Prick Them -- Do They Not Bleed?

A chancellor's suicide prompts Margaret G. Klosko to think about the symbolism of the college presidency and the realities of how people in the position are treated.

June 29, 2006

The Inside Higher Ed  report on the suicide of University of California at Santa Cruz's chancellor, Denice Denton, describes an incident in which a number of Santa Cruz students trapped Denton in her car, releasing her only after they had performed and she had watched their skit about racism. This little bit of academic theater/terrorism preceded her death by just a few weeks.  

Surely, these students' behavior is unusual in peacetime. How does one account for it? The answer may be that college presidents, like medieval kings, represent not only individual humanity but also the bodies/institutions that they head. Hamlet refers to this concept when he says, "The body is with the king but the king is not with the body. The king is a thing."

Likewise, the president of a university or college is a thing, a situation that allows students, faculty members, and parents to focus on college presidents their disappointments, suspicions, and fears in regard to the institutions in which they earn their livelihoods, degrees, or to which they pay tuition. Because they are symbols of power, mere things, college presidents are not recognized as having feelings or basic human rights. As did Denice Denton, they find themselves dehumanized. Who among us can survive this kind of treatment unscathed?

Most of the women and men who become college presidents have already been through the crucible of other executive positions in which they have become both more and less than a human being. Unfortunately, Denton's time in the trenches may have been a bit limited. No doubt disputes in engineering schools can get ugly, but the dean is not being shot at from all directions as is a provost, a secretary of education, or a White Houseaide.

Picture one of Denton's nemeses -- Lawrence Summers, who was hounded out of office by professors and students, and whose employer, the Harvard Corporation, let his hounding out happen. Working in the famously embattled Clinton administration must have helped prepare Summers for all kinds of assaults. Still, the kind of devaluing language that, for instance, then-Dean Denton directed at him after he spoke about women and science -- "Here was this economist lecturing pompously to this room full of the country's most accomplished scholars on women's issues in science and engineering, and he kept saying things we had refuted in the first half of the day" -- must have been a bit galling to Summers, if not actually hurtful. Apparently, like most others, Denton was unable to see that the president has two bodies -- his own and his institution's, and that the former when pricked does bleed.

A small number of college presidents, when criticized remorselessly, do seem to fold --at least temporarily. Neil Rudenstine, another former Harvard president, is one of the most cited of these unfortunates. But for every college president who publicly suffers, there are a hundred or so who take their licks, and suffer in private.

My own former boss, president of the University of Virginia, John Casteen, recently took a few verbal beatings from students and faculty members who were advocating for a higher minimum wage at the university. During negotiations, witnesses report that language was used by students and directed at Casteen that one might normally hear in a bar fight. Casteen himself, in a letter in the alumni newsletter, reports some bad behavior indeed:

"Our protesters posted the [president's home] number on Web sites, and urged allies to call it day and night. After some 10 nights of obscene and threatening calls, and specifically after eight cell phone calls from the porch of Madison Hall between 1:30 and 3:30 a.m., hours when the callers knew I was in the building because they saw me through windows, but when [my wife] Betsy was at home, I gave up. The number is still in the book, but calls now go to the university police, who provide help as needed."

Being the head of an academic body may require a college president to put up with the guerilla tactics of those who see you as Darth Vader. It also requires that you hear the legitimate protests of your vast constituency. However, a college president might think that his or her bosses, trustees of the university, might speak up in his or her defense, when attacks become ad hominem and violate your personal integrity and rights.

Trustees apparently did not voice support when Summers was being vilified, when Denton was being entertained by street theater, or when Casteen was being subjected to harassment at the hands of his student and faculty opponents. Surely, having one's bosses stand by while you twist in the wind must be an insult as cutting as any delivered at the hands of student and faculty street warriors. I guess this is why college presidents get paid thebig bucks.


Margaret Gutman Klosko is a writer based in Virginia.


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