• July 23, 2014

Elba Without a Waterloo

Administrative Leadership Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Although "Napoleonic" isn't necessarily a word that springs to mind in reflecting on my dozen years as president of Wofford College, it's true that my imperial counterpart and I both set out with wildly expansive plans. It's also a fact that he and I—along with Mikhail Baryshnikov—are within a millimeter or two of each other in height.

I mention Baryshnikov because, as far as I know, I'm one of the few college presidents to have been both a ballet dancer (like Misha) and a former light welterweight. I have no information about Napoleon's predilection for either fisticuffs or tights, though he was always more than ready to rumble. And it was faltering footwork and timing that finally caught up with him at Waterloo—the same shortcomings that eventually bring down the best of us in the boardroom, the stage, or the ring.

Still, I've taken heart more than once during my 12 presidential years from the thought of Teddy Roosevelt, who, at a bantam-size 5 feet 8 inches (according to scholarly consensus), fought several bouts as a bare-knuckled lightweight, and from George Washington, too, who, even at 6 feet 3 inches, was acclaimed for his minuets and who, scarcely a month before he died, ruefully observed, "Alas! our dancing days are no more."

On the verge of a similar valedictory this past summer, I was in a vaguely retrospective mood anyhow, even without the brouhaha surrounding the University of Virginia's dismissal of its president, Teresa A. Sullivan, followed by a dramatic reinstatement that raised all sorts of governance issues for higher education. Even from afar, gawking at that debacle was so much like witnessing a traffic accident that it left me bemused by the thought that I myself have long been behind the wheel of the same sort of vehicle, managing to beat the odds less through masterful control than because the presidential Buick that I'd been assigned had been built to stay on the road. My predecessor was in office for 28 years, more than twice my current tenure, and the two of us together will just barely outstrip the 40-year presidency of one of his predecessors, whose portrait hangs in my living room.

Such longevity is worth noting because nowadays a typical president's reign is roughly that of a WBO titleholder and briefer than a prima ballerina's.

President Sullivan had been in office a scant two years before her board decided it was time to manage Mr. Jefferson's university more like a beach development. Furthermore, when it comes to traffic perturbations, hers was hardly the only crackup on the highway. For attentive observers, the world of higher education these days is disconcertingly like the marathon tracking shot near the beginning of Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend, an apparently endless pileup of market capitalism's institutional wreckage.

In fact, while all that's solid is busily melting in air, so many administrative casualties are strewn through the pages of The Chronicle that, in tandem with a recent announcement that I intend to retire as president at the end of the 2012-13 academic year, it's probably worth considering why—after surviving half a dozen board chairs, two major recessions, and assorted losing sports teams—I'm still on my feet and dancing, if not exactly rolling up the map of the NCAA.

The answer lies partly in the high-profile success of winning athletic teams and largely in the timing of a few good decisions affecting enrollment growth and program enhancements. To attend the Big Dance in basketball, not once but twice, with a horde of ecstatically grateful fans is to know how Napoleon must have felt in the aftermath of Austerlitz, and, from such pinnacles, the downward slopes have been gratifyingly gentle.

Now, at the beginning of my 13th and final year, I can honestly claim to have accomplished nearly everything I set out to do. And yet, to switch to a nautical metaphor (as Napoleon might have profited from doing), I find, after a hectic and heady decade at the helm of my little privateer, that the higher-education fleet as a whole—and, more especially, our small, more sinkable liberal-arts flotilla—appears to be in unexpectedly desperate straits. It's not just the mega-tonnage like the University of Virginia that are having to man the pumps.

So what, exactly, has gone wrong? Or, more to the point, what will my own successor have to face for which neither a business nor an academic career can have adequately prepared him or her? Whether by land or by sea, what Waterloos or Trafalgars lie ahead? What Moscows must we avoid?

Other than dreams of billion-dollar payouts from a football playoff series or throngs of full-fee-paying students from China, there aren't that many grandiose schemes for college boards and presidents to consider. There is, of course, the perennial hope that, even without a viable business model, technology will somehow bail us out as long as we act as boldly as, say, investors in this past summer's Facebook IPO.

Failure to move more aggressively in that direction was apparently a cause of President Sullivan's ordeal. Her preference for "incremental" change is a typical mind-set among members of the academic tribe, who tend to be far more risk-averse than most entrepreneurs and Wall Street traders—perhaps because we have, as yet, no real equivalent of Bain Capital's approach to pillaging the assets of failed institutions. The thought of institutional bankruptcy is far from the minds of most college administrators, but it's a fact of life in the world of business.

College trustees, at their best, are determined to avoid the worst for the institutions they oversee, and, if accomplishing that goal means micromanaging their charges, so be it as far as they increasingly are concerned.

It's symptomatic of that point of view that boards routinely refer to college administrators as "management," a nomenclature that also implies professors are merely "workers" rather than members of a guild, and students and their families are the company's "customer base," whose value resides almost exclusively in the revenue stream they represent.

