaders, he swatted it away like a gnat. “The job of the president is not to pronounce on the big public issues of today,” Bowen says. “The job of the president is to pronounce on educational issues and to lead the academy. It’s a mistaken conception to think of the president of any of these places as a surrogate for the governor of the state, the senator or the president. That only causes trouble and does damage, because what it does is impose a seeming orthodoxy on an institution that ought to be the home of the unorthodox.” Bowen insists that presidents should measure every word they utter in public: “You ought to have the brain and the judgment to keep your mouth shut when you don’t know anything about the issue.” 

Fair enough—but aren’t those views somewhat timorous and risk-averse, especially in light of the manifold pressures on higher education? Bowen replies that for a president to defend, say, affirmative action in a politically divided society is hardly risk-averse. But isn’t affirmative action a prevailing ideology in higher education? “In many educational settings,” says Bowen, “the key constituents—alumni, faculty, students, as well as trustees and in some cases legislators—are overwhelmingly in favor of aggressive pursuit of diversity and of affirmative action. But in other educational contexts, where key constituencies are more conservative, being vocally in favor of affirmative action can take courage.” 

The way Bowen frames the issue of presidential engagement does not satisfy everyone I talked with. “I think almost any issue is fair game,” says Sanford Ungar, president of Goucher College, who has urged his peers to “abandon blandness” and stand up for “empiricism, reason, and calm debate.” “Global warming, for instance, is a matter of science versus ignorance,” says Ungar. “If a president is intimidated out of standing up for science against ignorance, that’s pretty sad.” 

A few presidents have a grittier and more expansive view of their job. I recently met Nancy Cantor, the departing chancellor of Syracuse University, in an elegant brownstone the university owns, donated by a philanthropist, on the edge of New York’s Central Park. Cantor has staked her reputation on a bold and unusual plan she spearheaded called the Near Westside Initiative to transform decaying sections of Syracuse. According to a recent article in the Syracuse New Times, “by constructing new homes, renovating buildings and attracting businesses like ProLiteracy, the NWSI has made halting but noticeable progress.” 

Moreover, Cantor has encouraged the revision of tenure requirements so that faculty members can work on community-oriented projects. She calls it “public scholarship,” and notes by way of example that “at Syracuse, the geography department collaborated with a local coalition on a project to ‘map’ hunger.” On top of this, Cantor hasn’t neglected the cash register—Syracuse has raised more than $1 billion under her leadership. 

Does Cantor see herself in the tradition of Conant, Hutchins and Kerr, whom she refers to as “golden-era men”? She thinks highly of them, but sees presidential activism today as inseparable from a “boots on the ground” orientation: “Today you don’t do that from a bully pulpit,” she says. “You do that rolling up your sleeves and being out there.” Her brand of activism, undertaken with many partners, has garnered bruises and setbacks. U.S. News & World Report has downgraded Syracuse University in its college rankings, and Cantor has been accused of neglecting the institution’s academic function. “Our primary mission is not managing cities,” one Syracuse professor tartly informed Robin Wilson of The Chronicle of Higher Education. To which Cantor replied that the university “should have an impact on our democracy and do work that addresses pressing issues in the world.” 

Cantor’s willingness to be outspoken and aggressive is refreshing. But where are the other risk-taking presidents? I asked Rawlings to compile a list of those who have demonstrated courage (in contrast to decency and competence) in recent years. He quickly cited the president of the University of Texas at Austin, William Powers Jr., who is in “a pitched battle” against a Republican governor, Rick Perry, whose
higher education policies are “anti-intellectual” and “vocational.” Rawlings added that higher education leaders in Florida have firmly resisted a proposal (from the conservative governor’s task force on higher education) to charge higher tuition rates to liberal arts majors—an effort to bolster what are seen as job-friendly degrees in science, healthcare and technology at the expense of degrees in the humanities. 

