Lose A President To A Coup And You Will Fail

The recent attempts to drive Robert Kerrey from the presidency of The New School are reminiscent of how Larry Summers was driven from the Harvard presidency in 2006 and, further back, how controversies, real and specious, roiled American campuses in the 1960s and 1970s. If the Trustees of the New School are at all tempted to give in to demands for Kerrey’s head, these previous academic power struggles ought to send them one clear message of warning: lose a president to a coup and you will fail in the governance of your campus.
The complaints against Kerrey ought to sound familiar to anyone who has watched university reform in action. Kerrey is accused of being an autocrat and of putting fiscal concerns ahead of academic needs. He is lambasted for his politically-incorrect views on America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq.
In December the New School Faculty voted 271-8 to express no confidence in him and his chief financial officer. At the same time radical students occupied Kerrey’s office; they have since demanded that Kerrey resign and that they be given a role in picking the next Provost. The students also threaten to shut the campus down if their demands are not met by April 1.


Should the Trustees heed the demands of the New School’s faculty and students? They must, of course, decide for themselves whether Kerrey’s success in building the endowment, winning new research grants and building new facilities have been worth the controversy he has encountered. But in so deciding they would be wise to avoid the mistakes Harvard’s Board of Overseers made in dealing with Summers.
The coup against Larry Summers had its origins in his intolerance of cant and his willingness to buck fashionable opinions. He had the audacity to demand that University Professor Cornel West produce scholarship rather than rap albums. He called for the re-instatement of the ROTC on the Harvard campus. He honestly noted that Harvard had lost some of its standing in science and engineering and drove forward with ambitious plans to build new facilities in the Boston neighborhood of Allston. Then, while attending a conference on diversity in science and engineering, he asked whether all disparities between male and female accomplishment in the sciences could be attributed to discrimination. As he later told The Boston Globe, “You have to be careful in attributing things to socialization… that’s what we prefer to believe, but these are things that need to be studied.”
Saying this, Summers touched the third rail of political correctness by calling for objective research to determine why fewer women excelled in science and engineering than men, rather than accepting the unproven ideological assertion that differences in performance between men and women must be explained by culture and not by genetic inheritance.
Summers’ enemies pounced. One faculty member attending the talk claimed that she was so distraught by Summers’ comments that she nearly fainted. A small but enraged minority of Harvard’s faculty declared open season on Summers before they had the opportunity to read what he actually said. They were joined in their denunciations by the presidents of MIT, Princeton and Stanford, none of whom had even attended the lecture, much less read the text of Summers’ address.
The Harvard Board of Overseers might have responded to the controversy by defending Summers’ right — even obligation — to address controversial subjects in the spirit of academic inquiry. Summers, after all, had not declared women inferior to men, but had instead called for objective research to answer questions of importance on the outcome of which he assiduously refused to offer an opinion.
Unfortunately for Harvard and for the academic community, Harvard’s board showed no such courage. Instead at least one member of the board — Nannerl Keohane — undermined Summers by meeting independently with dissident faculty behind his back. Summers, under pressure from no more than a minority of faculty, felt compelled nevertheless to apologize for his remarks. Without the Board’s public backing, Summers, bullied by attacks by university professors and university presidents and having options in New York and Washington, decided that he didn’t need to put up with the abuse.
Summers had nothing to apologize for: those who distorted Summers’ words should have apologized for the inability to resist parading their virtuous fidelity to political correctness. And most appallingly, the governing board of Harvard should have removed or at least censured a member who met with faculty behind the president’s back to encourage protest. Unfortunately, Summers assisted in undermining his own position by apologizing for telling the truth. But the failure of Harvard’s board to reprimand or even remove a disloyal member of the board was seriously destabilizing.
In my own time as president of Boston University I was fortunate to enjoy the support of a board that was willing to withstand the controversy that inevitably accompanies any serious attempt at reform. This board was willing to discipline members who negotiated behind my and the board’s backs.
When I came to Boston University in 1971, I discovered four months into the fiscal year that the university faced a serious deficit of 13 percent of the operating budget ($8.8 million in a budget of $71 million). I immediately took corrective measures, making cuts wherever possible, but at the same time I recruited outstanding new faculty, raised the standards of admission and made the university more attractive to students of ability. The faculty didn’t believe there was a deficit and complained openly when I froze salaries for the following year, including my own. The faculty could not accept the fact that we had severely limited resources and that drastic steps were necessary to avoid bankruptcy.
Stability was further compromised by student and non-student protestors who were using the university as a platform to protest the war in Vietnam. I informed the students at their rallies that if they wanted to change the policies in Vietnam they would have my support, but that they should go to Washington, DC, where the foreign policy of the United States is made. This of course fell on deaf ears because the students were determined to deny free speech on the campus and free access to the campus by protesting and occupying offices. Boston University successfully opposed these efforts and maintained a campus open to all points of view.
