The hearing led to enormous pressure on the presidents and led two of them — Claudine Gay of Harvard and Elizabeth Magill of Penn — to resign. (Sally Kornbluth
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The hearing led to enormous pressure on the presidents and led two of them — Claudine Gay of Harvard and Elizabeth Magill of Penn — to resign. (Sally Kornbluth remains president of MIT.) While they acknowledge they made mistakes, the harsh penalties they have received must no doubt cause many to wonder whether the college presidency is a desirable job, whether it’s even possible to perform it successfully, and what institutions want from the role.
Although I was not subjected to and cannot imagine the sexist and racist abuse these leaders have endured, I can understand some of what they are going through, having resigned more than 10 years ago as the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after an athletics controversy: Allegations of fake classes for athletes led to a media firestorm and 24-hour security for my family.
In my last couple of years at UNC, I had been working with Mike Summers and Freeman A. Hrabowski III from the University of Maryland at Baltimore County on replicating their very successful Meyerhoff Scholars Program on my campus. Hrabowski is one of the wisest and most successful college presidents ever. We were pretty far along on the program, and Mike worried when I stepped down that it would set the effort back. When he went to Freeman worried about this, the seasoned president’s response was along the lines of: “I’m just glad Holden is alive.” Freeman was right. In addition to the mental anguish I was experiencing, I had received plenty of death threats from UNC athletics boosters by then, although without the accompanying racist invective Gay has reported.
The presidents absolutely made mistakes in the hearing and in the events leading up to it; Magill and Gay issued cleanup statements apologizing almost immediately. For sure, as Gay has said, the hearing was “a well-laid trap,” but it was a trap everyone knew was coming. All three of them had only been in their roles for short stints, which raises some questions: Who can lead a university under these circumstances? And can institutions even find academically qualified presidential candidates who are also instantly ready to weather pressure-cooker scenarios like that hearing?
It’s hard to think of any academic suited for these roles who would be ready for that gantlet on Day 1. There are very few experienced presidents who would be. Their mistakes stemmed at least in part from saying things that were technically correct but not in tune with the politics of the situation and the expected demonstration of compassion. I made similar mistakes at UNC: I avoided straight talk about the athletics scandal because I was trying to avoid further inflaming the fans and drawing more scrutiny from the NCAA. I made many similarly legalistic and evasive statements. In retrospect, I should have just plainly said we were in the wrong — something everyone who wasn’t a UNC partisan believed.
Most leaders who are academically qualified are not prepared on the political front. Most politically astute leaders are not lifelong academics. If you need both, how do you get there?
The presidents ended up in the hearing in the first place mainly because they hadn’t denounced Hamas’s barbaric attacks in Israel on October 7 soon enough or sufficiently. Statements strategy is wickedly complex. Presidents have come under fire for being slow to make them and for making them at all. A drumbeat of pressure for presidents to be politically neutral inevitably goes out the window when power dynamics change or any number of constituents’ priorities change (students, board members, donors, faculty members). In this round, some longstanding neutrality advocates — including those leading the charge against Gay and Magill — actually demanded stronger statements from the presidents. Somehow, presidents were supposed to immediately intuit the ways in which the horrific Hamas attack was in a different category from other, statement-unworthy events. The neutrality zealots want neutrality, except when they don’t.
Then the matter entered another phase when — after the Harvard board initially supported Gay — her opponents subjected her academic writing to analysis by plagiarism-detection software. This was unfortunate. Today, journals use tools like iThenticate to generate reports showing text that has appeared elsewhere, and authors have a chance to correct it before it is published. Gay’s scholarship, published decades ago, didn’t have access to that step. Was it plagiarism? Sure. Is it disqualifying for a Harvard president? Depends on who you ask.
A similar process led to the resignation of Marc Tessier-Lavigne as president of Stanford when problematic images were found in his published scientific papers. In today’s world, image sleuths and computational tools can detect altered images in ways that weren’t available when Tessier-Lavigne’s papers in question were published. Were the images inappropriate? Yes. Were they errors worth resigning over? Apparently so.
