THE BLOG

Leadership: Autocracy or Custodianship

02/10/2014 11:29 am ET | Updated Apr 12, 2014

Institutions in the United States are not meant to be owned by those who lead them. They are not possessions to be disposed of according to the will and inclination of managers or governors. Leaders are custodians who supposedly act in the collective interest of all those who have a stake in the institution's performance. The principle holds for public bodies, for private entities certified, charted or endorsed by the government, and indeed any organization whose purposes and modes of operation are stipulated in an enabling constitution or a basic set of rules. This conforms to norms and legal traditions of liberally constituted societies.

Consequently, it follows that office-holders, directors and managers are authorized to exercise their proper powers within a set of constraints. Empowerment together with accompanying limitations are designed to ensure that the functions of leadership are performed in a responsible manner. It is a fiduciary responsibility in a broad sense. Custodianship is a concept applicable to government offices, public agencies of all kinds, incorporated businesses, colleges and universities, even rule-bound social associations.

Custodianship in concept and practice is the antithesis to autocracy, to rule by diktat. Yet, today we observe the abuse of power in arbitrary action on a growing scale. It is coming to challenge traditional norms of institutional authority nearly everywhere. Most noteworthy is the conduct of high public officials who see no obligation to explain or justify why and how they do things that drastically affect the general welfare. That disdain often is accompanied by deceit and outright lying, lying whose eventual revelation evokes a shrug of the proverbial shoulders rather than a mea culpa or repentance. The examples are legion.

Washington

Start with the wars launched under the aegis of the Global War On Terror. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was a signal event insofar as it was masked in a wrapping of untruths and fabrications from beginning to ignominious end. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, after the initial military action to dislodge al-Qaeda and unseat the Taliban, has been pressed without any cogent, reasoned argument in its defense whatsoever - other than the incantation of "The Evil One" (terror) as the omnipresent mortal threat. More recently, the Obama White House has cavalierly overridden its solemn pledges to end the United States' combat role there by the end of 2014 while implacably, publicly demanding of Kabul that we receive permission to stay on and prosecute the war for another 10 years - at least.

The most stunning feature of this behavior is the unstated belief of our masters that they possess the intrinsic authority to do these things. The government, its policies, the country somehow are theirs to use as they see fit. "We the people" get their say at election time; otherwise the citizenry are identified as the lobbyists and media who are to be cajoled or spun or appeased so as to secure leaders' expansive prerogatives. That is the extent of the perceived commitment to a democratic polity and an informed citizenry.

Yes, there is constant reference to a national "conversation" on this, that or the other thing. But two-way communication of a serious nature habitually is avoided. Thus, President Obama promised a full and frank debate on electronic surveillance in response to the Snowden revelations. In the ensuing seven months, he has evaded addressing the subject except to repeat a vague series of platitudes and pledges, decorated by a couple of cosmetic touch-ups, that are contradicted almost weekly by new disclosures. So it was with Guantanamo, torture and rendition under the Bush administration.

A feature of the White House's mode of formulating the surveillance question is the reiterated claim that "security must be balanced against civil liberties." Thus stated, the formula in effect affirms that government actions which violate privacy need only meet a standard of practical value in supposedly reducing some arbitrarily assessed security risk. But these are not considerations of the same order. The one is an explicit, constitutionally grounded right of citizens. The other is a subjective policy judgment based on a loose reading of inherently ambiguous legislation. The blurring of this fundamental distinction serves to expand radically the range of discretionary action by rulers while subordinating a principle inscribed in the Constitution for the very purpose of circumscribing that claimed prerogative. The Obama administration's systematic resistance to having the constitutional issues adjudicated in the courts is, in effect, a declaration that it "possesses" not only the executive branch but the United States governmental system itself.

In today's political culture, acts of malfeasance or non-feasance by leaders carry with them no obligation to accept responsibility to justify or to make restitution of any sort. It is the fickle winds of an unfocused media who can neither concentrate nor offer informed judgment that determine whether there will be any measure of accountability. Normally, there is little if any.

A pernicious side effect of the assertion of arbitrary right in lieu of law is to embolden persons in positions of power to act in similar fashion. So we now see sheriffs in Colorado and upstate New York boldly declaring that they will not enforce those states' gun laws. The justification is an assumed right to decide what constitutes a proper claim on their obedience as law enforcement agents. This is the exact logic laid out by Attorney General Eric Holder in testifying before Congress that he will decide whether to prosecute banks in accordance with the law depending on his personal assessment as to what economic damage such a prosecution may cause. Arbitrariness and anarchy are two sides of the same coin.

Wall Street

These same behavioral patterns are on equally vivid display by the heads of non-governmental institutions. In the financial realm, one need only think of the audacious reaction of the Wall Street barons to the near-death experience they inflicted on the economy. To this day, not a single figure of note had offered a word of apology or regret. Nor have we heard a word from the co-opted regulators; nor from Alan Greenspan or Ben Bernanke; nor from the legion of renowned economists who got it all wrong (and most of whom continue to do so). They do take offense at what they declare to have been their unfair treatment. For the bankers, of course, there exists no sense of obligation to the citizenry or the public at large. The only stake-holders who count are their tame boards of directors and the stockholders. The former have been coopted or neutered. The latter are bought off by hefty profits from activities licit or illicit.

