The President and the World

Terry Caesar explains why we need the leaders who run campuses -- and why they are mysteries to those they lead.
September 26, 2005

No single individual in a college or university is more important than the president. And yet no figure is more elusive, misunderstood, or mystified. For starters, most students can get through four years at an institution -- depending upon its size -- without so much as seeing the president (apart perhaps from each year's obligatory orientation appearance). Most faculty can get through an entire career without one personal chat.

As an undergraduate, I saw the president a few times (it was a small private university) but the idea of actually talking to him was an inconceivable as talking to the Pope. As a graduate student at a large state university, I never once beheld the president  in person. It would have been like expecting to see Colonel Saunders. During my first year as a faculty member of a small state college, I made an appointment with the president about a matter that had to do with international education.

It had been given to me to understand that only The President Himself could deal with such lofty category. His office was one floor below mine. Not so fast or so familiar. The category -- it turned out -- was not lofty enough! Just as bad, my own question about it apparently presumed too much presidential interest. "I don't think that the matter should be dealt with at," the President paused with exquisite circumspection, "this level." Instead, he consigned me to a dean.

Mortified, I never made an appointment. So in fact quickly ended virtually the whole of my succeeding personal experiences with college or university presidents. I did speak privately to a couple more. (The first one died and became the name of a building.) But each time the "level" of my concerns felt too inauspicious, each time raising the question of how "personal" a relation, nay, a conversation, one can properly expect to have with a president?

Is the president elusive or misunderstood simply because he or she abides too far away or above us? At the campus where I continued for many years, the next president moved into the top floor of a new administration building. The last one built a new residence off campus. But wait: I also continued to frequent small liberal arts colleges where the president could often be seen strolling about,  saying hello to students.

At these institutions, the fundamental situation of the president may have changed less than those at most other institutions. Here the president is, as always, expected to be at least outwardly affable, as befits the institution's intimate scale of daily intercourse, no matter his responsibilities to the Board of Trustees or her relation to the Alumni Association.

Indeed, affability-wise, as tolerant-wise, reason-wise, and value-wise, the president of a small private college, I suspect, continues to recall the character of President Dwight Robbins of Benton College, as immortalized in Randall Jarrell's wondrous academic novel, Pictures from an Institution. Even many who haven't read the novel know the following characterization: "President Robbins was so well adjusted to his environment that sometimes you could not tell which was the environment and which was President Robbins."

Alas, presidents at larger institutions are fated not to be so well adjusted. There is simply too much environment. On the evidence of fiction anyway, the environment has by now almost completely swallowed the president. Unlike academic novels of the 50s (Jarrell's was published in 1952), those of the following decades scarcely even mention the president. And it is a brave novelist indeed who would take a president -- of all people -- to be the main character of the narrative.

Today we comprehend him or her as a remorselessly formal figure, a creature of institutional imperatives, or, in a lovely current phrase, someone who is "mission-driven." I take this unlovely phrase from the advertising copy for a recent study, "The Effective College President," to wit: "[Presidents] prize innovative thinking and appreciate contrary positions. They establish healthy relationships with businesses and governments without
compromising fundamental academic integrity. These presidents are mission driven [sic], captivating fund raisers who carry their messages from major givers to local service clubs."

Did someone say, mystified? One can of course question how "contrary" a president can afford to be before the Rotary Club. But not to worry. A particular presidential individual ideally reconciles contraries and fuses opposites, along with healing all wounds and awarding everybody both tenure and promotion.

Best to wonder at the miracle rather than to inquire how it could be performed. Suppose, though, that we try to inquire anyway. What will be the result? Most of us, I assume, have not been privileged to know personally a college or university president. A friend who used to be a speechwriter for one of the most celebrated Ivy presidents of recent decades assured me the man was indeed remarkable -- boundlessly energetic, endlessly savvy, truly wise. But we already know there are indeed exceptional leaders, who possess singular qualities of personality, conviction, and style.

What we don't know is how to rationalize these things, or how to predict that their most exceptional manifestations in any one person do not prove to be abrasive rather than inspiring. If we knew this, either Harvard's current president (to take the nearest available example) would be a lot happier with his surroundings or else his surroundings would be a lot happier with him.

