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Big Man on Campus: A University President Speaks Out on Higher Education (Touchstone Books)by Stephe Trachtenberg
Enrollment Is Life
After announcing that I would step down from the presidency of The George Washington University — a prestigious university with an enrollment of about 20,000 located in downtown Washington, D.C. — I took an hour off to sit in front of the university's Gelman Library with a cup of coffee and watch the passing parade of professors and young men and women students. It was a very soothing, very beautiful experience and gave me a great sense of satisfaction about my tenure as president. I thought about the surprising, challenging, and wonderful thirty years I have led while serving as president of two universities. I marveled at the notion that an admittedly quirky guy like me has managed to lead such a rewarding professional life in the traditional world of academe. I recalled some of the many interesting and often daunting issues I have dealt with during my career. I thought about my worries for the future of American higher education and the challenge of instituting innovation and efficiency in an environment where change is threatening to many. It was then that I decided I could write a book about all this — for all the people who have ever wondered what makes a university tick and what its president does all day.
Years ago I read about a little college of art in Connecticut that closed because it could no longer stay afloat fiscally. The Hartford Courant published an article about the demise of the college and quoted a faculty member who said, "I noticed that my classes were getting smaller and smaller and I thought that was a good thing because I was able to teach to smaller and smaller groups of students. It never occurred to me that it could be a sign that the school might have to fold. I was astounded!" Although the innocence of this comment might seem rather stunning to a university administrator, it is really not unusual for people to react this way because most of them believe that colleges and universities are here forever. They don't fail like railroads or airlines or dot-com companies. Or do they?
In my last year as president of GW, there was an opinion piece in the student newspaper written by a young woman who said she thought the enrollment was too large. She proposed that we reduce it by about 2,000 students but hold the faculty and the facilities constant. I wrote to her and asked, "If we were to reduce the student body as you proposed and the average student represents $30,000 per year to the university, what number does that result in?" She wrote back, "$60 million." I guess the figure shocked her a little, so she generously added this comment: "You don't have to do it all at once; you can phase it in over the next ten years." The fact is that $60 million subtracted from a university's operating budget because of a reduction in enrollment would have to be immediately replaced, or the university would quickly head the way of that little college in Connecticut. Even if the student had conceded the need to eliminate programs and people to compensate for the loss of tuition income, what might she have wanted the administration to eliminate? Laboratories? Health services? Athletic programs? Buildings and grounds? The faculty? The university police force? Dormitories and food service? Academic programs? The administration?
Universities are very special places. Their structure and their customs are rooted in earlier times, and we are trying to preserve these ancient institutions while living in the twenty-first century, but we cannot ignore or hold at arm's length all aspects of modern life. In fact, according to John Sexton, president of New York University, "There are 85 institutions in the world today that exist as they did 500 years ago. [These are] the English Parliament, the Papacy, eight Swiss cantons — and of the 75 remaining, 70 are universities."
We have to pay the electric bill. We have to buy computers and more books for the library. We have to provide faculty and staff with health and dental plans, day care for their children, and salaries that allow them to live in contemporary America. Universities are not like their medieval predecessors. And they are not mom-and-pop shops. They are big, businesslike endeavors, and the president has to be able to hold a businesslike perspective at the same time that he or she understands and supports the deepest values and ambitions of the people within who are committed to scholarship and learning.
The United States has had a lock on high-quality higher education for a long time, during which people from all over the world have wanted to come to American universities. But the interest in our universities suffered a bit of a decline, exacerbated after 9/11, when we threw up walls to screen international students because of security concerns. The clock stopped, and people from other nations came to the conclusion that they did not necessarily have to go to an American university. They found plausible alternatives in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, or elsewhere. Meanwhile, many countries like China and India are rapidly building their own new universities.
America currently has many unmet needs. Forty-five million of us have no health care, and even if we ignore ethical issues, we will have to deal with that problem because it is a drag on the economy and a potential public health hazard. There are other looming obligations. These include the retiring baby boomers and the inadequate Social Security program; our infrastructure — disintegrating bridges, tunnels, and roads that were built for the smaller traffic loads of earlier years — that desperately needs to be repaired; and urban and rural schools that are in need of an overhaul. Universities are very expensive to run, and they will ultimately be called upon to become more efficient in the use of their resources. Current billion-dollar university endowment campaigns draw the attention of politicians. In 2006, when a scandal arose at American University, which is also in Washington, D.C., Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, labeled that university the "poster child of excess" because the president was said to be drinking $100 bottles of wine and otherwise indulging himself at the university's expense. All of this occurred while the board of trustees was allegedly negligent in its oversight of the university's operations and administration.
