Title

Should a President Teach?

Joy and mission.

 

January 31, 2019
 
 

I have been a teacher all of my professional life. At times I have been a full-time tenure track and tenured faculty member, but I have also been an adjunct, teaching while otherwise employed. During the 1990s, when I was a mafia prosecutor in New York, I taught political science once a week at Yale. And when I was the Attorney General of my state of Oregon, I taught jurisprudence at Lewis and Clark Law School in the evenings. I truly love teaching. Few things are more intellectually rewarding. Few things seem so clearly an unmitigated social good, passing on to others the knowledge and wisdom we have acquired over the course of our lives. 

When, however, I became president of Reed College in 2012, I decided I would be a full time leader and administrator and stay away from the classroom. Though I am a very good teacher, I believed that my real “value added,” in a college full of great teachers, was in financial and strategic direction, not as a part-time professor. I thought teaching would distract me from other “more important” tasks, like fundraising. I thought I might be too busy to do a first-rate job as a teacher. I worried that my board of trustees might think it was a waste of time, and that they might want me more focused on my “real” job. And I believed faculty might resent my intrusion into their sphere, or view my effort as arrogant, implying that I could do their important job in my spare time.

None of these arguments was frivolous. At the time, I thought I was being wise. In retrospect, however, I think my decision not to teach was a mistake. If I had to do it again, I would teach at least one class or seminar every year. I have reached this conclusion, and make that recommendation to other higher education administrators, whether presidents, provosts, deans or vice presidents, for several reasons:

First, teaching can be such a joy, and in higher education leadership right now, joy can be in short supply. College and university leaders live in a world of tension, pressure and stress. Many people lead institutions under fierce financial and competitive pressure.  Others struggle to meet conflicting demands of multiple constituencies in an age of limited resources. A great many leaders right now are trying to manage in the face of crisis, scandal, or campus social tension. None of this is easy, and though leadership has its own rewards, not many leaders tell me these necessary tasks are fun. Finding a way to escape the pressure and recharge your emotional and spiritual batteries is essential, and there are few more valuable ways to do that than interact with students in a classroom setting.   

Second, teaching can help you do your “day job” more effectively. As a campus leader, you are frequently called upon to explain the value and importance of what your institution does to donors, alumni, accrediting agencies, and the government. Being able to draw upon stories from your own teaching experiences, and your own positive interactions with students in an academic setting, can help make your presentations more compelling, less abstract, and more human. 

Third, teaching can help break down barriers between administrators and students. At Reed, campus leaders were dismissively called “admins.” As in the phrase, “the admins only care about money.” The students, in my experience, tend to hold their professors in higher regard than managers.  If you teach, you can help break down that barrier, helping students to see you as an intellectual and an educator, not a bean-counter. 

Finally, teaching can help remind you, when times are tough or complicated, of the essential purpose and value of higher education. It is easy, as a leader, to get caught up in crisis, or to lose one’s bearings in a sea of endless administrative challenges. A few hours in the classroom, doing what you love, can restore a sense of clarity and remind you why your job – helping institutions survive, evolve and thrive – is noble and essential. 

This year, after 10 straight years of management, I have been teaching once again, as a visiting professor at Harvard Law School. It has been a joy to be called “professor,” to rediscover my intellectual love for my primary academic discipline of criminal law, and to relate to students as a teacher, not an administrator.  I had forgotten how much I love to teach, and teaching has taught me, in turn, a valuable lesson. No matter what I do with the rest of my career, I am always going to find time and energy for the classroom.   

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