Advancing to the Presidency No. 3: Do the Homework

If you set your sights on a career in academic administration, even on the top job, you always have to do it, advises S. Georgia Nugent, who suggests some places to start.

September 26, 2019
 
 
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Those of us who chose a career in the academy tend to be the kids who did their homework. And then some. Sometimes we went above and beyond because we became really interested in the topic; sometimes we did it, to be frank, because that was the way to get extra credit. Whatever the motive, you’ve probably gone through life acing your homework. At this stage, you might think that’s behind you.

But as a former colleague and mentor of mine once told me, if you’re going to succeed as a professional, you always have to do the homework -- whether you are trying to complete a dissertation chapter or preparing to deliver a prestigious lecture series. She was adamant about that. The homework never ends.

And if and when you set your sights on a career in academic administration, even on a presidency, all those skills you learned for research in your academic discipline remain as crucial as ever. But now you’ll be applying them to a new area of research -- new kinds of homework, if you will. The first topic to address is higher education. Wait -- your whole career has been in higher ed. What homework could you possibly need to do on higher education?

Perhaps you’re an exception. But most of us who are faculty members focus our research efforts almost entirely on our particular field of study, whether that’s molecular biology, statistics or music composition. For me, it’s ancient Greek and Latin literature. In fact, I’ve found my discipline of classics surprisingly valuable in administrative roles, and you may find the same. But, for now, let’s agree that parsing a Latin sentence is pretty far afield from, say, determining whether your institution should introduce a major in cybersecurity or restructure financial aid.

How do you begin to apply your highly developed cognitive skills to entirely new types of questions? You do the homework.

Homework on Higher Ed

As a first step, I suggest delving into the history of higher education. American higher education is distinct in the world and the product of particular historical and cultural (especially religious) phenomena in this country. The fact that one of the first acts of the colonists in Massachusetts in 1636 was to found an educational institution may seem irrelevant to the town/gown challenges that confront your institution. But it’s not; America’s love/hate relationship with higher learning remains with us today.

And the fact that virtually every religious denomination in America founded a college in a remote area in the 19th century, to ensure that the young men who enrolled would be far from the evils of the city, is directly related to the prominent role that your small rural college currently plays in the economy of your region. And the research in radar and weaponry carried out during World War II (as well as the launch of Sputnik in 1957) are direct, if distant, progenitors of the National Science Foundation funding that your campus now relies on.

It’s obviously not essential for a president to become an historian of higher education. But a general familiarity with the development of colleges and universities over the centuries -- from the colonial college of the 18th century to the research university of the mid-19th to the multiuniversity of the mid-20th -- provides a perspective that can help to contextualize and frame issues you’ll be confronting today.

Those who argue that professional preparation has no place in higher education should note that Harvard University and the other early colleges in the colonies were founded not for the pursuit of intellectual research but primarily as professional training for the clergy. The heated debate in the 19th century between the proponents of a “classical” (we might say, “core” or “gen ed”) curriculum and a wider range of “electives” has lost none of its fire in 2019.

Similarly, the current burgeoning of online education finds remarkable parallels in the explosion of correspondence courses in the late 19th and early 20th century. One such correspondence school enrolled 900,000 students, and its promotional materials sound almost eerily contemporary: “The regular technical school or college aims to educate a man broadly; our aim, on the contrary, is to educate him only along some particular line. The college demands … that all students study for approximately the same length of time … We, on the contrary, are aiming to make our courses fit the particular needs of the student who takes them.” Nothing new under the sun.

Why should the past history of colleges and universities in America matter to you, the aspiring president of the 21st century? Well, one reason is that, to paraphrase Jorge Luis Borges, history is “good to think with.” Many of the issues a president confronts are vast, wickedly complex and not infrequently irresolvable. A sense of history can help to orient you and offer insights: How has this thorny matter (mutatis mutandis) been handled before?