Recently we saw students acting badly at Gallaudet University, also in Washington, D.C., which is the country's only university for the deaf. These students were dissatisfied with the selection of Dr. Jane K. Fernandes, the university's provost, to serve as the next president of the university. Fernandes is a deaf person, but she was not "deaf enough" for the Gallaudet student body, which apparently has unwritten rules for how to be deaf. She grew up speaking and reading lips — not signing, as some students seem to feel is mandatory for membership in the culture of deafness — and, in breach of the students' notion of deaf authenticity, she attended mainstream public schools and universities rather than schools for the deaf. Although the Gallaudet Board of Trustees had already approved the choice of Fernandes to be the president, the student protests that followed closed the school and ultimately led to a revote by the board repudiating its earlier selection. This was the second time in an eighteen-year period that the students had succeeded in shutting down the school over the issue of the new president's deafness, an unhappy legacy for the school to have to overcome in the years ahead. Fernandes was deprived of the presidency before she was even inaugurated. The outgoing Gallaudet president, I. King Jordan, had been put into office eighteen years earlier, after the students, with the support of faculty, alumni, and friends of the university, rejected the selection of a hearing president and shut the campus over the issue. As a result, Jordan became the first deaf president of the school. After the Fernandes incident, Jordan was moved to write in an editorial, "When I announced that I was stepping down as president...I spoke of the health of the university and said that Gallaudet was well positioned for the future. Sadly, this may no longer be the case" (The Washington Post, January 22, 2007).
Most of the university's operating budget comes from the U.S. Congress — that is, from the tax dollars of the American taxpayer. When the Gallaudet students threw their tantrum over the choice of their next president, they were saying in effect, "We own this university and will get what we want by shutting it down." In a civilized university, you simply don't decide who the president is by making it impossible to function.
These students — and some of their professors, apparently — seemed to have forgotten that our countrymen tend to be committed to both democracy and due process, even if we don't always agree with the outcome. One example of this is the country's accession to the Supreme Court's decision regarding the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. No one took to the streets to close down the government or the Supreme Court. Instead, the people demonstrated their belief in the rule of law and accepted the outcome. But in the Gallaudet situation, the board of trustees allowed anarchy to reign and, under pressure from the students, cravenly reversed its presidential appointment. Because Gallaudet is dependent on taxpayers' money, if I were in Congress, I would have said during the protest, "If the students don't go back to class and there isn't some orderly process for deciding on the president, I am going to start cutting appropriations. And then we can let them take over the place and we'll see how they manage to pay the bills."
The Gallaudet protestors showed absolutely no respect for their university or the protocols of the academy. And the faculty of Gallaudet failed in its important obligation to teach their students how to behave like university-educated people. Not surprisingly, following these shameful events, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education said it would delay the university's accreditation renewal. According to an article in The Washington Times (February 22, 2007), the commission cited, among the reasons for the delay, its "concerns about the functionality of Gallaudet's governance system." An old and trusted institution of higher learning has been severely damaged by this disgraceful episode, and Congress would be justified in imposing sanctions to protect the institution.
In June 2007, several months after these shocking events at the university, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education placed the university on probation, a melancholy proof of the seriousness of the institution's problems. I am not surprised that the university's accreditor took a harder look as a result of these events and found even more things that were troublesome about the institution. It is not difficult to understand that an interested third party viewing the institution from the outside would see the need for a more in-depth review. I also don't doubt the purity of heart of the people at Gallaudet who disrupted the school and forced it to close, citing their strongly felt disagreement with the choice of a new president. However, they simply did not understand how things are done in universities. In this case, it would have been useful for them to learn the rules of engagement in an institution of higher learning.
In my judgment, Congress's interest in higher education will continue to increase and senators will keep watching what is happening on our campuses. For one thing, they might see Harvard's endowment going over $35 billion at the same time it is said that the school is considering yet another fund-raising campaign. The questions facing Harvard should be, When is enough enough? When does a university have the resources it needs? Surely Harvard is aware that its endowment is larger than the Gross Domestic Product of some countries. There may be a case for more, but if so, it must be made so all can see it. Harvard's leadership might well be concerned that suddenly there could be questions from Congress about the appropriateness of a tax-exempt status for such a huge accumulation of wealth. I think Harvard is trying to appear virtuous by stopping its early-admissions program and by deciding that the university will no longer give scholarships but instead give outright grants to people whose families make under $40,000 per year. They must realize, however, that this last declaration is insignificant because the number of people affected by these initiatives at Harvard is minuscule. In any case, I think we may see congressional hearings on the issue of allowing tax-exempt status for wealthy universities. This is a serious question, one that can have a devastating effect on many universities in our country that are more modestly situated.