In an e-mail a few days later, Rawlings augmented his list of courageous presidents: “Lee Bollinger, who led the fight to defend affirmative action at a time when that was not a popular position in that state or nationally…. Scott Cowen, who as president of Tulane when Katrina hit, not only helped bring the university and the community through the crisis, but took the opportunity to transform Tulane’s undergraduate program into the nation’s most service-oriented program among major universities…. Wallace Loh, of the University of Maryland…who has used…his own history to be a leader in support of the Dream Act…. Bob Birgeneau of Berkeley has been an ardent and very public advocate for the Dream Act in California…. Gene Block, who has been outspoken in combating animal rights activists who have used terror tactics against UCLA and its faculty.” His final example: “Myles Brand’s firing of [basketball coach] Bob Knight at Indiana, which was an extremely courageous act and occasioned much opposition, some of it violent and threatening.” 

The limited scope of Rawlings’s list ought to inspire soul-searching among higher education leaders. Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, says, “When you are talking about major institutions in American society, at some point their leaders have to be part of the problem and part of the solution. We might ask them to put themselves at risk a little more than they do.” 

In the wake of the Newtown massacre, leadership (and some risk-taking) has come from the presidents of small colleges. Three hundred and sixty presidents have signed a letter—
written by Lawrence Schall, president of Oglethorpe University, and Elizabeth Kiss, president of Agnes Scott College—pushing a legislative agenda for gun regulation. But only about thirty presidents (from places such as Brenau University, Spelman College and Loras College) appeared at a February 4 press conference in Washington to publicize those demands. No Ivy League presidents were present; and no Ivy League presidents, thus far, have signed the Schall/Kiss letter. 

The timidity of presidents is particularly striking in the context of diminishing public funds for higher education. Andrew Delbanco, in his book College, notes that the University of Virginia “now receives a mere 8% of its funding from the state of Virginia, down from nearly 30% a quarter century ago.” One of the few leaders to respond forcefully is Jonathan Cole. In 2009 Cole, a sociologist who served as provost at Columbia from 1989 to 2003 (during which time he defended the academic freedom of Edward Said), published a valuable book, The Great American University, which focuses on the top research universities. How they developed historically, how they achieved great things in the sciences and social sciences, and how they are under threat are the matters that preoccupy Cole.  

Chief among the threats are politically motivated interventions from outsiders, which proliferated in the Bush era. Among many examples, Cole cites government pressure on the peer review system at the National Institutes of Health and sweeping assaults on Columbia professors who study the Middle East. (Not mentioned by Cole is that Columbia’s president, Bollinger, was dismayingly silent in the face of those attacks, by pro-Israel activists and journalists, at his own institution [see Sherman, “The Mideast Comes to Columbia University,” April 4, 2005].) The other central issue for Cole is the massive loss of dollars for those institutions that rely on public funds. Near the top of his list is UC Berkeley, which is being “bled by the state.” 

Cole’s book evinces a yearning for presidents like Robert Hutchins, who implemented a bold vision for higher education at the University of Chicago and tenaciously defended his institution in difficult times. Cole makes a powerful case that higher education leaders have failed to defend their own institutions with a Hutchins-like intensity. He includes himself in the indictment: “I consider myself as having failed at this, until I wrote this book.” 

“Presidents have done a very, very poor job of using the bully pulpit for higher education,” he says. “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.” 

In light of the austerity that has been imposed on so many public colleges and universities, Cole wonders why more presidents don’t resign. “There should be a strong enough view, articulated clearly to governors, legislators and to regents, which says, ‘Here is the value of UCLA, Berkeley, of San Diego, of the community colleges of California. If we disrupt this, we are killing the state. And if you are going to continue to just strangle us, here are the consequences of that for the state of California and the nation, and you will have my resignation.’ And elected officials would probably take the resignation. But the presidents would be taking a stand.” 

When Cole scans the corridors of power in higher education, he’s not too pleased with what he sees: “There aren’t many presidents who are fighting against the powers that be.” 

