Today's Unpresidential Presidents

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

October 22, 2012

In 1912 the two major political parties nominated university presidents for president and vice president of the United States. The Democrat Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton until 1910, was elected president. The Republican Nicholas Murray Butler, Columbia's president, lost for vice president. The Republicans added him to the ticket when James S. Sherman, their candidate for vice president, died before the Electoral College voted.

Today this would be unimaginable—not because the university presidents of yore were giants, or because their current peers are considerably shorter. Rather, the world and the university's role in it have changed profoundly.

When Wilson and Butler stood for election, America was in the latter stages of the Industrial Revolution, and universities were creatures of that revolution. They were replacing the colleges of the agricultural era, with their classical curricula and outmoded methods of instruction.

The university movement and the presidents who led it were critics of the college. Some, like Wilson at Princeton, Butler at Columbia, and Charles Eliot at Harvard, sought to transform their existing colleges into universities. Others, such as Andrew Dickson White at Cornell, William Rainey Harper at Chicago, and Daniel Coit Gilman at Johns Hopkins, founded bold, pathbreaking institutions. Today they might be called disruptive innovators.

Unlike colleges, the new universities embraced preparation for the professions—both old vocations such as law and medicine and modern professions like engineering, business, and education, essential for building the new order. They hired faculty members with advanced specialist training; offered specialized graduate education; engaged actively in public service; and conducted research, often applied research focused on the problems of the day.

They were organized like businesses, divided into specialized departments, led by presidents whom Thorstein Veblen characterized as "captains of erudition," and had boards of trustees increasingly populated by businessmen. The presidents of those institutions were entrepreneurs much like the industrialists—Rockefeller, Carnegie, Cornell, Hopkins, and Stanford—who financed their universities.

Today the entire country is undergoing another revolution, shifting from a national, analog industrial economy to a global, digital information economy. Our social institutions—government, media, health care, banking, and education—were created for the industrial era. They work less well today than they once did. Too many seem to be broken; they need to be refitted for a new world.

This is true of our universities as well. They have the dual missions of conserving and advancing knowledge. The conservation function, which serves as a speed bump to deleterious or hasty change, is essential for society. Universities have the unique role of preserving the accumulated knowledge of human heritage and safeguarding that heritage against fads, unscientific attacks, and demagogical challenges.

But today, at a time when society needs universities to advance, disseminate, and apply knowledge, their conservation role as well as their inertia is stopping them from modernizing. As criticism has mounted over universities' inability to change, their presidents for the most part are viewed as defending them, much like the presidents of agrarian colleges during the Industrial Revolution.

Current presidents are often caught between the competing calls, on the one hand, of their boards and of government for change and, on the other hand, of faculty to maintain the status quo and their academic prerogatives. The support of all is needed to govern, but presidents are incapable of wholly satisfying everyone. As a consequence, today's university presidents are not thought of as potential leaders for the country, but rather as apologists or appeasers for an intransigent, increasingly costly, and dated system of higher education.

A parallel development further undermines their stature. Knowledge organizations—traditional (schools and colleges) and nontraditional (media, hardware, and software companies, among others)—are converging; all are entering the education marketplace. Nontraditional organizations, not universities, are perceived to be at the forefront of advancing knowledge. Their entrepreneurial leaders have been embraced by the political parties. For instance, the California Republican Party nominated the current and former chief executives of Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, as U.S. Senate and gubernatorial candidates, respectively, in 2010. New York City elected as mayor Michael Bloomberg of the Bloomberg media empire in 2002, and voters in Washington chose Maria Cantwell, a former executive at RealNetworks as one of their U.S. senators in 2000.

These individuals have also emerged as thought leaders in education. The news media are more likely to turn to Bill Gates for commentary and policy guidance in education than to the president of a university.

This is the lot of our social institutions in times of profound change. Either they adapt or they are replaced. Universities like MIT and Stanford are leading the charge in higher education to the global dissemination of digital content and the rise of MOOC's (massive open online courses), free online courses with unlimited capacity for enrollment.

Even so, the pace and scale of change has been slow, inspiring a new generation of postsecondary institutions to fill the gaps left by traditional universities. In the public sector there is Western Governors University, with its online competency or outcome-based program, an institution created by 19 Western governors disenchanted with traditional higher education. There is a certain irony here in that not only are college presidents not being chosen to run for public office, but elected officials are choosing to develop a new model of higher education.

The for-profit sector, which tends to view higher education as high in cost, low in productivity, poor in technology use, and weak in leadership, has launched a cornucopia of new initiatives such as Coursera, which has teamed up with 33 universities to offer free online courses; StraighterLine, which offers tutoring and online modules providing transferable college credits to some institutions; and Udacity, which is aggregating MOOC's into a for-profit online, low-cost university. Both Andrew Ng and Sebastian Thrun, co-founders of Coursera and Udacity, respectively, came from the Stanford faculty. Thrun said he gave up tenure at Stanford because he believed traditional higher education was unable to meet the need for low-cost, universal access to higher education.

If there is a message to current universities and their presidents, it is that the public and the opinion leaders alike view them as more of a problem than a solution. That's a warning, not their destiny.

Arthur Levine is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and a former president and professor of education at Teachers College at Columbia University.