A Vital Presidential Skill

How can campus leaders achieve the best balance, Richard M. Freeland asks, between building consensus and taking more swift, unilateral actions?

July 25, 2018

As a crop of new presidents prepares to assume their responsibilities during the summer of 2018, it may be appropriate for their retired predecessors to offer whatever pieces of wisdom they retained from time in the catbird seat. This essay summarizes one principle worthy of emphasis: how to achieve an effective balance between building consensus and taking swift, more unilateral actions.

In his classic study of post-World War II-era American higher education, The Uses of the University, Clark Kerr emphasized the contradictory demands on university presidents: “He should be firm, yet gentle; sensitive to others, insensitive to himself; look to the past and the future yet be firmly planted in the present; both visionary and sound; affable, yet reflective; know the value of a dollar and realize that ideas cannot be bought; inspiring in his visions yet cautious in what he does; a man of principle yet able to make a deal; a man with broad perspective who will follow the details conscientiously; a good American but ready to criticize the status quo fearlessly; a seeker of truth where the truth may not hurt too much; a source of public policy pronouncements when they do not reflect on his own institution. He should sound like a mouse at home and look like a lion abroad.”

Kerr was being playful, and his words reflect a near absence of women as presidents, but he was making a point that is as relevant today as it was in the 1960s: the many roles that a college or university president is called upon to play require a daunting number of different, and sometimes mutually exclusive, skills and personal qualities. Kerr, one of the great presidents of his generation, had his own difficulties mastering the conflicting pressures he encountered as chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, and then as president of the University of California system. As he put it, “No one can be all of these things. Some succeed in being none.”

Measured against a standard of competence in all the qualities Kerr enumerates, most mortals fall somewhere in an acceptable middle. But members of campus communities -- faculty, staff, board members, even students -- typically recognize the complex demands on their leader, understand that person is better at some things than others, and cut the boss some slack as long as the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. Faculty members, often the toughest judges, will forgive presidents many personal failings if they are successful in generating resources. Board members will overlook a lack of intellectual depth if the president is a steady hand at the wheel.

But understanding that it is OK to be better at some things than others does not always excuse presidents from trying to master both sides of some of the role’s contradictory demands. High on my list of examples is the tension between patience and decisiveness. To add a line to Kerr’s delicious characterization: “A president must be patient yet decisive, committed to building consensus but providing strong leadership, a good listener but ready to end discussion and take action.”

Yes, yes and yes. Being good at listening as well as deciding is a core requirement of an effective presidency. Yet skill at both does not come naturally to many. Some presidents seek always to achieve consensus among stakeholders before taking action; individuals in this group can be slow to move and paralyzed when agreement is not achieved. Other leaders find meetings with advisers tiresome and group deliberations frustrating; they often fail to inspire high levels of engagement from their subordinates and institutional communities, and they are prone to mistakes. Both the consensus builders and the action-oriented types should work hard to master the part of the decision-making role that doesn’t come naturally.

Academe is committed to shared governance. This reality can be annoying to some leaders, but it is a strength of the modern university. The intellectual, social, political and organizational worlds in which a contemporary president must function are far too complex for any individual, no matter how gifted, to understand in sufficient depth to master them without help. All leaders benefit from informed counsel. Wisdom lies in listening, but effectiveness requires action.

Consultative processes on major institutional matters are politically essential. There is a religiosity about process in higher education that can seem at times to value consultation more than outcome. Presidents who charge ahead despite this reality risk failing to achieve something important because they didn’t follow an acceptable process. As a new president of Harvard University in the 1930s, James Conant, determined to heighten scholarly standards, informed his deans and chairs that junior faculty could no longer be reappointed indefinitely and would be required to undergo a rigorous “up or out” review of their work. That was a sharp break from prior practice, and Conant’s first attempt at implementation, in which he denied advancement to two young economists, produced a storm of controversy so threatening to his presidency that he was forced to back down. Having learned his lesson, Conant moved much more gradually and carefully in succeeding years to institute the practice of tenure reviews by outside committees of professors appointed by the president, a system that survives at Harvard to the present day.

Consultation can sometimes feel like going through the motions. It does not always add substantive value. But making the effort pays dividends in support and rarely creates a problem for eventual strong action. On most issues that are not strictly academic in character, faculty, staff and even board members understand the president has the firmest grasp on all the relevant considerations.

I recall the most difficult decision I had to make as president of Northeastern University, one that involved restructuring one of our most strategically important and politically powerful departments in a way that members of that unit were likely to find highly objectionable. By the time my provost and I were ready to take that action, we were convinced we knew what needed to happen, but, recognizing that our plan was going to be controversial, we went through an extended series of discussions with all the constituencies that would be affected by our actions or whose opinion about our decision would be important politically. In the end, those discussions did not lead to any significant changes in the steps we originally planned to take, but when we did act, and when the anticipated pushback came, we had developed sufficiently broad understanding and support to weather a storm that, without the extended process, would have had the potential to destroy my presidency.

All of the above leads me to a simple conclusion: although you can be an effective president in many different ways, there is a right way and a wrong way to make major decisions in an academic setting -- especially but not exclusively when the issue has major implications for the academic program. Barring emergencies, the right way involves creating space for affected stakeholders to be heard before a decision is made. It involves an emphasis on persuasion rather than an assertion of bureaucratic power. The right way also involves recognizing when deliberation is sufficient or the effort to reach agreement is no longer productive, and that it is time to choose and to act. And it involves the ability at that moment to move decisively and to explain one’s reasons for doing so. When my provost and I finally acted on the controversial restructuring described above, we sent a long, detailed, carefully argued memorandum to the campus community explaining our reasoning. That memo became the blueprint for an implementation process over the next two years.

Finally, of course, the right way of making decisions in an academic setting involves distinguishing issues of sufficient importance to merit substantial consultation from those where almost any sensible decision is good enough.

Finding the right balance between consultative process and decisive action is one of the great challenges of the presidency. But working to achieve the goal repays the effort. Best wishes to those who are embarking on the rewarding, stimulating journey of the college presidency.

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Richard M. Freeland is president emeritus of Northeastern University and senior consultant with Maguire Associates.


Richard M. Freeland

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