Are Presidents and Chancellors Also Educators?

by Gerald B. Kauvar, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, and Dr. E. Gordon Gee


Faced with a questionnaire or application, what do you write in response to the question, ‘What is your occupation?” College president? Educator? Chief executive officer? Fundraiser? Cheerleader? All of the above?

We suggest ‘educator’ — but with a caveat and a tale from our book, “Leading Colleges and Universities.” Tale first.

Among the topics we asked current and former college and university presidents to consider writing was, “When should you concern yourself with the curricular matters?” We anticipated presidents might be interested in responding to that topic, but we were surprised that only two were. Our book includes their interesting and revealing essays on the implementation of international studies programs.1

An example of what we hoped we would publish you can find in the splendid book “Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence” by Joseph Aoun, President of Northeastern University.

We surmise, though, that most presidents find the temptation to involve themselves in curricular matters radioactive. Although presidents and boards often vote on changes to the curriculum, additions and subtractions, they are often little more than rubber stamps for the ideas brought forward by faculty members and deans. That’s not to suggest that the ideas are unsound, only that presidents and boards defer to the wisdom of the faculty. Additions are far easier to deal with than subtractions which usually take place as a result of financial exigencies. As a graduate school dean told one of your authors when he took his first administrative job, “In the university, you can start anything but you can’t stop anything.”

Here’s the caveat: we suggest that presidents are or should be educators — of the faculty and staff and the board and legislators of all stripes. These are fraught times for higher education; the world of knowledge is expanding rapidly, and the financial and legislative landscape is changing at the speed of Moore’s law: “the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every two years.”

Institutions of higher education are, for the most part, both robust and frail. The academic and research programs are robust (as are some sports teams), but the financial picture is often precarious or hand-to-mouth. There’s not a lot of money for innovation, and there are far more worthy claims than there are resources to fund them. Skating on thin ice may be the most difficult athletic venture in the enterprise.

Presidents should take the lead in assuring that those charged with line responsibilities and shared governance entities like faculty senates and, yes, unions, are not only familiar with the institution’s budget and finances, but that they are provided that information by the school’s leadership on a regular and recurring basis. New faculty and staff orientation should include an overview of the budget and finances, not just for the current year but with historical trends and anticipated changes. In other words, orientation not just to their department or organization but to the institution as a whole. Colleges and universities are complex organizations and we’re not proposing that every faculty and staff member should be an expert in all areas. But they should understand where the money comes from, where it goes, and how decisions are made.

When shared governance is working, the institution should resemble a common description of an airplane: a collection of parts flying in formation. In the institution the formation will fracture unless the parts know and understand their role in making the whole harmonious and flight-worthy. If not, sub-optimization rules as if the institution were nothing but a jungle where only the fittest survive with each function fighting to preserve and enhance attention, affection, and money.

You might be tempted to argue that sub-optimization on the part of others leaves you in a position of power: you are the decider. But you have to sell your decisions as well as announce them. Would you rather sell to educated faculty and staff members than people who are in the dark about how the place operates? Lee Iacoca reputedly asked people in the Chrysler motor company when he was vice president, “What business are we in?” The unanimous answer was “building cars.” No, he said, “We are in the business of selling cars. If you build ten cars a day and sell nine cars a day pretty soon you’re up to your a** in cars.”

In our view, presidents, as the officials with enterprise-wide responsibilities and authority, should chair the department of information sharing. And they should consider themselves as faculty with teaching responsibilities. So doing won’t make their lives harder — it will make their lives easier.

1. We were also surprised that no potential contributor was willing to write on the extent to which presidents should be involved in the budgeting process.

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