University

The virus of arbitrary leadership has spread as far as America's great universities. (Reference HP) To anyone with direct experience of how matters of consequence are handled in today's citadels of academe, the shift away from some approximation of a consultative approach on major policy issues is striking. The phenomenon may not be universal, but it is widespread and growing. So, too, is the haughty attitude of senior administrators that the institution's well-being is their affair as proprietors who have the right to choose whether to deign to seek the advice or counsel (almost never approval) of those in whose name they administer. Faculty increasingly are viewed as staff, staff as hirelings and students as customers/product. This attitude affects the
mechanisms and methods of policy-setting as well as the policies' substance. It is now routine for plans to be set, and projects for implementation to be designed by senior administrators (advised by grasping consultants with dubious credentials) with only the most cursory solicitation of input from other constituents - or none at all. That input, such as it is, increasingly is pro forma and/or after the main fact. The rare cases of vehement protests by faculty or alumni elicit at best a high-minded call from the President for a "conversation" that inevitability evaporates into nothingness.

These trends are visible at public as well as private institutions despite the fact that the former in principle are open to scrutiny by citizens, tax-payers and all those in the community with an interest in higher education. Indeed, it is public universities that we found the most stunning examples of governance by cabal - usually led by an autocratic majority of the Board of Regents in connivance with elected state officials as happened at the University of Virginia. University presidents have been known to collaborate with them - in some instances.

What aspects of university life are the targets of arbitrary action? Just about everything: tuition, faculty/student ratios, a shift to temporary/part-time faculty, responsiveness to allegations of rape and other offenses that could endanger the school's reputation and thereby revenues, the "privatization" of staff functions to cut expenditures to the bone, what levels of political activity on campus will be tolerated, etc. It is a rare institution where a serious effort is made to involve faculty in the process of deliberation and decision. Staff almost never. (Some adjunct professors have had their contracted teaching hours cut so as to disqualify them for institutional health insurance mandated by Obamacare). The tendency is to view both as encumbrances to projects that will "improve" the university - by the lights of those at the top - rather than engage or serve either useful contributors or deserving stakeholders. They are "speed bumps" to be circumvented if possible. This is the essence of institutional "possession."

To repeat, this description of developments in the university world is not an assertion that these practices characterize all institutions. They do point to clear, unmistakable trends in higher education from the most prestigious elite schools to the community colleges.

It is the stress on the self-decreed prerogatives of university heads that stands out - more so than the dubious policies themselves. They relish the distance that separates them from those 'drones' from whose ranks they have ascended. Assertion of superiority is symbolized by the perks of office which leaders grant themselves. Salaries, above all. There are now 42 university presidents whose annual income exceeds $1 million. 4 more who lead public state universities. That number has risen sharply over the past five years - as has the size of those salary increases (a 36% rise between 2008 and 2012). Topping the list is the University of Chicago's Robert Zimmer who earns $3,358,723. To put that number in perspective, it is 40 X what a starting assistant professor earns, and it is nearly 80 X what most staff earn. (Chronicle of Higher Education December 15, 2013)

The sad truth is that many university presidents are more comfortable in the company of business tycoons and high powered politics than that of their professorial cohort.
In an era of pervasive austerity, declared penury, and downsizing - university leaders have enjoyed an unprecedented spike in their earnings. The phenomenon is apiece with the Janus faced attitude of the financial lords who preach austerity to the rest of the country while raking in a Midas like bounty. At least in the banking world, everyone on the inside gets a slice of the pie. Not so in the universities.

Trappings of Status

Money has become not just the measure of worth and status. It is used to separate the few rulers from the mass of ruled. (Presidents and other elected officials must await the end of their terms in office to reap the full tangible benefits of the good life - a la the Clintons). Money and other comforts are companion to the autocratic style of leadership. Incommensurate riches are permitted by a culture that has replaced republican simplicity with tinsel grandeur as the dominant motif. Those incommensurate riches, in turn, give institutional heads the wherewithal to reinforce their dominant-subordinate relationship with those they rule - both by material means and by conveying the impression of superior status.

In the governmental arena, the trappings of power convey the same message and serve the same purpose. Presidents and their appointed lords of the realm no longer see themselves as citizens first, last and always. So too is that evident in the attitudes and comportment of senior commanders of our armed forces, the Director of the National Security Agency, and the President of the Federal Reserve - all of whom treat the public more as subjects than citizens. A decent respect for the opinions of fellow citizens and their right to an honest accounting of the public business is normally invisible.

Ben Bernanke, the last mentioned, never has come clean about the Fed's key role in facilitating the practices that produced the crash of 2008; or the opaque "facilities" that salvaged the zombie banks which were hidden from Congress even as he and Treasury Secretary John Paulson pressured it to provide TARP funds by arguing that they was crucial to keeping the entire system from unraveling; or how trillions of toxic assets were absorbed by crediting the banks with their face value; or the behind the scenes campaign to block the re-imposition of meaningful financial regulation. All this while the main perpetrators, and beneficiaries of this historic scam and abdication of public responsibility, sat on the Fed's Board of Governors. Leveling with the American people is an idea that seems never to have crossed his mind.

Too many leaders think and act as a separate caste who covet status and privileges that match those of crowned heads and their mandarins. Amidst the pomp that surrounds the modern presidency, it is easy to forget that this exaltation of the man in the White House is something relatively new. A visit to Roosevelt's Hyde Park Library or Truman's Independence, Missouri is instructive on this score. So is the manifest pleasure that its occupants derive from it. The ceremony, the huge entourages that accompany the President wherever he goes, the endless swirl of gossip about his doings are more akin to the courts of the Great Mogul, the Czar of All the Russias, or the Chinese Emperor than they are faithful to the spirit of the Republic - or the conduct of those who governed it for the first 175 years of its existence.