What do we know instead? Ultimately, I believe, not very much, and it may well be that we don't want to know more. This is not solely because, since the president occupies the organizational space where so many issues, policies, programs, and constituencies converge, he or she easily becomes just as much as a vanishing point as a governing point. Just as importantly, the space of the president must be kept mystified so that we can continue to invest our faith in the power of the office.

It must be admitted: we Americans adore university presidents. Whether to our joy or our grief, there is no other figure in position to oversee everything from the management of the endowment fund to the placement of the latest order of rose bushes. In his classic, The University. An Owner's Manual, Henry Rosovsky contrasts the European system, where "the buck gets passed around until all are exhausted," to our own, where the buck stops with the president. Presumably this would include presidents who are canny enough to make the buck appear to continue even after it stops. How can any one president actually accomplish such a feat? (Especially without extensive faculty involvement in "strategic planning?") Who can really say? No one-size president fits all. Fiery Visionary or a Colorless Administrator, he or she must simply know when in any particular instance the buck must be cashed in.

I use a financial trope advisedly. Is the college or university president today most comparable to the CEO of a business or corporation? It seems so. Hence, for example, a brief recent strike at Youngstown State University featured university employees wearing
buttons saying, "I want a Sweet deal, too." The President, David Sweet, makes a base salary of $247,828, plus a housing allowance of $27,180 and an allowance for car expenses of $4,101.

How can such a "deal" be justified? Not, it seems, with reference to professors or even other administrators -- much less staff -- at YSU. Instead, with reference to other Ohio public university presidents. So it goes across the country (including institutions at which this Sweet deal would be small potatoes). The President becomes a mystified figure first and foremost because, like a CEO, no single, local circumstance can contain him! He is gloriously free to bargain "packages" which, like Sweet's, get down to the level of cell phone, country club, and even annual medical exam fees.

In fact, by 2005, better to ask, what is the difference between a university president and a CEO? The superb equanimity of Jarrell's President Robbins might once have been rattled by this question. Today I'm not so sure. The "culture" of academe is presumably not the culture of business, granted. So the blurb for "The Effective College President" must include a statement about something called "academic integrity."

And yet, the thesis of the book is that presidential success is best characterized as being entrepreneurial. Perhaps we can hazard the following point: not that there is no longer any difference between a university president and a CEO, but that this difference can in effect no longer be  clarified by the imperatives of today's academic institution, whose bottom line is wholly  budget-driven. (Which, I suspect, is really what "mission-driven" means.) Another way to put the matter: the university president's relations with the world outside the academy are finally far more decisive for success than his or her relations inside it.

Perhaps 'twas ever thus. We read in Pictures from an Institution of President Robbins's felt affinity with Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, and then the narrator confides to us the following: "The World and President Robbins were in love with each other." Precisely! Although
some of our disciplines are more smitten with the world than others, all can be judged properly academic by virtue of the fact that they are less interested in consummating the affair than in studying either the value or the mechanics of how consummation could be achieved.

On the other hand, the president is mandated to do the deed, over and over again, with everybody from the Board of Regents or the Legislature on down. He or she may or may not have an academic specialization or a doctorate. (Robbins only has an M.A. although it's from Oxford.) But the president must love the world, if only to be able to bring it to the campus gate, have the importance of what is inside that gate be honored, and then make sure the importance is supported in various ways, all hopefully increased significantly from last year.

Must the rest of us, in turn, love the president? No. This is why the president must be mystified. He or she ultimately represents our own uneven, uneasy commerce with the world. (The occasion of my first presidential audience is a pretty good example; I didn't care so much about international education as about the opportunity to teach in Ireland.) It is vitally important that somebody among us at least be on wholly good terms with the world -- as long as it's not us.

So more power to our presidents? No. Yet for better or worse, the rest of us are no longer in position to wish it otherwise. Due recognition of their power must be extended, even if most presidents have too much of it already, make far too much money, and probably express less than ever of our own very academic equivocations about the world. It must be admitted: our academic institutions need the world -- its respect, its funds -- and so we need our presidents to bear witness to this need.


Terry Caesar's last column was about campus parking.


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