How (and how not to) redecorate the president's house (essay)

A recent scandal about the renovation of a presidential residence fits into a long-standing pattern. Looking back just a decade or so suggests that a lot of presidents seem unable to avoid the renovation blues. In the hope of breaking the chain, here are some rules to consider.

Rule #1: Don’t call the place where you live a mansion. Call it a house. Or maybe a residence (but don’t call it a “pad” or the kids will rate you even more of a fossil than they do now).

Rule #2: If you think renovations or redecorating are needed, don’t make the decision yourself. Formally ask someone (in an email on your university account) to assess the status of the residence for entertaining. Then have them deliver their report to the Board of Trustees. Take it to the trustees even if renovations are to be paid from donor accounts that would normally only need to be approved by a foundation board or similar.

Read this sentence slowly: you need to avoid even the appearance of appearing to avoid having the issue appear in public.

And remember, the source of funds doesn’t matter when the issue is principle. From the perspective of propriety, monies from private donors are no different from those from public sources or from tuition (look up the word “fungible” in the dictionary).

Rule #3: Have the report handed out during the board session so you get it the same time as others. You won’t have to pretend to look surprised if you really are.

Rule #4: If the decision is made to go ahead and develop a renovation plan, publicly state that you want the design and furnishings to be merely pleasant and functional; you wish to avoid elegant. For example, say that you want the aesthetics to slot in between a Holiday Inn and a Something by Hilton (but not an actual Hilton).

Rule #5: Do not allow any renovations of the private area except for basic maintenance (plumbing, electrical). An exception might be made if you plan to entertain in your bedroom, but I wouldn’t recommend that for other reasons. If you want the area repainted, pay for it yourself.

Rule #6: Specify that the project’s interior designer should report through a CPA -- preferably one who still wears a green eyeshade and thinks cell phones are frivolous.

Rule #7: Use scenarios as a consciousness-raising tool. Imagine you’re sitting at dinner with the parents of one of your students. The husband explains that he’s been laid off as a machinist and she’s working overtime as a nurse. Tuition has driven them to the verge of bankruptcy and they’re terrified about what student loans will mean to their daughter’s life. After hearing this, you explain why you need a free in-law suite in your presidential mansion house.

Also, get someone to make a screen saver for your computer that shows average student debt as a percentage of income in the first 10 years after graduation. Memorize it.

Rule #8: Don’t hire your spouse to do anything. Maybe she’s a great event planner or he’s a wonderful chef. Too bad. Just say no. This doesn’t apply to your spouse getting a faculty position, but it probably should.

Rule #9: Living in university housing is a perk, not a license to have someone else pick up all of your daily expenses. Keep separate accounts for your own food and pay for your own carryout. If you think this latter couldn’t possibly be an issue, ask Mr. and Mrs. Netanyahu.

Rule #10: When thinking of objets that might be placed here and there to soothe the instincts of designer types, make sure they’re sturdy. Look at each one and ask yourself, would this survive the English Department coming over for a full two-hour cocktail party? And remember, no olive jars unless they’re from Costco.

Rule #11: Some board members and/or their spouses will probably pressure you to do what’s right for the world of aesthetics -- “It’s public space! It’s art!” To steel yourself against these arguments, get a framed print of Grant Wood’s American Gothic and put it in your office (pay for it yourself). Whenever you’re tempted to splurge, go over to the painting, look those people in the eye and ask yourself: What would they do?

If you really want art, buy it yourself. You can afford it.

Rule #12: Always repeat the mantra of the three Rs to yourself: Rationalization is the Road to Ruin. Yeah, you work hard from dawn to dusk. But so do a lot of other people for far less money. Spend a day shadowing an adjunct, or a university cop, or a student counselor, or an untenured faculty member, then think how much more important your contribution really is.

Also in the rationalization category is the idea that you need to look rich to get the rich to give you money. This warped logic is how people justify the $1,000 suit or the inlaid ivory furniture. The “you have to impress the donors with your elegance” concept isn’t fact, it’s just an extreme form of self-serving rationalization.

Rule #13: Remember that you're not as important as you think you are. If you disappear tomorrow, the place will maybe stumble for a few weeks, but it'll be fine. There’s no example of a university falling apart just because a president left.

And don’t make your lifestyle standard the same as a corporate CEO's, even if you’ve got a bunch of those on your board.

If a line of CEOs started jumping off a cliff, would you do it, too?

Rule #14: Remember that hubris and an edifice complex go together more often than not.

A recent case worthy of attention is that of Turkish President Recep Erdogan, who started in politics preaching equality and humility but who recently built himself a $650 million or so palace on the simple theory that “I’m worth it.” People in Turkey now refer to him as “the palace.” For someone who looked like he was going to be a major figure in history, Erdogan has made a quick trip from respect to ridicule.

Rule #15: Stop to reflect about your own role in history.

Yes, it’s true that the total compensation of large company CEOs is on the order of about 30 to 200 times what the average worker in their business makes. And it’s also true that your job is likely even more demanding -- not only because the size and complexity is comparable but also because CEOs don’t have to entertain at their home every night. Finally, the public nature of your position and the fact that you don’t really control your most important employees (darn faculty!) means your continued employment is at much higher risk.

But universities aren’t about making money, they’re about enlightening individual lives, creating better people whose work and lives will in turn benefit all of society.

Your role isn’t to follow others. On the contrary, you should consistently strive to set a standard.

When you look at it from this perspective, three or four times the total compensation (vs. average faculty) is quite enough and living in merely pleasant surroundings should bring satisfaction.

Garrison Walters is a retired higher education bureaucrat. His most recent publication is a novel, Killing Justice.

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