The Tension of Academic Leadership: Experience? No thanks.


Stanley Fish wrote an interesting op-ed in yesterday’s NY Times about the recent decision by CU-Boulder to hire a president with no relevant experience. The article raises interesting issues about who should be leading the university, the political questions involved and what kinds of qualifications university presidents should possess. Fish writes:

In one of those ironies that make life interesting, the University of Colorado, which dismissed controversial professor Ward Churchill because of doubts about his academic qualifications, has appointed a president who doesn’t have any. (The final vote was taken on Feb. 20.)Bruce Benson is an oilman, Republican activist, failed candidate for governor, co-chairman of Mitt Romney’s (now ended) campaign, successful fund raiser, donor to the university, former chairman of the Metropolitan State College Denver Board and chair of a blue-ribbon panel on higher education. Obviously he has a strong interest in education, but his highest degree is a B.A., and he has never been a member of a faculty or engaged in research or published papers in a learned journal. In short, he is no way an academic, and yet he is about become the president of an academic institution, and not any old institution, but a state university ranked 11th among public universities and 34th among universities overall.

Not surprisingly, the announcement a short while ago that he was the only candidate being put forward by the 17-person search committee drew protests from faculty, students and some alumni. The faculty assembly voted 40-4 against him. A group called ProgressNow gathered signatures for an “oppose Benson” petition. The House Majority leader, Democrat Alice Madden, said that when she heard the news, she though it was a “really bad” joke; she added that “he will be the least educated president ever considered in modern history.”

Their argument (which I heard at dinner last week when I was in Boulder) is that academic credentials are not that necessary because management skills, like those Benson is presumed to have, are transferable from activity to activity. Someone who can manage an oil company will be able to manage the enterprise of a university.

The reasoning, however, is specious. It is no doubt true that an experienced executive will quickly learn the ropes of an industry new to him. The product may be different, but the tasks will be basically the same: assess market share, learn the routes of distribution, fine-tune the relationship between inventory and demand, increase efficiency perhaps by downsizing the workforce.

But in the academy there is no product except knowledge, and that may take decades to develop, if it develops at all. The concept of market share is inapposite; efficiency is not a goal; and there is no inventory to put on the shelves. Instead the norms are endless deliberations, explorations that may go nowhere, problems that only five people in the world even understand, lifetime employment that is not taken away even when nothing is achieved, expensively labor-intensive practices and no bottom line. What is an outsider to make of that?

Not much, because he or she will lack the internalized understanding that renders the features of the enterprise intelligible, and in the absence of that understanding, the wanderer in a strange land will see only anomalies and mistakes that should be corrected. Items in a practice are not known piecemeal; you don’t learn them by listing them. You learn them by being so embedded in the practice that everything that happens within it has a significance you don’t have to strain for because it is perspicuous without any mental effort at all.

Benson is not embedded in the practices of the academy, and no crash course will yield the tacit knowledge that would make him a knowledgeable and informed steward of the university’s fortunes. Of course, this liability might be finessed if he leaves the academic side of things to the chancellors of the system’s campuses, as he has suggested he will, but it seems somewhat odd to hire a CEO and then hope that he will stay away from the store.

Nevertheless, the appointment does make a kind of sense in Colorado, where the percentage of state funding of the university’s operations has fallen to 7 (in what sense, exactly, is this a state university?), and further cuts are feared. It is the hope that Benson, well connected as he is, may be able to shake money out of trees that have become increasingly bare. By supporting and pushing Benson, the powers that be in the state are saying, We’ve taken your funding away and now you’ll have to hire one of us if you want to have a chance to get some of it back; and, in the bargain, you’d better be careful to run your affairs in the manner we approve and dictate.

Read the full article here

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2 thoughts on “The Tension of Academic Leadership: Experience? No thanks.

  1. Right, after Bill Owen’s ineptitude and his senseless persecution of all those crazy liberals taking over Colorado’s state school system, CU needs some $$$. Oh wait, didn’t CU spend lots of money defending their football team of rape charges too? Imagine, Philosophy 101 brought to you by the Denver Stock Show! Remember, if you want quality llamas, shop Wyoming Llama HQ! At the Stock Show this week only!!!

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