Lessons learned, unlearned and never learned

Three years ago Johns Hopkins University Press published our book Presidencies Derailed:  Why University Presidents Fail and How to Prevent It.


College and University Presidencies have become more fraught since our book was published.  Derailments occur with depressing frequency, approximately 30 each year.


In Presidencies Derailed we provided analyses of why failures occurred, and suggested how to avoid them.  We addressed ourselves to presidents, would-be presidents, search committees, search firms, and boards.  Legislators, State Boards of Higher Education, and other elected officials could find much food for thought as well. 


Even with the robust sales this book has generated there is little evidence to demonstrate a slackening off of presidential failures: our advice is well read but not always followed.


In what look now like the good old days, people who became presidents thought of themselves as educators -- or at least, enablers of education.  The provided the environment in which the discovery, transmission, and preservation of knowledge could flourish.  They protected academic freedom, and often had the major responsibility for raising the funds necessary to fund academic inquiry and defend the value of the institution. And they, along with the faculty and the board, developed the short and long range plans for achieving and maintaining academic excellence.  Presidents and boards have the final say on the allocation of always insufficient resource to a variety of mostly intelligent requests.


Particularly in the public sector, higher education goals are often proposed by Federal and State governors and legislators, whose views of practicality vs intellectualism too often lead their messaging.  There's too much emphasis on the liberal arts, you ought to be training people to compete for jobs, some traditional disciplines are a waste of time. You need to recruit more faculty and staff who are politically conservative.  You need to report "gainful employment" and increase graduation rates (as if those who don't graduate for one reason or another have wasted the time they spent in classrooms, laboratories, and libraries -- and, yes, social service, participation in campus activities, internships, and conversations with their peers). 


Presidents are now asked to enforce laws and regulations that seem to overwhelm the educational environment and missions of their institutions -- like permitting guns on campus, and regulating who can and cannot use what bathroom.  Freedom of speech is threatened; the battle among various rights and liberties is entrenched.  Compromise and civility are too often viewed as weakness. 


In our view, the entire campus should be a “safe place” for discussion, disagreement and debate, but not for prejudice or bigotry – which ought to be decried and abhorred by all. 


Presidents take the brunt of criticism -- they are the breathing symbols of the institution.  A tough skin was an appropriate presidential attribute even in the good old days, when every decision on resource allocation produced one ingrate (because they didn’t get all they wanted) and a dozen who were disappointed. 


The increasing velocity of derailments is indicative of the strongly felt emotions that are typical of today’s disenchantments with how our institutions behave – and often they unhappiness is justified.  But injustice is seldom corrected by confrontation, or obstinacy on the part of any of the participants or parties.


Presidents who defend freedom of speech are accused of failing to understand legitimate grievances and demands.  Presidents who seek compromise and collegial efforts to right wrongs are regarded as insensitive to injustice.  


Some presidents have acted badly – there’s no question they should have been terminated.  But some boards have knuckled under to adverse publicity.  Some presidents may have gone too far to meet demands, and thus unintentionally provoked counter protests and demands, and more adverse publicity and more anxiety among board members.  Some board members have failed to understand the obstacles to change in the academic community and punished presidents for failing to execute the board’s injunctions or wishes. Some board members have gone too far to accommodate the demands of federal, state, and local officials and forsaken the values of the academic community.


And other presidents walk the tightrope successfully, using tact and sound judgment, standing their ground in order to persuade, cajole and bring around disparate groups to an understanding that various shades of gray between black and white produce a nuanced response that services all.


We weren’t naïve enough to believe that the advice we offered in “Presidencies Derailed” would end all or even most foolish or naïve behavior or bad judgement on the part of presidents, boards, search committees, search firms, or elected officials.  But we did hope that that the pace of derailments would slacken.


What we have learned is that there’s a corollary to Santayana’s frequently quoted statement that “those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.” 


In fact, all too many who have learned from history are doomed to repeat it as well. 


So we’re at work on a new book for the Johns Hopkins University Press – this his time the examples presented will come from successful presidencies.  Maybe that will help; maybe that’s a delusion in which we persist as well recall Aldous Huxley’s remark, “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”  



 Stephen Joel Trachtenberg was a long-serving president of George Washington University and the former president of the University of Hartford. He is the author of Big Man on Campus: A University President Speaks Out on Higher Education, Reflections on Higher Education, and Speaking His Mind: Five Years of Commentary on Higher EducationGerald B. Kauvar is a research professor of public policy and public administration and the special assistant to the president emeritus at George Washington University. The paperback edition of Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It, co-authored with E. Grady Bogue (1935–2013) available now.