Stephen Joel Tracht­en­berg and Francine Tracht­en­berg on hav­ing the nose of a leader

Suc­cess­ful univer­sity pres­i­dents al­ways ap­ply the smell test, say Stephen Joel Tracht­en­berg and Francine Tracht­en­berg

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Stephen Joel Tracht­en­berg is pres­i­dent emer­i­tus and univer­sity pro­fes­sor of pub­lic ser­vice at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity. His lat­est co-edited book is Lead­ing Uni­ver­si­ties: Lessons from Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Lead­ers, pub­lished in April by Johns Hop­kins Unive

Fifty years ago, the po­si­tion of univer­sity pres­i­dent was viewed in the US as the pin­na­cle of the academy and the cap­stone of an in­di­vid­ual’s ca­reer. It came with a grace-and­favour home, work­ing hours con­sid­ered to verge on the leisurely and a cer­tain sense of stand­ing and pres­tige. It was not un­com­mon for a man to stay in the po­si­tion for 15 years or more.

I say man because they were nearly al­ways men – white, mar­ried, Protes­tant men who were in­vari­ably af­fa­ble, in­tel­lec­tu­ally cu­ri­ous, will­ing to spec­tate at col­lege sports games and com­fort­able ask­ing alumni for gifts and be­quests. Al­most all came through the ranks of the pro­fes­so­ri­ate, of­ten at the in­sti­tu­tion they went on to lead.

But the past two decades have brought sig­nif­i­cant changes to Amer­i­can cam­puses. Some of these are healthy: women have en­tered the main­stream field; so, too, peo­ple of colour. But, as my grand­mother used to say, by the time “they” start let­ting “us” into a par­tic­u­lar pro­fes­sion, it is no longer an en­vi­able job.

The pres­i­den­tial pace is now a non-stop marathon, in­volv­ing a work sched­ule un­fit for a mule and a car­bo­hy­drate in­take – the re­sult of rou­tinely din­ing out – against which no waist can hold the line for long. So much phys­i­cal and men­tal stamina is re­quired that the av­er­age ten­ure has dropped to about six years. Self­con­fi­dence is eroded and per­sonal life is desta­bilised by sec­ond-guessing roads taken or not taken, and by be­ing con­stantly ha­rangued and bul­lied by con­stituents near and far.

It is not easy to have boards of over­seers who are afraid to sup­port right over might.

It is ex­ceed­ingly dif­fi­cult to bal­ance the col­lege books and also pro­vide the re­sources needed by all de­part­ments and the ser­vices de­manded by so many of them. And when tu­ition fees at both pri­vate and pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions sky­rock­eted, the stu­dents and fam­i­lies pay­ing for classes be­came cus­tomers de­mand­ing at­ten­tion and ac­count­abil­ity. Like Oliver Twist, stu­dents to­day say to col­lege pres­i­dents: “Please sir, I want some more.” But less po­litely.

Stu­dents have also be­come very de­mand­ing when it comes to who is per­mit­ted to speak on cam­pus. At too many col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, they shout down speak­ers be­lieved to prof­fer of­fen­sive view­points; they close their ears and minds to “the other”. Per­haps the only re­main­ing op­po­si­tion tol­er­ated on cam­pus is found in the sports arena; who would believe that watch­ing one’s team get clob­bered is more sat­is­fy­ing than hear­ing an op­pos­ing party state its case for a vote?

Loud voices rarely spew wis­dom. Stu­dents with mega­phones need to ex­pel the air in their lungs, but only af­ter­wards can sub­stan­tive ne­go­ti­a­tions suc­ceed. A group of stu­dents once asked that I put a paper bag over my head while we de­bated a thorny is­sue: they did not wish to be in­di­vid­u­ally iden­ti­fied. I in­sisted we look each other in the eye in or­der to es­tab­lish trust.

Those who suc­ceed as pres­i­dents in the mod­ern era most of­ten have management styles that ex­hibit bal­ance, judge­ment, pa­tience and prin­ci­ple. A mod­icum of hu­mour is the ic­ing on the cake. Suc­cess­ful pres­i­dents are strate­gic – see­ing the goal and play­ing the long game. By en­vi­sion­ing the fu­ture they know when to take baby steps rather than gi­ant leaps. Zigzag­ging to the fin­ish line of­ten works as well in pub­lic pol­icy mat­ters as it does in sail­boat rac­ing; in both, un­der­stand­ing how the wind blows is crit­i­cal.

Bud­gets should be built as philo­soph­i­cal pre­sen­ta­tions, not sim­ply as arith­metic ta­bles, and they must re­flect long-term pro­gram­matic strate­gies. Suc­cess­ful pres­i­dents trans­late their val­ues into se­lec­tive choices; across-the-board de­ci­sions can too of­ten be mind­less. In other words, spend wisely.

Good pres­i­dents do not let the good slip away while de­mand­ing the per­fect. Com­pro­mise can be a virtue rather than a fault. When sur­rounded by crit­ics, they show com­pas­sion with­out be­ing pa­tro­n­is­ing, and demon­strate thought­ful­ness rather than wil­ful­ness. That, how­ever, does not guar­an­tee that they won’t oc­ca­sion­ally be on the wrong end of a pelted tomato or raw egg.

In an age where the demo­cratic spirit has been trans­formed from the healthy situation where a group rep­re­sented the whole to an un­healthy time when each person’s in­di­vid­ual wish is to be the in­sti­tu­tion’s com­mand, a pres­i­dent can never sat­isfy the list of stake­hold­ers. What pleases one of­fends another; what sus­tains one di­vi­sion can eas­ily cause ero­sion of the next. Some­how rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties have be­come di­vorced.

Di­ver­sity also trans­lates to con­trast­ing points of view. In univer­sity life, one is of­ten sur­rounded by “the world’s lead­ing ex­perts”, who tend to believe that their opin­ions are de­fin­i­tive. Nudg­ing such peo­ple to­ward nu­ance and com­pro­mise takes pa­tience and tact.

Above all, how­ever, a pos­i­tive pres­i­den­tial ten­ure re­quires luck and a healthy gut (and I’m not talk­ing about the meals out). Tragedy hap­pens – nat­u­ral and man­made – and re­ac­tive skills are es­sen­tial. How one per­forms un­der duress can make or break an ad­min­is­tra­tion. Most im­por­tant, ex­er­cis­ing sound judge­ment trans­lates as know­ing when some­thing doesn’t pass the smell test. An ac­tion can be le­gal yet still be wrong. Hu­man be­ings push the en­ve­lope and make mis­takes. Why else were we given the Ten Com­mand­ments?

A pres­i­dent’s gut is a re­minder of ba­sic ci­vil­ity and moral­ity. Don’t step over the line to get the head­line.

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