In America, where there is no natural-born nobility, we have generally strived to achieve rank on our own, and one way to become a member of the "American elite" has come from being associated with one of the prestigious American universities. One such group of prestigious institutions includes the Ivy League, MIT, and Stanford University. If you have graduated from one of these institutions, that fact can have a defining effect on your entire life. But this has become somewhat less true as the country has become more heterogeneous and more interesting overall during the last several decades. We are seeing increasing numbers and distinguishing kinds of elite state universities, and there is now more excellence available to a much larger section of the population.
The average tenure of a university president is currently about eight years. This is an important piece of data. Universities often take a full year or more to carefully go through a search process to identify a new president, and in no time they have to do it all over again! In the first year of office, the person is getting to know the job. In the last year, the person is preparing to leave. That leaves only six years in which to get something done. Surely that is not enough time for a university president to formulate a vision of what an institution should be doing and do what is necessary to bring that vision to reality.
Being a university president has a Sisyphean quality to it; you keep rolling boulders up the hill, and they keep rolling back down on you. But once in a while, you actually get a boulder or two up to the top and are able to get it over the other side. The Talmud says, "You cannot in your lifetime achieve all the things you are committed to doing, but this does not relieve you of the burden to keep trying." This is a good description of the life of a university president. In my case, being the president drew on every talent, every skill, every capacity I developed in my lifetime. Moreover, no two days were ever the same. In the course of a day, I could be sitting with the vice president of advancement trying to devise a fund-raising strategy and then with the vice president for business trying to figure out what the tuition ought to be for next year and how to make budget allocations. Later in the day, I might be in a meeting with the vice president for academic affairs talking about curriculum changes and new degree programs. Or I might be in conversation with the general counsel to discuss legal matters affecting universities and focus on a few high-profile cases important to my university. Or I could have been with the vice president for student affairs talking about drinking or smoking on campus or the proper role of athletics versus the highest academic ambitions. Each day had its challenges, its rewards, and its hard knocks. And the next day, the fun started all over again, full of new issues along with issues that kept coming back again and again no matter what I did.
How should we be supporting university presidents so that they can accomplish the goals for which they were recruited? We need board members, neighbors, students, and faculty who are more aware of the president's role and the importance of some of the issues universities face. I believe that universities seem so well-established that people think they can be criticized and kicked around and have resources extracted without realizing that there needs to be a give-back and that universities need to be nurtured and supported consistently.
A lot of philanthropy goes into universities, but it is important to remember that 80 percent of endowment assets in the country are held by only 16 percent of the universities. GW is a big university with an operating budget of less than a billion dollars a year. There are thousands of people on the payroll and thousands of students as well as hundreds of thousands of living graduates. Yet the economic model of the university is very similar to that of a theater. People arrive at the box office, buy a ticket, and give the ticket to the usher on their way to see the show. The bills of the theater are paid for by the box-office receipts. Likewise, 90 percent of GW's bills are paid by tuition — at the box office! We are a tuition-driven institution.
When thinking about tuition, people are often misled by the media, which make much over the list price of tuition and do not recognize the various pricing plans that universities have developed in order to build greater justice and equity into the system. Universities want a broad socioeconomic spectrum of students and do not want the inability to pay full price to be a barrier to admission for qualified students. The fact is that students in America can arrange to get an education with very little of their own money. Unfortunately, the poorest students often do not get the counseling and guidance they need to take full advantage of the availability of financial aid. If I had a magic wand, I would fix this situation by improving the ability of high school counselors to help students negotiate the financial aid maze.
