The story goes that when Harvard's James Bryant Conant called the White House in the early 1940s, he asked the operator to "tell Mr. Roosevelt that the president is on the line." Those were the days.
What has happened to the role of college presidents? Are we, as Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, recently asserted in these pages, no longer "thought of as potential leaders for the country, but rather as apologists or appeasers for an intransigent, increasingly costly, and dated system of higher education"?
Choruses of prominent commentators lament a diminished presidency, portraying the leaders of America's public and private colleges as lacking the backbone to take on the pressing issues facing our campuses and society.
"Each situation is a little different, but the trend is apparent," observed Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, in an interview last year with The New York Times. "The staggering reduction in financial support from the state puts a lot of pressure on campus. There's increasing politicization of governance. And there are rising expectations that universities will transform themselves very quickly, if not overnight."
This is a volatile time for presidents, who are under intense pressure from their boards and the government to modernize rapidly amid a revolution in online learning, information technology, and global education. At the same time, other constituents in the academy hold fast to the longstanding practices of a traditional liberal-arts education.
The Conants of the past, we're told, have been replaced by obscure bureaucrats, little known off their campuses and even on; their jobs reduced to groveling for gifts and answering angry e-mails.
We emphatically disagree. The college presidency carries on with greater strength than conventional wisdom might suggest, and we would be curious as to how some of the presidential greats from the past would react to the pressures and challenges that college presidents now face.
We try our best to make our campuses the most inclusive places in an increasingly divided society, while defending free speech when too often those on both the left and the right think it is only their views that should be tolerated. All the while we know full well that anything we say or do publicly that is the least bit controversial will result in someone writing us to say, "I'll never give another dime." (Fortunately those missives, we have found, typically come from people who never gave anything in the first place.)
Alas, replying to a prospective donor that there are others who feel exactly the opposite on a particular issue seems only to antagonize the person further. We can hardly imagine the fate that would befall us were we to take public stands supporting a peacetime draft, increased U.S. involvement in a conflict overseas, and the development of atomic weapons, all of which Conant did.
Today, taking a stand on matters considerably less consequential than war and peace can put a college president's job in jeopardy. And while trustees rightly call on presidents to be forward-looking and to bring about change at their institutions, faculty members with equal justification often ask us to protect the centuries-old traditions of higher education. Good luck resolving that one.
The lately popular image of the university president as CEO further complicates matters. Most CEOs run organizations whose objective is profit; we run nonprofits whose purpose is to advance knowledge. A CEO who eliminates a product line with sinking sales may be making a smart decision. A president who closes the classics department simply because enrollment is down should probably move to another profession.
We doubt that any CEO, if asked to name his or her greatest challenges, would include on the list what we put near the top: the obligation to create civil communities in an era of incivility. These days, everyone has an opinion, and nearly everyone shares it—in viral e-mail, blogs, tweets, and cable news channels. They do it immediately and often with little or no knowledge of the facts.
So we as presidents are supposed to be more outspoken, more risk-taking, more involved in the public discourse. Except that all incentives suggest the opposite. Given that, we are amazed not by the "diminished" presidency, but by how many presidents actually take stands and try to do not what is expedient, but what is right—whether keeping college athletics in perspective, supporting the Dream Act, inviting controversial speakers to the campus, advancing sometimes-unpopular views on science policy, or taking other actions that invite the wrath of so many.
Despite the challenges facing the modern president, there is no dearth of folks seeking those jobs, nor of presidents, like us, pleased to have them. Is this because of the prestige, the official residence, the compensation? We doubt it.
The college presidency is the job of a lifetime, for reasons well beyond the perks and privileges. We get to create and sustain campuses where the learning and maturation of young people is paramount, where great teaching and pathbreaking research can occur. What drives us is the chance to do something meaningful and helpful for our students, faculty, and staff—and even for our society and the world.
Does that somehow diminish us? We don't think so.