11/16/2012 10:42 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

Petraeus at Princeton? Generals Shouldn't Run Certain Institutions

At Princeton University, where I work, General Petraeus has been frequently mentioned as a candidate to succeed our president of 12 years. Shirley Tilghman has announced she is stepping down to return to her position as a professor of molecular biology. Having just left his job as head of the Central Intelligence Agency, the general is now available to accept the university's presidency if selected by the Trustees.

This development raises an important question: Why would an educational institution want a military commander to lead it?

As a theoretical proposition, a man who has spent his career in the military will not have an easy time fitting into a learning community such as Princeton University. The school's mission statement for its undergraduates speaks of providing students a "humane and collaborative environment" that supports intellectual curiosity. If it can be considered a "theater of operations," the college is one that encourages independent thinking and intellectual curiosity. In few respects can students be analogized to military service enlistees who will be shaped into a collective fighting force.

Similarly, the university's faculty does not resemble an officer corps. They are a community of noted scholars who prize their independence as much as their collegiality. To varying degrees they share the institution's mission, but they often vigorously disagree over strategies for pursuing it. The university operates about as differently from the command and control hierarchical military as possible.

At Princeton we do differentiate between students and faculty, but we do not have a policy akin to the military's restriction on fraternization. Graduate students regularly socialize with faculty by frequenting the "faculty club," an undergraduate may invite a professor to share a meal at her college. Almost everyone at the university has complained on more than one occasion about the burden of committee service and the many meetings required for making major decisions.

These dissimilarities between the two environments thus raise the issue of whether a military commander could effectively lead a university. Although there are times when a university president may feel besieged by a cantankerous faculty, dissatisfied students, and a demanding community, resolution of these conflicts will not be facilitated by employing battle-tested strategies and tactics. Two-time former President Nannerl Keohane, of Wellesley College and Duke University, (and now a professor at Princeton) has applied her expertise in political philosophy and her leadership experience in carefully analyzing the presidency of the modern university. She notes:

"Given the highly traditional, distinctive culture of the academy, it is difficult for men and women trained in other professions to succeed in these posts. A leader who has excelled in a career with different mores and expectations inevitably finds it hard to understand the particular requirements of leadership in higher education."

The value of collaboration appears continuously throughout her work; the concept of commanding obedience is largely absent. History also suggests caution on the appointment of a general to lead an Ivy League university. Dwight Eisenhower assumed the presidency of Columbia University after retiring from the Army in 1949. His biographer suggests that this was not a good personal fit for either party, even if the university benefited from his fundraising prowess.

Still, it is fair to ask whether there is something special about David Petraeus that should overcome these reservations about a general's fit and qualifications to lead a university, and Princeton University in particular. General Petraeus is an alumnus of the graduate school, who spent two years on the Princeton campus. According to Princeton's student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, he initially enrolled in the Woodrow Wilson School's public policy master's degree program but decided to earn a doctorate by cramming in the required his course work during his limited leave time. This was an impressive accomplishment, but it also meant that he eschewed the rich extra and co-curricular offerings that are part of the full educational experience. He could not have availed himself of the valuable opportunities to meet with the distinguished academics and accomplished leaders who regularly visit campus or to socialize with his extraordinary fellow students who, like him, earned admission to Princeton's graduate programs.

A striking feature of The Prince's lengthy story on the general's "genuine interest" in the presidency is that the student author found several sources who claimed that David Petraeus would be unlikely to find the transition difficult. In particular, they noted his leadership qualities, his passion for higher education, and his commitment to mentor young people. Notably missing from the article, which was written while he was still in the government's employ, was any discussion of how his professional experience and leadership style may differ from the expectations of the University community that he would head. While the story speaks of his devoted loyalty to his alma mater, including ending emails with an acronym "PITNS!" (a university's motto: Princeton in the Nation's Service), that really only means that General Petraeus is in good company. This University can boast of having among the most loyal alumni in the world.

There is a legendary hubris among men who have achieved great acclaim for their success. Those whose leadership has involved life and death decisionmaking may perhaps be forgiven if they initially believe that they are subsequently qualified for any leadership position involving less consequential decisions. Perhaps this explains why, despite her lengthy and successful tenure as Princeton's president, Shirley Tilghman is not applying to head CENTCOM or the NATO Command. But from where I sit at Princeton, despite his availability and interest (and ignoring the publicity of recent weeks), I've not heard anything to suggest that General Petraeus would be an optimal choice to succeed President Tilghman.

Leslie Gerwin, a Public Voices Fellow at The OpEd Project, is the Associate Director of the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University and teaches in the American Studies Program. She is the parent of a Princeton alumnus. The views expressed here are her own.