Tuition is a very complicated business because many people think of it as the cost of getting something. But really it is the price, not the cost, that is important. For example, certain costs — such as products and services — are basically the same for all universities. But the price differs at different institutions. Independent universities have higher tuitions because they don't get the subvention that the state institutions do. At public institutions, the price of tuition is a political decision. The governor and the legislature can decide what price they want to charge, and they can make that price work by giving the institution the underwriting it needs to pay its bills. A private university is an economic being, its tuition price driven by the cost of running the institution — tuition plus its other sources of income. Harvard, with its endowment of $35 billion, could, if it wished, do away with tuition altogether. By contrast, GW, along with hundreds of other colleges and universities in our country, despite the appearance of solid resources, would have to close its doors if it did not have tuition income. The perilous reality faced by many a university president is this: enrollment is life.
The price of tuition is further complicated by the amount of financial aid provided by an institution. Only students who can afford to pay the full tuition are likely to be charged the sticker price. The needier students are generally subsidized in some way. The infinite number and type of pricing schemes of American universities could fill a book of their own.
University presidents are increasingly in the news. The experience of Lawrence Summers at Harvard is one dramatic example of this. During his tenure as Harvard's president, Summers made a number of remarks at various occasions that touched on sensitive issues that offended some groups, including affirmative action advocates, women, and environmentalists. In 2005, while attending a conference sponsored by the National Bureau of Economics Research (NBER) on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce, it was suggested that factors other than socialization could explain the disproportionate numbers of men and women in high-end science and engineering positions. Summers hypothesized that the possibility could be men's higher capacity in relevant innate abilities. This was misconstrued by some to mean that he was suggesting that men are more intelligent than women. Summers's speculation became public, an outcry occurred on the Harvard campus, and the national news media fanned the flames of disputation. This, along with previous controversial statements by Summers, is believed to have been the primary factor in his departure from the presidency after a period of unease. In his case, one faction of the faculty — that of the School of Arts and Sciences — was able to drive him out of office in spite of the positive reviews he got from other large groups of faculty.
Situations like these are not unusual; they have been going on for some time. In recent years, there has been a lot of turnover in university presidencies, and there will be a lot more. People are stepping down as a matter of course, but also because of some difficult situation that is in the spotlight. These are important jobs. In the coming years, there will be tremendous flux, particularly in community colleges. Where will the university presidents of the future come from?
These are not good times for university presidents. Their brief average tenure is a disaster for the individuals, and not much better for their institutions. For example, Jeffrey Lehman left Cornell University after two years, Edward Hundert left Case Western Reserve after four, Charles Karelis was out at Colgate after less than two, Evan Dobelle was out at the University of Hawaii after three, and Lawrence Summers of Harvard was forced out after five. Perhaps a special example of presidential brevity is Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, which had four presidents and one acting president between 2000 and 2006.
The circumstances leading to the resignations or dismissals of these presidents were all different. But the results for the universities were similar; a void at the top, the cost and labor of a premature search, and an uneasy succession. I wonder if Harvard would be what it is today had James Bryant Conant, Nathan M. Pusey, and Derek C. Bok not served consecutively for a total of nearly sixty years, from 1933 to 1991, with roughly equal tenures. It is hard to imagine that Harvard, absent three generations of their steady leadership, would have grown to be such a great American institution. After my nineteen years at GW, it would be wonderful for the university to have the next president serve an equally long term and then for his successor to do the same. Whether that would turn GW into Harvard is hard to say; Harvard had a head start.
The more I thought about the transition from my administration to the next and listened to what was being said about all the high expectations for my successor, the more I thought it would be a good idea for me to talk to the board of trustees and make a plea for humane treatment for him. And so I plunged in during one of my last board meetings and asked for several important considerations.
First, I warned the board not to project onto him expectations that no human being can live up to. About 250 years ago, Edward, the second Baron Thurlow, observed that corporations have neither a body to be kicked nor a soul to be damned. In that sense, my university, like any university, is a corporation. But I hoped the board, the faculty, and the students would resist the temptation to see the new president as the university made flesh, with a kickable soul and a damnable body. He is not the soul or heart of the university, but its leader.
The new president talked to the board about growing the endowment. I was glad to hear that but asked the board members not to make him the battering ram of fund-raising. The president of any university must energetically and wholeheartedly participate in fund-raising. But it is not the president's only job, and the board, deans, and senior faculty have a shared responsibility in the fund-raising endeavor. Unfortunately, this responsibility is often forgotten or ignored, especially by the faculty. They generally prefer just to ask the president for money.