Was there truly a “golden age” of engaged college and university presidents who “sculpted” society? How relevant is that tradition in our time? Cole notes that many past presidents were “Janus-faced.” Nicholas Murray Butler, who led Columbia from 1902 to 1945, won the Nobel Peace Prize, but he also fired professors who opposed US entry into World War I. Conant, according to his biographer James Hershberg, was both progressive and staunchly pro-establishment in his views. Kerr was an educational visionary and a law-and-order administrator who clashed with student protesters he didn’t understand—a set of mistakes he owned up to in his memoir, The Gold and the Blue. “I don’t know that there was a golden age,” says Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, “but these were people who did at least mount the public stage and try to say something that wouldn’t just be relevant to their campuses.” 

Let us also remember that, at their best, those “golden-era men” were very good indeed. Consider the remarkable career of Hutchins. According to his biographer Mary Ann Dzuback, he stood up to his McCarthy-era detractors at public hearings in Illinois, helped educate the public on the peaceful uses of atomic energy, launched the Great Books program and chaired the Commission on the Freedom of the Press (which called for nonprofit media ventures and tighter regulation of media monopolies and drew applause from Walter Lippmann and A.J. Liebling). 

Scanning the résumés of two newly appointed Ivy League presidents—Yale’s Peter Salovey and Dartmouth’s Philip Hanlon, who will replace an activist president, Jim Yong Kim—one notices that their entire careers have been spent in academia. The most distinguished presidents of the past had more varied and intriguing backgrounds. As a student at Swarthmore, Kerr volunteered in the ghettos of Philadelphia. During the 1933 cotton pickers’ strike in the San Joaquin Valley—which he called “the biggest and bloodiest rural strike in American history”—Kerr went there to interview sheriffs, strikers and farmers. In 1945, Kerr became the director of the Institute of Industrial Relations at Berkeley and arbitrated the ferocious class warfare that erupted on the California waterfront. 

Those endeavors helped to prepare Kerr for the task of building and leading the University of California in the ’50s and ’60s, where he found himself under attack from powerful forces. In 1952, an initiative to add a loyalty oath requirement to the state constitution was put before the voters of California. A group of Bay Area Quakers asked Kerr to join them in resisting it, and he did so in public pronouncements. As he related in his memoir: 

I knew the possible consequences and they came quickly, including several from regents. The most dramatic was at the next meeting of the board. The chair of the board (Edward Dickson) came to my office and seized me by the coat lapels. He said I was being viewed as the “Red Chancellor” of the “Red Campus,” and he wanted me to retract what I had done. I refused. I said that I had acted as a citizen in an off-campus context; that I had not given up my rights as an American citizen when I became chancellor; that I never would; and that the regents should know this. Regent Dickson turned his back to me and walked away. 

Entreaties for presidential courage have tended to come from outside critics and writers; but occasionally presidents themselves, including Theodore Hesburgh of the University of Notre Dame, have urged their colleagues to rouse themselves. Hesburgh, 95, no longer gives interviews. But his staff referred me to an essay he wrote in 2001 for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Where Are College Presidents’ Voices on Important Public Issues?” “Today’s college presidents,” Hesburgh wrote, “appear to have taken Voltaire’s advice to cultivate their own gardens—and…they are doing that very well.” Hesburgh’s conclusion remains pertinent: “We cannot urge students to have the courage to speak out unless we are willing to do so ourselves.” (On the theme of presidential courage, note the recent example of Karen Gould of Brooklyn College, who stood up to outside critics demanding the cancellation of a February 7 panel discussion on Israel.) 

Leon Botstein of Bard, who has drawn fire for a joint venture the college established with Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, makes a similar argument. In 1996, in response to a questionnaire from Rita Bornstein, former president of Rollins College, Botstein wrote, “A college president has an obligation to be more outspoken than the average citizen…. Failure to be in a leadership role on matters of public policy…is an act of cowardice and an avoidance of responsibility. We need to teach our students that the civilized assertion of one’s beliefs is an obligation, an honor, and a pleasure.” Does Botstein feel the same way sixteen years later? He replies, “I would only strengthen the sentiment.”