Is "Good President" Redundant?

Ashley Thorne

At Phi Beta Cons, Jane Shaw sighs at Time magazine’s recently published list of “The 10 Best College Presidents.” She writes:

I’m not criticizing the presidents themselves at this point, just the journalists at Time for their profound ignorance about the state of our universities and their fawning treatment of its most prominent presidents.

Just for starters, let me quote from Time's profile of the top president, Gordon Gee of Ohio State, the highest-paid president of any public university. Time calls Gee a “thoroughbred politician” who is “campaigning for a revolution in higher education at a time when the field is more important, and perhaps more troubled, than ever before.” It doesn't say what the revolution is (even Gee hasn't made that clear).  

Indeed, from the descriptions of each president, it sounds as if the Time journalists, knowing little else about what matters in higher education, decided to judge leaders based on their ideological allegiances. 

NYU President John Sexton at #2 is adulated for his development of a campus in Abu Dhabi; his delicate “I found it offensive, too” response to Professor Tunku Varadarajan’s Fort Hood column makes sense in light of Sexton’s commitments in the Middle East. 

Seven of the ten presidents have signed the AmericanCollege and University Presidents Climate Commitment, a pledge to, among other things, “make climate neutrality and sustainability a part of the curriculum and other educational experience for all students.” Several presidents on the Time list are praised for “going green,” establishing mandatory community service (I call it voluntyranny), and bringing in greater numbers of minority students. 

But I suppose even these most cherished politically correct performances get old with repetition. The Time journalists found a few more angles. For instance, Mary Sue Coleman, the die-hard affirmative action advocate and president of the University of Michigan is #3 on the list. But profile on her omits her campaign for racial preferences and focuses instead on her campaign for fundraising that raised $3.2 billion, the most ever by a public university. 

At #4, Arizona State University President Michael Crow, who leads the movement to make sustainability the foundation of all parts of higher education, also seems mischaracterized. His role as co-chair of the ACUPCC and his reputation for “building it [sustainability] throughout the entire university – operations, curriculum and research” apparently take second place to fostering “excellence and access.” Fostering “access” in higher education typically means granting admission to students who don’t earn it. Eduardo Padron of Miami Dade College and Juliet Garcia of the University of Texas at Brownsville are also quoted invoking “access.” 

The ten presidents, of course, were honored for some more praiseworthy efforts, such as keeping Tulane University alive in the aftermath of Katrina (President Scott Cowen) and rescuing the University of California system from financial ruin (President Mark Yudof) by scaling back programs and expenses at each. But reading through most of the article, you have to wonder, “How did they pick these guys?” 

What makes a college president good? What makes 10 presidents the best out of 4,861? NAS president Peter Wood has opined that “the position of college president has been turned into a silly job that attracts large numbers of silly people.” In “Dogfish: Why College Presidents Won't Save Higher Education” (subscription required), he wrote: 

Americans hold the position of college president in high regard. One response to complaints about decline in American higher education is to expect college presidents to set things right. Few of today's college presidents, however, have the ability or the interest to initiate substantial reforms. [...] The ineffectiveness of college presidents is, however, rooted in the way they are recruited, the tasks to which they are set, and their typically brief periods of service. 

They may not be able to save higher education, but can a college president be good, given the circumstances? Or are they all just silly people in a silly job? We leave to you to answer (one or all questions): 

  1. What are good qualities in college presidents?
  2. What actions can they take to leave a college better off at the end of their time in office?
  3. Did the Time presidents deserve to be on a top 10 list?
  4. Who specifically, in your opinion, deserves to be a “Best College Presidents” list? Why? 

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