Another reason that history matters is the nature of the responsibility. At least in theory, institutional endowments are intended to be preserved and managed in perpetuity. Just so, a president’s view must be for the long-term future of their institution -- what, in my discipline, we call sub specie aeternitatis, or “from the perspective of eternity.” That may sound daunting, or even absurd. But keep in mind that, along with the Catholic Church, the Parliament of the Isle of Man and the Republic of San Marino, seven universities bid fair to be among the 10 longest continually operating institutions in the world. The time frame for your decisions as a president is not a corporate-style quarterly report or a Soviet-style five-year plan. Your students, alumni and trustees are relying on you to guide your institution with an eye to the long-term future of the organization. A sense of history helps.

There is no shortage of excellent studies on the history of American higher education. Comprehensive overviews include John Thelin’s A History of American Higher Education (now in its third edition), as well as Roger L. Geiger’s The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture From the Founding to World War II and his American Higher Education Since World War II. Still valuable as well is The American College and University by Frederick Rudolph. For a briefer read, I recommend Andrew Delbanco’s slim and stimulating College: What It Is, Was and Should Be. More specialized works, whether books or articles, also abound: on the liberal arts college, on women’s colleges, on research universities and so on.

Naturally, you will want to understand better your own institution’s history within this larger framework. Your institution’s archivist can help. Many colleges and universities have commissioned their own histories over the years. While this genre often bears the marks of boosterism, for all that, it can provide a valuable sense of the institution’s self-understanding. Even more illuminating can be truly archival, original materials: accounts of early faculty meetings, presidents’ correspondence. I was amazed to learn how adamantly Princeton University’s early faculty condemned physical exercise. And how ardently the College of Wooster’s 19th-century founders declared inclusion of all students as a core value.

While archival work can be both fascinating and fun, it’s unlikely that your schedule will permit the time for it. But it can be an excellent project for a bright undergraduate, yielding both valuable nuggets for you and a new learning experience for them.

Homework Assignments All Around Us

So much for the more traditional, research-oriented aspect of doing the homework. I’d add another aspect of study. In a previous column, I suggested reading widely on leadership, not only in academe but also in other areas. Now, I’d urge taking that learning disposition into the field, as it were.

Every day, our contemporary world presents us with examples of leadership in action, for good or ill, whether in politics, business, sports, law or (yes) higher education. Consider those exempla as case studies for your own leadership development. What were the stakes? What were the choices? How did the leader’s choices ameliorate or worsen the situation?

In many Greek tragedies, the protagonist faces impossible moral dilemmas. Phaedra, in Euripides’ Hippolytus, is an example. She has fallen in love, disastrously, with her stepson, Hippolytus. Not wanting to succumb to her passion, she laments, “Those who act badly are brought to light, sooner or later. Time holds up a mirror, as if to a young girl. May I never be seen among them.” Presidents, inevitably, face difficult choices. There are many determining factors for success or failure. But most often, I suggest, you’ll find basic honesty to be the crucial determinant.

The now classic case of Tylenol poisoning, for example, contrasts vividly with Volkswagen’s more recent cover-up strategy. In the fall of 1982, James E. Burke, then CEO of Johnson & Johnson, manufacturer of Tylenol, learned that, inexplicably, several people had died after taking the over-the-counter medication. He gave clear instructions to his team about their objectives. First: How do we protect the people? Second: How do we save the product? J&J launched a public information campaign to warn distributors and consumers and pulled all Tylenol products from the market.

The result? The company initially lost millions in sales. But it also pioneered an industrywide redesign of drug packaging (it was determined that Tylenol capsules had been opened and adulterated with cyanide), and its response remains the gold standard for crisis management to this day.

By contrast, when Volkswagen found it difficult to comply with American and European emissions standards for their automobiles, it developed software to bypass and manipulate the results of emissions testing. When the scandal was discovered, then CEO Martin Winterkorn initially claimed that a handful of rogue engineers was responsible. Further investigation found that those at the highest levels of the organization had known about and approved the fraud. Winterkorn no longer heads the company and has been indicted both in American and European courts.

Such case studies surround us every day. They’re a playbook readily available to you as you make your own leadership choices. It’s just a matter of doing the homework.

Bio

S. Georgia Nugent is interim president of Illinois Wesleyan University, president emerita of Kenyon College and a senior fellow of the Council of Independent Colleges.

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