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Stronger Presidents for Tough Times?

Tomorrow's Academy

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The independent Commission on the Academic Presidency proposed more effective presidencies as the antidote to "academic anarchy." It claimed that "Faculty loyalties and the faculty reward system increasingly focus on achieving eminence in (and protecting) a particular discipline, rather than supporting the goals of the institution"


The posting below looks at recent history on the role of college presidents. It is from Chapter 2, Governing Boards of Public Research Universities as Conflicted Necessities, by Richard T. Ingram in Fixing the Fragmented University: Decentralization With Direction, Joseph C. Burke, Rockefeller Institute of Government, Editor. Anker Publishing Company, Inc., 563 Main Street, P.O. Box 249, Bolton, MA 01740-0249 USA [] Copyright © 2007 by Anker Publishing Company, Inc. ISBN 978-1-933371-15-3 All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Academy

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Stronger Presidents for Tough Times?

In 1996, when the Kellogg Commission issued Taking Charge of Change to presidents of public universities, an AGB Commission also published its report, Renewing the Academic Presidency: Stronger Leadership for Tougher Times. The latter had several recommendations for presidents and chancellors, including reducing the ambiguities in authority and decision-making processes, and resisting the academy's insatiable appetite for the kind of excessive consultation that can bring institutions to a standstill. It had recommendations for faculty as well, including calls for departures from tradition and a greater willingness to make painful decisions about individual professors or academic programs, to match commitment to academic disciplines with commitment to the institution. As a result of the governance deadlock at the university level, the action moved to the departments, schools, and colleges, each responding to its own favored demands. This decentralized decision-making raised costs, fractured priorities, and fragmented universities. The AGB Commission report pushed for strengthening presidencies and presidents, not trustees, to break this governance deadlock. It argued for expanding presidential authority even though the multiversity's growing complexity with its bewildering array of specialties seems too much for one person to comprehend, much less influence or lead.

Now that some professors and scholars are lamenting the emergence of strong chief executives on campus, we have forgotten how sad the condition of the college and university presidency was in the 1970s and 1980s. I remember a "Point of View" column in The Chronicle of Higher Education from the 1970s that depicted graphically the fallen state of the university presidency. At the top of the article appeared a picture of Clark Gable in academic regalia. Beneath the caption ran a line that read something like the following: "Since the faculty doesn't want its President to do anything, why not choose one who looks like a leader?" Cohen and March (1974) turned this imagery into scholarship with their book Leadership and Ambiguity: The American College President, which counseled presidents not to worry about their impotency, since they had little or no effect on the success or stumbles of their institutions. They presided over "organized anarchies" that did not know what they were doing, where they were going, or why they acted as they did. The book excused presidential ineffectiveness and faculty recalcitrance as inherent and inevitable-and perhaps even desirable.

The independent Commission on the Academic Presidency proposed more effective presidencies as the antidote to "academic anarchy." It claimed that "Faculty loyalties and the faculty reward system increasingly focus on achieving eminence in (and protecting) a particular discipline, rather than supporting the goals of the institution" (AGB, 1996, pp. 15-16). The report advanced more powerful presidents to push university purposes, manage their resources, and reshape shared governance to stress shared responsibilities. It sought to redress the flaws of "shared governance" that gave the faculty a veto on nearly every issue, including those where trustees and presidents presumably hold "primary authority." Such a veto could not work when changing conditions mean that universities have to reallocate positions and funds from some colleges, schools, and departments with declining enrollments and research funding to areas with exploding demands. Colleges, schools, and departments in the biomedical technology, engineering, and professional fields rushed to respond to shifting external opportunities. But faculty and university senates, following a public posture that all academic disciplines are equal, had and still have difficulty approving university-wide decisions that mean reallocating limited resources.