The upshot is that today’s college president must not only have a stellar academic record but also one that can stand up to analysis by tools and processes developed decades after the scholarship was produced. And they need to be prepared right from the start to go toe-to-toe with seasoned politicians in high-stakes public hearings. When world events strain the campus, they also need the experience and judgment to not send out statements except in the cases where they’re supposed to send one out. If you’re not a white man, you are also expected to shrug off racist and sexist attacks when they come around. Does the job sound appealing yet?
I tell folks that the way you get these jobs is by convincing search committees and trustees that you can build academic excellence, usually as measured by some parameter like rankings, numbers of Rhodes Scholarships, or research dollars. But you keep these jobs by avoiding or surviving scandals. The search process rarely mentions the latter. I got one question about athletics at UNC, and I answered it by saying weepy stuff about being a lifelong Carolina fan and how great it was to be at a university that never got in trouble with the NCAA. (In other words, “Go Heels.”)
If inexperienced academic presidents are to learn the public parts of their roles on the job, they’re going to need a lot more support from their governing boards. Based on the reporting so far, it appears that the Harvard board was much more focused on deciding whether to support Gay than how to support her. One written statement of support, quickly retracted, was hardly enough to get her through this. The university’s leaders did hire a group of “media assassins” to try to stop the press from covering the plagiarism allegations, but they never put any of their own political capital on the line to defend Gay. They will have some work to do if they want to attract another academic who has not yet served as a president.
What about the other way around? Plenty of astute politicians have run universities effectively, especially two people I know well: Terry Sanford and Erskine Bowles. I knew Sanford early in life and before he led Duke, and I worked for Bowles, who ran the UNC system for the first half of my chancellorship. Both of them had great respect for the academic mission and values. Similar leaders who have been sent to “rein in” the academic side have had less success. Bowles was extremely good at telling me when something that went counter to my academic values still needed to be done. He was clear in his direction but also compassionate about the fact that it was sometimes foreign to the world I had grown up in. That recognition of the two cultures and the need to negotiate them is crucial. Your mileage may vary on whether the recent crop of nonacademic leaders, like Mitch Daniels and Ben Sasse, are exhibiting that understanding. Given the way things are going, there will be more to observe in the years to come.
The endgame on this is hard to visualize. There’s not a lot of sympathy for university presidents right now unless you’ve been one. That makes sense: They get paid a lot and are surrounded by lawyers and communications people who they too frequently allow to take their voice away. And they usually have tenured positions to retreat to and calls from search consultants who still want them. They are fallible people like the rest of us and confronted by daunting challenges. One solution would be for boards, campus communities, the media, and the public to recognize their humanity and give new presidents the space and consideration it takes to learn all the parts of the job. That’s about as likely as Harvard joining the Big Ten.
A second option would be to make the job easier by casting aside parts of the university that are disconnected from the core academic mission. This would mean scaling back fund-raising goals and athletic-program ambitions, eliminating Greek life, and ignoring U.S. News rankings. The obstacle here is that universities have forgotten that, first and foremost, they are schools. Teaching and research are their core functions, and the welfare of the people who carry them out is the top priority. Everything that doesn’t stem from those two things should be eliminated. The ancillary functions that do stem from these priorities should always take a backseat to the core. That’s easy to agree to now, but once the hangover of the last few months wears off, the trustees and alumni of Penn and Harvard will go back to demanding the extraneous things they want: climbing in the rankings, winning games, and enhancing social clubs. And when they interview for new presidents, they’ll be looking for people who can make compelling presentations about abstract things like vision instead of concrete things like how to take care of the people on the campus.
A third option is to accept that the leaders of these universities are going to continue to be less and less likely to come from the academic ranks. This comes with its own challenges. Leaders with a background in politics or business will need to express an appreciation for the academic side while also satisfying the so-called “reformers” who put them in place. Campuses will have to buy into their success, and trust will be hard-earned. But should campuses just give in to losing a large component of academic leadership?
When I announced that I would be stepping down at UNC-Chapel Hill, The Chronicle quoted me telling the chair of the UNC faculty that I was leaving because “they wore me down.” That was correct, but then the local paper in Raleigh ran an editorial congratulating themselves on being the ones who wore me down — a distinction that belonged to the UNC sports fans who continued to ask me to make compromises that were against my principles. I guess I should have been more specific in my quote. And like me, we don’t know precisely what wore Magill and Gay down; I’m glad Gay has begun to tell her story. In the end, only they can tell us who wore them down.