The job of a university president is tougher than ever

After two decades leading US institutions, Morton Schapiro reflects on the changing landscape and offers a word of advice to young leaders as he prepares to step down   

August 23, 2021
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This time next year I’ll be concluding 22 years as a university president. This job has never been easy, not even during the relatively tranquil days of two decades ago, and now it is even harder.

I served for half a dozen years as the dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at the University of Southern California (USC) before becoming president of Williams College in 2000, a position I held before assuming my current one at Northwestern University in 2009. Despite having lots of experience with fundraising, strategic planning, budgeting and being on the public stage while at USC, I found it disconcertingly difficult to move into the president’s office. As a faculty member, department chair and even as a dean, I had a grudging respect for college presidents, while being quick to criticise their leadership and never doubting that I could do a better job. Careful what you wish for. When it was my turn, I ran out of folks to blame. Fortunately, with a supportive board of trustees and the goodwill and patience of our faculty, staff, students and alumni, I eventually started to get the hang of it.

But then the world changed, making a college presidency much more complex. While global problems have long crossed the threshold of our campus gates – think the Vietnam War or South African apartheid – what was once only an occasional event is now the norm. Decades of ignoring climate change, rising wealth inequality, systemic racism and the like have led to a level of anger that, while understandable, nonetheless makes the job of a president challenging.

In 2001, my presidential colleague Mike McPherson (then president of Macalester College) and I wrote a column titled “When protests proceed at internet speed”, arguing that activists were starting to employ different methods of communication and consensus building, and that instant and private ways of communicating would surely put pressure on colleges to respond at a speed that was previously unimaginable and – given the valuable yet cumbersome system of shared governance (“Let’s create another committee”) – impossible. Our prediction that presidents would one day receive hundreds of angry emails per week seems positively quaint in this time of massive protest. “In the new environment, ideas move fast, and issues become urgent almost overnight,” we wrote, adding that “when passions erupt at internet speed, facts and evidence often lag far behind”, dividing a college’s constituencies and creating an atmosphere of confusion and mistrust. If we had been able to envisage the emergence of social media, we would have been even more anxious.

In our book, Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us, my co-author, Gary Saul Morson, and I examine how fundamentalist thinking has taken root far beyond the confines of the religious world. We argue that the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the Brexit vote that same year were part of a broader movement, one fuelled by uncompromising ideologies and a belief in life-or-death stakes. It is a world where people shout louder and louder at each other, but nobody is listening.  And colleges and universities are often at the forefront of all this.

It is therefore not at all surprising that many college presidents, who cannot possibly make everyone happy but who are in constant touch with those who are most unhappy, have been abandoning their role as public voices. We are very far from the days when the president of Harvard supposedly called the White House and asked the operator to “tell Mr Roosevelt that the president is on the line”. Now, while presidents still write op-eds and give talks, they tend to stick to such non-controversial matters as growing government-supported research and increasing federal student aid, avoiding difficult topics that might create controversy. After all, why risk alienating donors and elected officials by “taking sides” on the real issues of the day?  


So, what does all this mean for freshly minted administrative leaders? Being tough skinned is certainly more critical than ever. Remember that you are mostly a symbol to many who will never know you personally, and that you are therefore a convenient target for their outrage. One very wise former president once told me that when things were particularly trying for him, he would take out his business card, which had his name followed by the word “president”. He would remind himself that what people hated came after the comma, not before.

As for me, I am looking forward to opening my daily emails and not having to answer messages that begin: “I am outraged…” But I will miss so much of my job, especially the intellectual stimulation that comes from engaging with brilliant and committed students inside and outside the classroom, the thrill of learning from my faculty colleagues about fields other than my own, and the privilege of working alongside staff members who move the institution onwards every single day, often without fanfare.

As my presidential years come to an end, I suggest to those who are starting out that they recall the old saying that “there are many more people who want to be a college president than there are who want to do the job of a college president”. That was true in the past; it is truer today. Recognise what you are getting into, and figure out a way that you will thrive personally together with the institution you lead.

Morton Schapiro is president and professor of economics at Northwestern University.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2022 will be published at 00:01 BST on 2 September. The results will be exclusively revealed at the THE World Academic Summit (1-3 September), which will focus on the interrelationship between universities and the places in which they are located.


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