Yesterday afternoon I went to a widely-advertised a d well-attended lecture on our campus entitled “Leading Universities in the 21st Century: Chances and Challenges.” It was delivered by our former colleague and the current president of the University of Pennsylvania, Amy Gutmann, who is, among many things, one of the country’s most distinguished political theorists, and the author of the best book I have ever read on Democratic Education (1987). The occasion was not only one of Princeton’s most important endowed lectures, but also the 20th anniversary of our University Center for Human Values, of which Gutmann was the first director. It was clearly a celebration of both the Center and Gutman, who has established quite a reputation for presidential leadership at Penn over the past six years. Both our former president, Harold Shapiro, and our current president, Shirley Tilghman, were seated up front, and I spotted the provost, the dean of the faculty, and most of the Princeton power structure in the audience.
It was not clear to me whether or not it was intended, but the lecture’s title is a double entendre—Gutmann appeared to think the topic was university presidential leadership, but she was explicitly focusing on elite (“leading”) universities (and colleges). Curiously, Gutmann avoided the sort of abstract analysis that forms the basis of her best scholarship. She clearly did not want to set out a set of principles of leadership or of educational value. Instead, she turned to a culinary analogy: “Is there a good recipe? Just as universities have a plurality of compatible purposes, I, too, draw upon a plurality of compatible principles to help decide how to distribute resources.” The leadership component in this statement seems to be highly personal, and I was not able to determine either which ingredients the cook had available for her stew, or what her cooking methods were.
It was quite clear that the problem president Gutmann was most eager to address was unfairness to the American middle class in university admissions. She displayed several telling slides based on 2003 (the most recent year available) COFE statistics that made it quite clear that the admissions and financial aid practices of 31 of the country’s most selective institutions of higher learning are biased toward the upper 20 percent of American families (based on SES). Fifty-seven percent of students are drawn from the highest quintile. That probably did not surprise most of the audience. The kicker was in Gutmann’s demonstration that in fact the children of the middle quintile of families were in fact less competetive for admission in elite institutions than applicants in the two lowest quintiles. This formed the core and theme of the lecture—that the middle class was being excluded from elite college admissions, and that it was the responsibility of those institutions to try to redress this inequity. The grounds for this duty were not clearly set out.
Gutmann was precise (as she was in her impressive inaugural address) as to Penn’s goals: increasing access for the most talented to higher education without regard to their socio-economic status; integrating knowledge; and engaging locally and globally. She focused in yesterday’s lecture on the first goal, but her refrain was “so many worthy goals, so little time, so little in the way of resources, so many constituencies to answer to.” She stressed that a university president has only so many chances to address the plurality of challenges to her institution, but it really was not obvious to me how she thought a leader ought to evaluate her options—or, more crucially, who else ought to have a voice in making the important choices.
She began by talking about Clark Kerr’s reflection, toward the end of his life, that he probably should not have been as bold as he was in criticizing higher education, and it seemed to me that she was notably cautious in expressing herself. She was in fact being dogged by Penn students, one of whom traveled to Princeton to ask a question from the audience concerning a controversial Penn endowment investment. Further, the Daily Princetonian coverage of her lecture complained that she had canceled an interview with the student paper, perhaps because it had wanted to ask her about a controversial faculty hire when she was the director of the University Center.
I was reminded of the New York Times interview of Vartan Gregorian when he was the president of Brown University. Asked why he had not been more outspoken about national higher education policy, he responded that he had come to see that his job was to raise money for Brown, and that almost anything he said on questions of education was bound to alienate some potential source of support for his university. At the end of the day I was left with the feeling that I knew exactly who was running our universities, but not who was leading them. Don’t we need a head chef—and a recipe?