Thursday, October 12, 2006

Reflections on One Hundred Semesters

I just finished reading One Hundred Semesters, by William Chace (Princeton U Press, 2006). Chace is the former President of Wesleyan and Emory Universities, and he had also been a Dean at UC-Berkeley. (I don't know him, and he doesn't know me.) The book is a combination of autobiography and implied critique of higher ed.

It doesn't really lend itself to a full-blown review, since much of it is so personal to him, so I'll just share a few reactions.

Obviously, Chace and I write from very different positions in the academy. He spent most of his career at very prestigious places, and the bulk of the book takes place during his two Presidencies. I'm a community college dean who has also been a dean at a proprietary college. So I'll just stipulate that from the outset.

Still, I was struck by how much of it was recognizable.

By Chace's telling, which echoes my recent post about interviewing Presidents, the constant challenge for a President is mediating between the actual college/university and the ideas the trustees have of it. In an unintentionally-funny passage, he describes one especially entrepreneurial trustee at Wesleyan whose brilliant idea was to just eliminate the social sciences. Coming out of the private sector, he was used to making quick and drastic decisions, scorching earth if necessary. To Chace's credit, he dissuaded this trustee from this particular mission, but the fact that it would come up at all shows just how out-of-touch Trustees – who are almost never academics – can be.

Reflecting on Emory and Wesleyan, Chace does a nice job of encapsulating the necessary tension between trustees and the institutions they oversee. As research generators, he notes, universities are supposed to question the status quo; trustees are supposed to conserve it (p. 284). The roles won't always conflict, but they'll conflict often enough to become a running theme. The unenviable job of a President is to mediate between the trustees and the college.

In a disturbingly-familiar aside (p. 193), Chace comments that he realized several years into his Presidency that while his circle of acquaintances had grown exponentially of late, he hadn't added a single new friend in many years. I've seen managers make terrible mistakes out of a desperate desire to be liked. It's possible to be quite cordial with people, but the nature of the job is such that most interactions are at least potentially laden with multiple meanings. At least at the dean's level, I have a few other deans on campus I can commiserate with. At higher levels, you don't even have that. A solid sense of who you are, and a very supportive family life, and some carefully-tended long-term friends can keep you sane. At Proprietary U, I was struck, upon moving into administration, how former faculty colleagues' attitudes toward me changed. A sudden iciness crept into what had been some very easygoing interactions, and a few folks who previously never gave me the time of day suddenly found me endlessly interesting. Although Chace doesn't use the term, a sort of bullshit-detector is absolutely essential in administration.

He also captures the impossibility of administration in an aside that the major challenge is to be prepared for that which can't be prepared for (p. 220). To which I'll just add, yup. Much of the daily stuff of administration is either 'administrivia' or ceremonial, but you really earn your pay when, say, you get a local police report saying that one of your faculty has been calling a student on her cell and making death threats, or that a group of self-styled student radicals has firebombed the administration building. They don't teach you that in dean school. Maintaining an even keel on the outside, even if your internal monologue would be denoted with nothing but asterisks and ampersands, is a skill that most people either have or don't. Heaven help the college with a management team that doesn't.

Chace concedes many of the popular critiques of higher ed – inefficiency, slowness to adapt, skyrocketing tuition costs – but doesn't dig very deeply into any of them. He seems like a smart and engaging guy, at least by his prose. I'd love to sit down with him and prod him for some more aggressive attempts to explain the roots of such common – and largely valid – complaints. Does the trustee system make sense? How does a college measure success? Given the shift in faculty loyalty over the twentieth century from 'institution' to 'discipline,' are there intelligent and productive ways to get them to engage without expecting them to be superhuman? Does it even make sense to market universities to undergraduates based on their research output (and/or basketball teams)?

Still, it's nice to know that it's not just me. Even given such different positions and institutions, most of Chace's book was eerily familiar. I'm glad I don't have to deal with the pressures of big-time sports, and that nobody has firebombed my office, but other than that, regular readers of this blog will find plenty to recognize.