A senior official at a large foundation asked me recently why college and university presidents fail to exert their influence as opinion makers in American society. It is a good question and an important one. Why do higher education leaders govern but seldom lead?
One definition of a president is that they live in a big house and carry a tin cup to search for money. A more accurate analysis might be that presidents have a corporate title working as a 19th century political boss trying to manage a medieval craft guild.
And therein lies the problem -- the job has evolved but the national imperative for presidents to lead as well as govern remains constant. And presidents -- who preside over universities that are America's incubators of ideas -- are ideally positioned to make a significant contribution.
There are obstacles. Higher education leadership trains for the technical and is spotty, episodic, and inconsistent. There is no farm league from which to pull promising candidates into the majors. New presidents are drawn from an increasingly wide field of applicants, and there is little evidence of trustee initiated succession planning. The system under which American higher education operates -- shared governance -- values process and consensus over outcomes.
Presidents live in a highly charged political environment in which passion flares even when the issues are small. One humorous story told about a major research university is that that although there was no decision on the issue the faculty were still pleased because they were certain that they had won the debate. Further, presidents report to trustees, faculty, parents, staff, alumni, students and donors -- each with a different perspective and agenda.
Twenty-four hour print, electronic and social media make transparency a full-time job, even when dealing with the most sensitive issues that often require discretion and confidentiality. Full transparency is exhausting and seldom sufficient. In short, it is easier -- and safer -- to govern.
To reset the table, at least six changes must occur before college and university presidents can assume their role as opinion makers.
* First, boards of trustees must see themselves as operating for the common good and appoint as presidents individuals who are knowledgeable "doers" who can translate ideas into actions that benefit a broader definition of commonwealth. It's a great supporting argument for continued tax exemption because presidents are clearly serving the public good.
* Second, presidents should separate themselves from issues -- appropriately defensive and largely noble -- that are already the focus of their national higher education associations. While presidents need to be supportive -- arguably, even more so than they are today -- these critical issues of student aid, tax, and regulatory relief are benchmark arguments better handled in common through the Washington-based associations.
* Third, presidents must choose and prioritize those broader issues in society where they can have the most impact. These issues should reflect whenever possible current American societal and global concerns and link to the work that a university does. These might include, to name a few, economic development, internationalization of college campuses, global competitiveness, and workforce preparation. And in doing so they should stick to the argument and avoid the politics or risk diluting the value and importance of their message.
* Fourth, university presidents must join in common partnership with foundations, think tanks, and state and federal government whose officials deal with broader issues and from which good ideas already emerge that could be strengthened through broader dialogue with university thought partners. These non-university partners must better involve higher education leadership systematically and systemically to take advantage of the full value of the partnership.
* Fifth, boards of trustees must value and reward the role of the president as opinion maker and thought leader by setting the charge in place during the presidential search, recognizing the value to the university of strategic national leadership, and reviewing and rewarding it accordingly.
* And finally, a president must understand the job held. There is a balance that a president must find between leadership and governance. Sometimes it is better to be thoughtful, insightful and right than it is to be safe and popular. Presidencies are not sinecures but are precious moments in time and need to be nurtured accordingly. Presidencies require courage more than any other trait.
Over the past few years there has been some damage to the image of the university president. Some of it is well deserved as the press critically examines salaries, lapses in presidential judgment, hyper-developed athletic programs, and student behavior. Individuals -- and institutions -- make mistakes and often serious ones. These must be uncovered and corrected. But once the tarnish is removed enough of the job is still left to make a difference.
Good presidents are out there. They need to be identified, supported, rewarded, and prepared to lead with a broader charge to face concerns beyond the university gates. As we move steadily toward a knowledge-based economy, it has become a national imperative.
Dr. Brian C. Mitchell is the retired president of Bucknell University and former president of Washington & Jefferson College. He is the president of Brian Mitchell Associates and a director of the Edvance Foundation.
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