Morton Schapiro: sacking fears ‘silence US university leaders’

Northwestern head says declining terms of presidents leave serving leaders wondering when they will be pushed out

August 20, 2019
Morton Schapiro
Source: Northwestern University

“Every time university presidents get together in the US, we look around and think, ‘Who’s next to go?’ People joke about it all the time.”

Morton Schapiro was reflecting on his 19 years as a university leader – first at Williams College in Massachusetts, where he was president for nine years, and currently at Northwestern University in Illinois, where he has been head since 2009.

“[Presidents] always say to me, ‘How have you been doing this for two decades?’ I don’t know. I try not to say too many stupid things, I suppose,” he told Times Higher Education.

“It’s a little hard now because anything you say can be interpreted one way or another…[and that results in a vote of] no confidence from the faculty or student uproar. But ultimately it’s the board of trustees who decide when your time is up.”

Professor Schapiro said that the climate for a US university president today was vastly different from what it was when he first became a leader in 2000, as reflected in the “declining terms of presidencies”.

The American Council on Education’s latest American College President Study, which was published in 2017, found that US university leaders had been in their current job for an average of six and a half years in 2016, down from seven years in 2011 and eight and a half in 2006. Six per cent of the 1,546 presidents surveyed said that their predecessor had served as leader for one year or less, up from 4 per cent of respondents in 2011.

Meanwhile, in June, Inside Higher Ed reported that four US university presidents had suddenly left their respective institutions in a single week, with little or no explanation for their departure. All had served in the role for less than five years.

Professor Schapiro said that many of the best universities in the US have gained from historically having long-serving presidents, citing as one example the University of Pennsylvania, which has been led by Amy Gutmann since 2004 and was previously headed by Judith Rodin for a decade.

“You want to stay long enough that you can make a mark and have a consistent plan, and also because fundraising is an important part of what we do [and] fundraising is about friendships and relationships,” he said.

Another related change, according to Professor Schapiro, was that university leaders used to be “public voices…back before everybody got scared to get their opinion out there”.

“If you go back in American history, some of the presidents of well-known publics and privates were always testifying in Washington; they were always very well-known personalities. And then, in recent years it’s been [a case of] hunker down and try to stay out of the press,” he said.

“We’re among the best known brands in the world. And I think we have a moral obligation to be voices out there…Should we be public voices? Yes. Are we public voices? Increasingly not.”

Professor Schapiro, an expert on the economics of higher education, said that he had written 39 opinion articles, some of which have been “very controversial”, for newspapers and magazines since he has been leader of Northwestern. But he said that university leaders were not encouraged to do this kind of work in the way that they were in the past.

“I hear from other presidents who read my op-eds and they say, ‘Man, you still have a job?’” he added. “If it’s worthy of publication, you’re going to say something that some members of the board are not going to like.”

Professor Schapiro attributed this “hunkering down” of university presidents to “polarisation”, saying that “given identity politics and given stratification” his articles tended to get “little positive response and really vehement negative response” from people who often then complain to the university’s board of trustees.

Does Professor Schapiro worry that soon it will be his turn to get pushed out?

“Eventually that tends to happen. A few people leave on their own terms. Most of them don’t,” he said.

“Do I worry about that? No. Because I have tenure and I’m a professor. Unlike some presidents, I continue to teach and I continue to publish.”

And while he acknowledged that stepping down as president would result in a substantial pay cut, he said he was “not afraid” of going back to being a rank and file academic.

“Presidents joke, often together after beer or more likely wine, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to have to go back to the faculty.’ Well, I love the faculty,” he said.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Sack race fears silence US leaders, says university head

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