Sense and Consensus

Margaret Gutman Klosko writes that presidents who have been in the news demonstrate that university chief executives aren't as all powerful as some on campus believe.

June 1, 2007

Seung-hui Cho murdered his first victims at Virginia Tech at 7:15 a.m. on April 16. Less than an hour later, police detained a man whom they supposed to be the shooter. With a possible perpetrator in police custody, President Charles Steger had to make a decision -- to close the campus because a murderer might still be on the loose -- or to keep it open assuming that the killer had been apprehended or at least had left the campus.

The timeline for the decision is outlined by a local television station in this way:

8:25 a.m. -- The Virginia Tech Leadership Team, including the University president, meet to assess the situation and to decide how to notify students of what has happened.
9 a.m. -- The Leadership Team is briefed by Virginia Tech police chief Wendell Flinchum on the ongoing investigation.

That President Steger took the time to meet with a “leadership team” is a telling fact in the narrative of an academic presidency. Maybe those of us not privy to important facts of the case ought not to waste our breath assessing President Steger’s decision-making that day. Still, other college and university presidents make momentous decisions, albeit less harrowing ones, all the time. So, it might be useful to take a look at the cramped ways in which college presidents take action -- or don’t.

If college presidents were Machiavellian princes, the sort of oligarchs suspicious types on campus like to imagine presidents to be, presidents would tend to act fast and furiously when there is some kind of campus disturbance. At the first sign of disorder, the princely public university president might ask the governor to call in the National Guard. He might barricade the campus and all of its buildings. He certainly would not consult a leadership group before making decisions.

In The Prince, Machiavelli advises heads of state to skip edifying advice of moralists and instead to cultivate a fearsome presence. He writes that "men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.” Does this sound like the smiling college presidents you know? If a college president attempted to go the way of Machiavelli’s prince, he would soon be out of a job. Just ask Lawrence Summers.

The truth is that there is something in a university that prevents Machiavellian leadership. That something has to do with the nagging idealism of democratic rule and the persistent reality of faculty power, which in most places is enhanced by tenure. As Robert Birnbaum has noted in an essay in American Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century, “a faculty vote of no-confidence often has the same power to end a presidential career as does a formal vote by the trustees.” OK. I know that this point will get an argument from faculty members whose parking places have just been seized by an administration intent on putting up some building or other in the B-1 lot. They cry out in their desolation, “We are powerless!” These cries come from persons who almost certainly have not spent much time flexing muscles they may not even know they have. But there are others in college faculties who have exercised power. They are the ones who get themselves on “leadership” committees. Along with trustees, they form the check on any princely behavior in college presidents.

Richard Brodhead, Duke University's president, heeded members of his faculty, who called for strong measures against three members of the lacrosse team accused of raping a woman hired to entertain the team at a party on March 13, 2006. Brodhead obliged by canceling the lacrosse season and encouraging the coach to step down.

While the measures he took were fairly drastic, they were also eventually judged to be tardy. An outside commission led by William G. Bowen, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a critic of the role of athletics in college life, and Julius L. Chambers, a former director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and former chancellor of North Carolina Central University, found the Duke administration to have responded much too slowly. But the commission also praised the delicacy of the response, surely a result of consultation with leaders across the university. Still later, with charges of rape now dropped, Brodhead is being criticized for acting precipitately in the case. For a college president, everyone is indeed a critic.

The fact is that the American college presidency is almost Madisonian in the checks on its power. And another fact is that college presidents look positively Jeffersonian in the limits placed on their decision making. Jefferson, while appreciating democratic rule, believed that presidents should be able to take swift action. However, although he believed that presidents had an obligation to exercise their good judgment unhampered by second guessing he understood the reality of democracy: "The fool has as great a right to express his opinion by vote as the wise, because he is equally free, and equally master of himself."

He also realized that consultation gave democracy focus that personal independence might otherwise undermine: "Aided by the counsels of a cabinet of heads of departments ... with whom the president consults, either singly or altogether, he has the benefit of their wisdom and information, brings their views to one center, and produces an unity of action and direction in all the branches of the government." Likewise, Birnbaum points out that the effective president listens to advice from others. “Effective presidents influence others by allowing themselves to be influenced.”

Consensus, then, is the guiding principal of Jeffersonian executive action. And so it is in universities. Consensus-seeking slows down decision-making sometimes disastrously, but most of the time benignly -- making universities the most conservative of organizations, which rarely lose their pants in fly-by-night schemes. So, while advancement is slowed, risk is minimized. “The goal,” Birnbaum writes, “is a peaceful balance of institutional interests within which [college presidents] can make marginal improvements in a limited number of areas.” In his Olympian tendency to act without reaching consensus, Lawrence Summers had the makings of an academic prince. He was hired to make radical changes at Harvard, but Harvard, like most universities was not built for radicalism.

Perhaps the Kaine commission in Virginia will discover a fatal but fixable flaw of consensus-building. Or perhaps the commission will find that consensus-building doesn’t work very well, but is better than all the alternatives. Or they might find that in a democratically run organization, some tragedies are unavoidable. As Machiavelli noted in the Discourses, “It seems that in all the actions of men … the good is accompanied by some special evil, and so closely allied to it that it would seem impossible to achieve the one without encountering the other.”


Margaret Gutman Klosko formerly taught at the University of Virginia and at Piedmont Virginia Community College. She is a freelance writer based in Charlottesville.


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