The posting below is a review by Daniel Harper of the book, Leading With Aesthetics: The Transformational Leadership of Charles M. Vest at MIT*, by Mahesh Dass. The review appeared in Planning for Higher Education. Volume 45, Number 2, January-March 2017. Society for College and University Planning www.scup.org Copyright © 2017 Society for College and University Planning. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.
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Leading with Aesthetics: The Transformational Leadership of Charles M. Vest at MIT (Review)
In an era of drastically shifting paradigms for institutions of postsecondary education, Mahesh Daas offers a novel approach to leadership: leading with aesthetics. At once both a text on leadership theory and a quasi-presidential biography, this book redefines the traditional understanding of aesthetics from a philosophical appreciation of beauty to an integral component of institutional reform, campus planning, and optimistic thinking. A narrative highlighting the second-longest-serving president of MIT, Charles M. Vest, Leading with Aesthetics offers insight into Vest’s ability to push beyond transactional leadership (Birnbaum 1992) into the realm of transformational leadership. Sprinkling his work with a collection of quotes from those who worked closely with Vest as well as Vest himself, Daas helps the reader track the 14-year presidency [1990-2004] that changed not only the visuals of the MIT campus but also the spirit and character of a community.
Tempting the reader with a cover that features the controversial architecture of Frank Gehry, this work begins with a quick review of leadership theory paired with a brief lesson on leadership’s ties to Vitruvian principles of architecture in Part I. Daas launches into the discussion and discovery of how leaders can leverage a refined definition of aesthetics as part of an overall transformational leadership strategy by starting with his central theme: aesthetics are “foundational to our experience as human beings and essential to how we encounter the world in a way that defines our identity and affirms our existence” (p. 2). It is with this definition that Daas is able to construct his story of the MIT experience during Vest’s tenure.
At the conclusion of Part I, Daas has set the stage for the more engaging Part II. Moving from a campus nicknamed the “Gray Factory” to one that would garner world recognition for its “starchitecture,” Vest’s legacy lies not only in the buildings he successfully erected but also in the transformational leadership he mastered in steering MIT into the 21st century. So evocative were the changes to the MIT campus under Vest’s leadership that it sparked John Silber (2007), past president of Boston University, to pen his own response, Architecture of the Absurd: How “Genius” Disfigured a Practical Art, a critique of contemporary architecture and what Silber saw as the drift from practical applications of architecture in favor of the absurd.
Why focus on aesthetics and specifically the architecture of a campus for his investigation of leadership? Daas cites the research of numerous earlier studies in creating his own foundation (Broadbent, Bunt, and Jencks 1980; Eco 1979; Giedion 1967; Jencks 1991; Preziosi 1979; Rykwert 1982; Strati 1999c, 2010) and concludes, “the architecture of an organization is a fundamental organizational artifact that provides the most tangible, spatial, and material continuity for an organization’s mission, identity, and meaning” (p. 5).
As a reader, Daas’s discussion of leading with aesthetics left me wanting a stronger and more applicable operational definition of aesthetic leadership and yearning for more images of the MIT campus, particularly ones rendered in color to counter the impression of the Gray Factory nickname. At the same time, anyone who has had to rally financial or emotional support for the physical campus will be spirited by the narration of Vest’s approach to assembling a leadership team and struggling with donors, alumni, and community alike. Without proclaiming the success or failure of Vest and his endeavors, Daas concludes, “as the single largest investment and asset for any institution, the physical plant and architecture encompass all aspects and all stakeholders of an institution, which presents a president with an opportunity—if understood well—to advance the institution’s mission and evolve institutional identity through enduring change” (p. 135).
Birnbaum, R. 1992. How Academic Leadership Works: Understanding Success and Failure in the College Presidency. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Silber, J. 2007. Architecture of the Absurd: How “Genius” Disfigured a Practical Art. New York: Quantuck Lane Press.
Daniel J Harper, MA, MID, NCIDQ #014453, currently serves as assistant dean of facilities and IT for the College of Fine Arts at Ohio University and also teaches in the interior architecture program. His research explores the intersection of technology and design and design education. He has been a practicing interior designer for over 20 years, and he can be reached at email@example.com.
* Lexington Books 2015
Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4985-0249-8