Tales of the modern-day college president were reported by the Washington Post in a July 12th article, “College Presidents Taste Life Outside Their Offices,” by James Johnson and Daniel de Vise. The president, we were told, is more accessible and easy to talk to, less formal and willing to do things with students unheard of just a few years ago, including joining in a student snowball fight on campus. Many of them have transformed themselves from authority figures to buddies and big siblings as they show their human side. It is something that many parents and students have come to expect as they pony up tuitions that continue to grow even as their resources do not. The presidents want to show their respective publics that they know their students and their needs and will make a great effort to satisfy them.
The trend toward more effective marketing of the campus leader comes at the same time that colleges are offering greater creature comforts to their students – health clubs, new labs and classroom buildings, better appointed living quarters and increasing variety in campus dining. Thus, the accessible college president is like the concierge in a first-class vacation resort. In addition, the college can make contacts for students off campus – internships, study abroad programs, joint degree programs, new majors, distance learning and enhanced placement services for graduates. It strives to be “the college for all seasons.”
Although the article did not suggest it, the reality is that colleges are falling in line with other institutions in a transformation of major parts of American culture. They are putting extraordinary emphasis on what the consumer would like to have. In some significant ways, the institutions are becoming what the market expects of them. Their actual mission statement begins to describe what will sell. These institutions surrender the sense of self and the understanding of core values that traditionally represented who they were and what they were doing. In many respects they believe that their survival requires them to cast their lot with the future rather than the old past. In this way the accessible, genial, folksy college president is a beloved figure. In many respects, the new college president represents an improvement over the indifferent and aloof administrator. But if all we have is a change in style then we are not offered much in terms of what really matters. Indeed, the cost of satisfying more of what the public wants rather than what it needs is, in the long run, unsustainable. In the universities, these creature comforts mean higher tuitions and increased student debt to meet the costs of attendance. There is a real limit to this kind of accommodation as tuitions and fees consistently exceed cost of living indicators for other needs as the cost-benefit analysis piles up heaps of benefits, some of them unnecessary. A day of reckoning may soon be at hand.
It is also worth putting this trend in the context of other changes taking place in America. It is becoming increasingly clear that in many ways Americans are not riding the entitlements bandwagon that is really at the core of the behavior of the college presidents and their institutions. Support for schools, churches, political parties, local governments and the Congress itself suffer at the hands of a public which is skeptical over their worthiness. The public is losing confidence in many of these institutions even as they claim to be doing what the public wants. This is most evident is the disconnect between the Congress and the American public, witnessed in large part by the Tea Party movement. The public wants the institutions to adhere to the values that define those institutions and to do so with a sense of financial integrity. They see a spending spree with few positive results for the American economy. In fact, in a poll released in April 2010, the Pew Research Center reported that “only 22 percent of Americans say they can trust government in Washington ‘almost always or most of the time’ -among the lowest measures in the half-century since pollsters have been asking the question.” At the same time, government seeks to buy more entitlements for the citizens such as enriched unemployment benefits and increased medical benefits, things meeting great public resistance.
The exhilarating effect of attending a college where the president participates in a campus snowball fight wears too thin to have meaning for little longer than the duration of the event. The college that spends its time and resources in making curricular decisions that will provide students with the learning they need for success in the world is the stuff that really matters. So does the tough analysis of what a benefit really is.
The late Lawrence Cremin, distinguished historian and former President of Columbia Teachers’ College, dedicated a full day a week out of the President’s office to work on his well-regarded scholarly research. I am sure that had the qualifications for his job included snowball fighting on Morningside Heights he would have been disqualified from holding office.