Needless to say, such language tends to lend credence in the faculty ranks to a paranoid caricature of businessman-trustees as Viking marauders ransacking a scholastic monastery. The bungling of the Virginia Board of Visitors serves as evidence of "corporatization" for many people in the academy.

On the other side of the equation, such faculty suspicions tend to confirm the Limbaugh-ist notion of professors as a tenured, leftist-leaning collective of service workers hostile to the marketplace. The idea of putting the smug and tenured in their place via some new technology still holds some appeal to those outside the academy, as great an appeal as getting those colleges to deal with their bottom lines.

Virginia's board got this much right, at least: The bottom line remains our biggest problem in higher education. Our upwardly spiraling fees are rightly regarded by everyone as part of an unsustainable operation.

Unhappily, the major causes of this problem cannot be attributed to an arms race for such nonessentials as water slides and climbing walls for students. Aware of this lack of obvious excesses, some very vocal trustees have begun to question the fiscal viability of low-enrollment subjects like classics and German (at the University of Virginia) or philosophy and music (at my own institution). This is but another sign that the traditional ideal of a liberal-arts education is itself in grave jeopardy, threatened by factors that range from anxieties produced by economic recession and diminished employment prospects to a demagogic swing in politics that anathematizes the word "liberal" and renders suspect any undertaking that cannot be justified in terms of a balance sheet.

In other words, throughout our culture today, the best that has been thought and said is running a poor second to the most that can be bought and sold. That may have always been the case, but there's a special irony in our apparently irrepressible tendency to mirror the defects of those whom we identify as the enemy—a tendency that, in this case, means the pseudo-communist, quasi-capitalist Middle Kingdom of China.

It was the oft-rusticated Deng Xiaoping who, nearing the end of his long career, steered his reeling country into his special economic zones, giving rise to the current state-directed, free-enterprise paradox that has led, ironically, to a recently announced initiative to establish Western-style liberal-arts institutions ... in order to encourage greater creativity and innovation!

With any luck, then, we might eventually learn from China what they have apparently learned from us: that no matter how sophisticated the level of study might be, too exclusive a reliance on vocational training is, in effect, a form of mind binding that inevitably hobbles those who adopt it.

We should all feel abashed at the cultural condescension of Francis Bacon, who, amid the 17th-century rise of science, explained the superiority of our Western intellectual tradition by citing three great inventions that, as he noted, the hidebound East had failed to develop—gunpowder, the compass, and printing. He had that absurdly wrong, of course, but, by his time, the East had so lost its groove that Bacon's mistake was accepted as fact. I would point today to such equivalent breakthroughs as robotics, transistors, and the Internet, arguing that they were uniquely and necessarily the products of an approach to education that we abandon only at our peril.

But that raises a more immediate question for those of us in higher education: What courses of action are open to leaders convinced that what is at stake is nothing less than our society's well-being? On behalf of the happy few, we can fight a rear-guard action, arguing that it is indeed a wide-ranging acquaintance with the best that has been thought and said that enables us to cope most efficiently with the stresses of rapid change. We can also be alert to the possible uses of online instruction, resisting facile wishful thinking while exploring technology's transformational potential.

There is still more to consider:

  • Is it time, for example, to re-examine the concept of collegiate sport as less an essential contributor to the learning experience than as a gigantic and exorbitant part of our nation's bread-and-circuses apparatus? Whatever our answer, we should insist that athletic programs be more nearly self-supporting and that they not be confused with the central mission of our institutions, especially that of small liberal-arts colleges.
  • We should also question our basic four-year model for undergraduate education and consider whether baccalaureate degrees are any more appropriate than other modes of certification that might be combined in more flexible ways.
  • And we should certainly ask ourselves whether release time for perfunctory research is really the most effective and cost-efficient way to maintain professional acumen and advance human knowledge.

We must be prepared, in short, to scrutinize all the cows in the herd, no matter how sacred some of them might be.

Broaching such issues so boldly as I near the exit causes me to wonder whether I have spent my dozen presidential years too focused on short-term needs. But, then, I might ask the same regarding my three score and 14 years on this mortal coil. We are always at an inflection point in history and forever loath to jettison whatever we have loved and even what we've found consistently amusing, flattering, or merely comfortable.

In the end, our epitaphs must be terse, and I have been overly self-indulgent in these reflections, knowing as I do that the patience of my audience will become much briefer as soon as I leave office. So let me practice for what is to come: I believe this world is, for all of us, what the poet John Keats defined as "a vale of soul-making." I believe that, for those of us whose arsenal consists primarily of words, Muhammad Ali was right to insist we should float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

Furthermore, I believe we do well to pursue what Wofford College describes as the "unfettered pursuit of knowledge and the creative search for truth," and I am convinced those goals are best served by a liberal-arts education of the sort I received and my college delivers.

Having confessed all that, what remains for me to say, while I'm still on my feet and the band plays on, is that I wish for my successor as happy and hectic a time as I have had. Napoleon may have wished for more, but, as for myself, contemplating no future campaigns for power, I'm looking forward to the beaches of Elba.

Benjamin Dunlap is president of Wofford College. He is retiring next June after 13 years in office.

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