It was an early morning in 1990 when the tables were turned on William M. Chace.
"Bill, your office has been firebombed," a public-safety officer at Wesleyan University told Mr. Chace, who was president of the institution at the time.
The moment was steeped in irony. A quarter-century earlier, Mr. Chace had joined civil-rights marchers in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he was thrown to the ground by police, threatened with a cattle prod, and locked in jail overnight on charges that included resisting arrest. Now a group of Wesleyan students was calling Mr. Chace a racist, decrying the university's investments in South Africa and questioning his personal commitment to diversity.
"I thought it was absolutely absurd," recalls Mr. Chace, now a professor emeritus of English at Stanford University. "But when you become president of an institution, for some students it does not make any difference what you were once upon a time. You are 'the man.' You are the symbol or the representative of authority, and you are seen in that way."
While many of Mr. Chace's generation long ago traded tie-dyed T-shirts for well-pressed suits, college presidents are among the few alumni of the protest era in a position to become direct targets of the very antiestablishment movement they helped to create. A number of them say they are sometimes at pains to balance their empathy for would-be student revolutionaries with the sober acceptance that idealism has its limits.
The defining events of Mr. Chace's activist youth unfolded in 1964 during a teaching stint at Stillman College, a historically black institution in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Eager for classroom experience, Mr. Chace decided to take a break from his Ph.D. studies at the University of California at Berkeley, seizing the opportunity for a fellowship at Stillman.
It wasn't long before Mr. Chace aligned himself with black students protesting the state's segregationist policies, and joined the 1964 march on the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse that ended in his arrest and shaped his views of social justice.
When he returned to Berkeley to complete his studies that same year, Mr. Chace sympathized with the leaders of the burgeoning free-speech movement, which would pit students against administrators in heated battles that came to symbolize campus activism for decades to come.
The experience did not manage to sour Mr. Chace on becoming an administrator himself, and he would spend a total of about 15 years as a university president at Wesleyan and later at Emory University.
In his 2006 book, 100 Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President, and What I Learned Along the Way, Mr. Chace summed up the 1960s mood on many college campuses this way: "If those 'in charge' defended it, that was reason enough for the young to attack it."
Hence the central dilemma for a young-activist-turned-college-president: How does a person who attacked "the system" for so long slip comfortably into the establishment?
For one thing, today's presidents are far less likely to experience the same level of pushback from students as they may have personally doled out nearly 50 years ago, says John R. Searle, a philosophy professor at Berkeley, who was the first tenured faculty member to side with the student protesters during the free-speech movement on his campus.
"I think these guys have it easy. The present university administrators don't know what it's like to be a combat administrator under really difficult circumstances," says Mr. Searle, who wrote about the 1960s unrest at Berkeley in The Campus War: A Sympathetic Look at the University in Agony.
That's not to say that activists-turned-presidents don't have their ideals tested. Take the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, president of the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. As the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, in Harlem, and a product of the civil-rights movement, he has been an outspoken critic of police brutality. Not surprisingly, he was ambivalent early in his presidency about whether to equip campus police with firearms.
"Our police needed arming, but I had to agonize over that," recalls Mr. Butts, who ultimately decided that campus violence and resistance to police warranted the action.
Mr. Butts has clashed with faculty members since his appointment. He is considered one of New York's most influential black ministers, and trustees called him a natural fit for the diverse campus. But some professors viewed his selection as an act of political payback that skirted the standard presidential search process.
"I've got a tough faculty, and sometimes they're protesting about things I definitely agree with, but they see me as part of the problem," Mr. Butts says. "It's interesting when you sit on the other side of the table."
Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who participated in the civil-rights movement as a child, has also been on the receiving end of campus activism, as president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. In 2007 university officials insisted an anti-abortion group relocate a display that featured graphic images of aborted fetuses and genocide, prompting a First Amendment lawsuit that named Mr. Hrabowski as a defendant.
A federal judge upheld the university's decision, and Mr. Hrabowski stands by actions that members of the group, Rock for Life, claimed were unconstitutional.
"It's true people should have the right for free speech," says Mr. Hrabowski, who was arrested during a march in Birmingham, Ala., when he was just 12 years old. "But that doesn't mean they should have the right for free speech in every part of the campus."
The logical home for an activist president might look a lot like Hampshire College, where student protests and the counterculture ethos of the 1960s have never fallen out of fashion.
Ralph J. Hexter, a past president, drew praise from gay-rights activists when he became the first higher-education leader to publicly tie the knot with his longtime domestic partner. His interim successor, Marlene Gerber Fried, is an outspoken abortion-rights advocate. So the recent selection of Jonathan Lash, an environmental activist who will become Hampshire's president this month, hardly seems a surprise.
What separates Mr. Lash from other activists-turned-presidents is his approach. As head of the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank in Washington, Mr. Lash gained a reputation for teaming up with the same corporate interests that are sometimes vilified by environmental purists. In a way, he may represent the evolution of the activist college president, combining the idealism of a bygone era with the realism of an old Washington hand. He doesn't mind being called part of the "establishment," so long as he can strike a better deal with industry leaders on carbon emissions.
"The strategies that are most efficient tend to be ones of building rather than breaking down," Mr. Lash said. "Sometimes it's essential to challenge authority, but sometimes it's essential to build coalitions of common purpose around solutions."
But how does Mr. Lash feel about a protest-prone campus holding his feet to the fire on sustainability issues? Maybe even accusing him of being, well, "the man"?
"It cuts both ways," he says. "Because I have that background" on sustainability, "it gives me opportunities, and because I have that background, people have high expectations. I will live with that."