The commission's report called on trustees to seek presidents, including nontraditional candidates who may not have had long careers in the academy, who are "risk takers" and "change agents." There were also some important messages for political leaders. It urged merit selection of trustees for gubernatorial appointment and challenged governing boards to stand by presidents and chancellors publicly and effectively "when they are under siege by internal and external constituents."

The commission's report rightly called for presidential leadership in setting campus directions based on strategic planning that matched societal needs with institutional strengths. Although well received by presidents and trustees, the professorate's spokespersons in Washington, DC, and elsewhere gave it less than enthusiastic response. Subsequently, partly in response to the commission's urging, AGB's Board of Directors released its own statement on institutional governance in 1998. It encouraged all governing boards and chief executives to "examine the clarity, coherence, and appropriateness of their institutions' governance structures, policies, and practices to revise them as necessary" (p. 3). It offered some principles to guide faculty and trustees engagement (and other internal and external stakeholders) in the exercise of their responsibilities.

The report called for more specificity in determining who can make what decisions, and in so doing, urged distinctions among the three actions of "communication," "consultation," and "decision-making." Some decisions, it argued, necessitated only communication of the decisions made; others required extensive consultation with faculty and students; still others required joint decision-making of all the traditional parties of trustees, presidents, faculty, and students.

Not surprisingly, faculty spokespersons reacted even more negatively to AGB's 1998 guidelines for its member boards and chief executives than to the original commission 1996 report, Renewing the Academic Presidency. The assertion that the faculty, constituted one of several key stakeholder groups-along with trustees, administrators, and even students-proved particularly irksome to professors. After all, many of them believe the faculty is the institution. Furthermore, they asked, how can governing boards composed increasingly of imports from the corporate world understand university operations and faculty culture. Various articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education and the American Association of University Professors' Academe continue to rail against the use of external executive search consultants in presidential searches that allegedly oversteer the process and minimize the faculty's voice in presidential selection; the substantial increases in presidential compensation; the invasion of "corporate culture" into campus decision-making; the adoption of business concepts such as treating students as customers; and talk of institutional branding and "market positioning." This onslaught from business and industry clashes, they say, with the values and beliefs of the academy. The irony is that the same professors in public research universities who complain about such matters rush to improve their institutional and program positions in the national ratings-the academic version of branding. At many universities, sadly, the rage for climbing the national ratings remains one of the few shared beliefs of many professors, presidents, and trustees.

Despite this shared obsession, many within the professorate dismiss the conclusion of the Commission on the Academic Presidency that "Strengthening presidential leadership does not mean undermining the role of boards or comprising the integrity of faculty" (AGB, 1996, p. 10). Apparently, most professors fail to see the same threats as outsiders to the financial health, rigor, effectiveness, competitiveness, and reputation of universities-especially public research universities. Rather than perceiving a major mismatch between responsibility and authority in the academic presidency, some concerned faculty activists believe presidents and chancellors already have far too much authority. Furthermore, they do not consider the university as fragmented. For many professors, the power resides where it belongs, closest to them in their departments, and to a lesser extent in schools and colleges. Many of these departmental advocates view faculty and university senates as only marginally more trustworthy than trustees and presidents.

On the other hand, in more recent years, there are some indications of faculty resignation to the modest but continuing trend for governing boards to seek nontraditional candidates for the presidency, to tolerate presidential compensation well beyond what was the norm, and to forgo their stronger voice in setting institutional priorities. Professors from fields with increasing demands for enrollments and research in times of declining state support are beginning to see the need for change. The faculty posture on some governance fronts may be showing encouraging changes in attitude and perspective, but there is a long and bumpy road ahead for the academy.


Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (1996). Report of the Commission on the Academic Presidency: Renewing the academic presidency: Stronger leadership for tougher times. Washington, DC: Author.

Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. (1998). Bridging the gap between state government and public higher education. Washington, DC: Author.

Cohen, M.D., & March, J.G. (1974). Leadership and ambiguity: The American college presidents. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities. (1996). Taking charge of change. Washington, DC: National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.