Luck and gut instinct are a university president’s key assets

The demands of the job take their toll, but rigorous application of the smell test can limit the damage, say Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and Francine Trachtenberg

May 10, 2018
lottery in stomach
Source: Michael Parkin

Fifty years ago, the position of university president was viewed in the US as the pinnacle of the academy and the capstone of an individual’s career. It came with a grace-and-favour home, working hours considered to verge on the leisurely and a certain sense of standing and prestige. It was not uncommon for a man to stay in the position for 15 years or more.

I say man because they were nearly always men – white, married, Protestant men who were invariably affable, intellectually curious, willing to spectate at college sports games and comfortable asking alumni for gifts and bequests. Almost all came through the ranks of the professoriate, often at the institution they went on to lead.

But the past two decades have brought significant changes to American campuses. Some of these are healthy: women have entered the mainstream field; so, too, people of colour. But, as my grandmother used to say, by the time “they” start letting “us” into a particular profession, it is no longer an enviable job.

The presidential pace is now a non-stop marathon, involving a work schedule unfit for a mule and a carbohydrate intake – the result of routinely dining out – against which no waist can hold the line for long. So much physical and mental stamina is required that the average tenure has dropped to about six years. Self-confidence is eroded and personal life is destabilised by second-guessing roads taken or not taken, and by being constantly harangued and bullied by constituents near and far.

It is not easy to have boards of overseers who are afraid to support right over might. It is exceedingly difficult to balance the college books and also provide the resources needed by all departments and the services demanded by so many of them. And when tuition fees at both private and public institutions skyrocketed, the students and families paying for classes became customers demanding attention and accountability. Like Oliver Twist, students today say to college presidents: “Please sir, I want some more.” But less politely.

Students have also become very demanding when it comes to who is permitted to speak on campus. At too many colleges and universities, they shout down speakers believed to proffer offensive viewpoints; they close their ears and minds to “the other”. Perhaps the only remaining opposition tolerated on campus is found in the sports arena; who would believe that watching one’s team get clobbered is more satisfying than hearing an opposing party state its case for a vote?

Loud voices rarely spew wisdom. Students with megaphones need to expel the air in their lungs, but only afterwards can substantive negotiations succeed. A group of students once asked that I put a paper bag over my head while we debated a thorny issue: they did not wish to be individually identified. I insisted we look each other in the eye in order to establish trust.

Those who succeed as presidents in the modern era most often have management styles that exhibit balance, judgement, patience and principle. A modicum of humour is the icing on the cake. Successful presidents are strategic – seeing the goal and playing the long game. By envisioning the future they know when to take baby steps rather than giant leaps. Zigzagging to the finish line often works as well in public policy matters as it does in sailboat racing; in both, understanding how the wind blows is critical.

Budgets should be built as philosophical presentations, not simply as arithmetic tables, and they must reflect long-term programmatic strategies. Successful presidents translate their values into selective choices; across-the-board decisions can too often be mindless. In other words, spend wisely.

Good presidents do not let the good slip away while demanding the perfect. Compromise can be a virtue rather than a fault. When surrounded by critics, they show compassion without being patronising, and demonstrate thoughtfulness rather than wilfulness. That, however, does not guarantee that they won’t occasionally be on the wrong end of a pelted tomato or raw egg.

In an age where the democratic spirit has been transformed from the healthy situation where a group represented the whole to an unhealthy time when each person’s individual wish is to be the institution’s command, a president can never satisfy the list of stakeholders. What pleases one offends another; what sustains one division can easily cause erosion of the next. Somehow rights and responsibilities have become divorced.

Diversity also translates to contrasting points of view. In university life, one is often surrounded by “the world’s leading experts”, who tend to believe that their opinions are definitive. Nudging such people toward nuance and compromise takes patience and tact.

Above all, however, a positive presidential tenure requires luck and a healthy gut (and I’m not talking about the meals out). Tragedy happens – natural and manmade – and reactive skills are essential. How one performs under duress can make or break an administration. Most important, exercising sound judgement translates as knowing when something doesn’t pass the smell test. An action can be legal yet still be wrong. Human beings push the envelope and make mistakes. Why else were we given the Ten Commandments?

A president’s gut is a reminder of basic civility and morality. Don’t step over the line to get the headline.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and university professor of public service at George Washington University. His latest co-edited book is Leading Universities: Lessons from Higher Education Leaders, published in April by Johns Hopkins University Press. Francine Trachtenberg is an independent professional and consultant and the former vice-president of WETA, Washington DC’s public broadcasting station.

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