I urged the board not to expect my successor to be omniscient. No one is! I reminded them of the scandal involving the lacrosse players at Duke University — the scandal that turned out to be a lot more like prosecutorial misconduct than the sexual assault that was first alleged. When the events — whatever they were — first came to light, many people blamed Richard Brodhead, the president of Duke, for not intervening and preventing an off-campus party where there were a keg and two strippers. How, I asked, was President Brodhead supposed to know the party was even going on? He's not a mind reader, and Duke is not a police state with spies employed to phone in the latest intelligence about Saturday night revelries. A university president is not clairvoyant. Granted, students, not to mention faculty and staff, can often lack judgment and be up to no good. But knowing about this ahead of time is impossible; presumably, omniscience resides in only one place, and He is not a university president.
I further asked the board to keep in mind that leading a university is daunting, bordering on overwhelming. The president is supposed to be a good businessman and a pretty fair accountant. He also needs to be an intellectual with such rich and broad interests that he can talk on any topic with any professor. He needs to be in touch with the lives and concerns of students. And he needs to have a vision for the institution and a clear focus on how to achieve that vision. But he really can't play all roles at once or equally well at all times; I suggested that they let him play those roles in which he excels, let him delegate to others with necessary competencies, and offer help when they believe it is needed.
I told them that they, along with the faculty and staff of the institution, need to nurture and protect their president, especially in the first years. After nearly thirty years as a university president, I have learned an obvious lesson: I needed the board most when times were tough or critics were gathering. Smooth sailing doesn't require an oar, but when you're up the creek, you really do want a paddle; actually, several.
Having made this plea to the board, I began to think of what I might say to the new president about what I have been doing for so many years. He wasn't likely to ask for a tutorial, but it was useful to think about what I believe are the greatest problems he will face while also reminiscing about the many satisfactions — and, yes, joys — I experienced in the job.
There is no doubt in my mind: money is the biggest challenge facing the modern university president. Finding it, asking for it, raising it, using it efficiently, keeping it safe, investing it wisely, defending allocations, charging and justifying tuition, and challenging established notions about it — all money-related topics perpetually vex and confound a sitting president.
The second most enduring challenge I faced as a university president was working with faculty. As individuals, faculty members are mostly quite splendid — lovely, actually. The kind of people you want as friends or neighbors or married to your children! But the problems arise when they gather as a group, clutching their copies of Robert's Rules of Order, pledged to oppose any perceived threat to the status quo that may be suggested by their president.
As president, I spent hours at my desk every day, reading not just the mail addressed to me personally but communications of many other kinds, and there were times when I felt as if I were drowning in the complaints of my fellow human beings. To be fair, I did sometimes get a letter indicating satisfaction with some aspect of the university, but a fair share were from entitled neighbors, dissatisfied faculty, unhappy alums, and disappointed students and parents. Yes, they were in the small minority — the large majority of them don't write to me at all — but still I thought I should advise the new president to get ready for the onslaught. I do concede, however, that grousing and grumbling appear to be endemic in society and not just a university-related issue.
A president must possess an ironic streak, including when listening to students — with no knowledge of history — explaining how the world has come to this sorry state. Times like that — and times when a literary allusion used in conversation with a student falls flat due to the student's relative ignorance — make me worry about the absence of a common understanding of what a college education should include. A BA from one school often bears no relationship to the BA from another. I am not the only one worried about this; all colleges wrestle with the curriculum question.
I would encourage my successor to have regular office hours for students and to attend their performances, discussions, athletic events, and informal gatherings whenever possible. Talking to and observing students became one of the most important and enjoyable things I did as president. Surely, my willingness to be with and enjoy students is part of the legacy of the wonderful teachers I myself had over the years.
One of the many reasons why this new GW president was chosen was because of his previous experience as an administrator in a large and successful research-oriented university. Increasing the research orientation of universities is a nationwide trend; as a result, the rewards for teaching at our institutions of higher education are often replaced with more powerful incentives to do research. One of the nice things about my university is that the institution still cares about teaching. But, like many other universities, we don't seem to care quite as passionately as we used to, and I am apprehensive about the future of all universities who emphasize research while deemphasizing the incentives for classroom activity.
College and university rating systems are springing up all over. U.S. News and World Report was first to print such a ranking. The result, while it may seem useful to prospective students and their parents, has had a startling effect on the expenditure of university resources to attract students and on decision making about admissions programs and systems. While universities can't do much about this situation, except perhaps refuse to participate, it is an area of concern for university presidents because, among other things, it drives up costs and ramps up students' expectations of housing accommodations and other amenities. Copyright © 2008 by Stephen Trachtenberg
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