While these protests were going on, a member of the Board of Trustees came to the campus without my knowledge and met privately with students. He sympathized with the students, commenting on what he referred to as my autocratic style, and thus undermined my efforts to pacify the campus.
At the next meeting of the board I informed them that they would have either my resignation or the resignation of the offending trustee. I said, “If the university doesn’t need a president but relies on the Board of Trustees to administer the university, that is their option. But it is my option not to continue as president if trustees assume that responsibility. In short, either the offending trustee goes or I go.” The Board backed me and the offending trustee resigned.
After the passage of a few years, despite the rapid improvement in the standing of the university in terms of financial strength and the quality of students and faculty, the faculty met to censure me on two occasions. The first was a relatively small minority of 700 out of a faculty of 2,500. But later, about 1,100 faculty met to demand my removal. About 800 called for my dismissal, their attacks laced with lies to the effect that I had built an Olympic swimming pool in my backyard and had spied on the faculty by examining the contents of their wastebaskets. The faculty members making these charges knew that they were false but cynically violated standards of scholarly responsibility and even decency.
In April 1976, five years into my administration, the trustees chose to honor me with a lectureship in my name and passed a resolution honoring me for the improvement in the institution. Six weeks later, a small cabal of trustees called for my evaluation and met with faculty and deans to hear criticisms of my administration without allowing me to attend these meetings or to correct the distortions of fact that were presented. The cabal proposed to remove me. But I refused to resign and I refused to accept their offer of promotion to Chancellor, a position with no responsibilities. I told this small cabal that they had no right to speak for the Board of Trustees and that I would meet them at the next full meeting of the Board. There they presented their resolution to remove me. After extended discussion, the Board was galvanized by a statement from one trustee who pointed out that the star chamber proceedings by which I had been evaluated violated all principles of university governance and fairness. He pointed out that only three months earlier the trustees had honored me for my exceptional leadership and now were calling for my scalp. Denouncing the procedures of their investigation as a disgrace, he said, “If this board removes President Silber, Boston University will descend into the leperdom it shall richly deserve.” When the votes were taken, I prevailed by a two-thirds majority. The chairman of the board resigned shortly thereafter, and the member of the board who had organized this revolt was voted off the board at its next meeting.
The majority of the board recognized the wisdom of the steps I had taken to transform Boston University. They decided that this course of action, despite the fact that it was controversial with some faculty members and some students, had to be continued and publicly defended.
A professor of political science at the New School in New York has asserted that the failure of Bob Kerrey to resign calls for action of the New School’s board of trustees. He has claimed that faculty condemnation usually compels boards of trustees to change leadership or reform the structure of academic governance. But trustees have another choice: ignore irresponsible faculty who do not understand the necessity of fiscal responsibility and the dependence of academic progress on that solid economic foundation.
Students at the New School have also threatened, as they did at Boston University, to shut down the university. The students at the New School who made that threat should know that while they may enjoy the right of revolution, they must face the corollary that revolutionaries had better win. Any university can take decisive action to prevent students from disrupting its functions.
The governance of universities involves nuanced fiduciary responsibilities. Boards must therefore insulate themselves from attempted pressure from students and faculty. Neither group understands the complex set of issues involved in maintaining the best interests of the institution. Both groups find it unreasonable if their favorite projects are not supported — salary increases, reduced teaching loads, smaller classes, increased student financial aid, relaxed rules of behavior in dormitories — without regard to financial resources and educational priorities. These constituencies typically lack the good will or fairness to recognize that the president and the key administrators would always prefer to accommodate students and faculty on most issues if their desires were consistent with the best interests of the university.
Students and faculty ask for (or demand) membership on boards of governance in order to represent their constituencies. But students and faculty cannot serve their constituencies without reporting to them confidential matters such as salaries, promotions, dismissals and plans to recruit faculty and administrators. Such untimely revelations of confidential matters can introduce unnecessary turmoil and even cause these efforts to fail. More important, all trustees should have as their only concern the wellbeing of the university as a whole, an interest not circumscribed by the interests of any one group, either of faculty, staff or students.
As the board of the New School considers whether to back Robert Kerrey, I would strongly encourage them to consider the progress that I and my colleagues were able to achieve with strong board backing, and the drift, by comparison, that Harvard suffered after losing a talented president to the campaigns of the politically correct. Often there is no easy or uncontroversial way to achieve genuine reform. The Trustees of the New School should ask themselves whether they want peace at any price.

jsilber

John Silber is President Emeritus of Boston University.

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