University Presidents to Keep an Eye on

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Two
university presidents are in the news. Mitch Daniels, until recently Governor
of Indiana, became Purdue’s president amidst much publicity. Arguably the most
important leader in American higher education, Mark Yudof, announced he is
retiring as the head of the University of California, having previously run the
universities of Minnesota and Texas. Just recently, another great leader,
Charles Reed, retired as head of California State University, after a long
career running the Florida and California systems. I have known, in varying
degrees, all three men, and consider all of them competent leaders. 

While
rhetoric and reality often diverge, Mitch Daniels is off to a spectacular
start. First, he engineered, with the cooperation of his board, a performance contract
that is refreshing -he took a pay cut from his predecessor (unheard of these
days), but with a number of opportunities to receive bonuses for excellent
performance (full disclosure: I earlier talked with then Governor Daniels about
this contractual possibility and suggested some possible performance
incentives). Even more remarkably, he sent an open letter to the Purdue
community outlining some of the criticisms of higher education with a candor
unique to American university presidents. For example:

  • “College
    costs too much and delivers too little. Students are leaving, when they
    graduate at all, with loads of debt but without evidence that they grew much in
    either knowledge or critical thinking”
  • “The
    mission of undergraduate instruction is increasingly subordinated to research…”
  • “Athletics
    is out of control…”
  • “Shared
    governance implies shared accountability. It is neither equitable or workable
    to demand shared…power…but declare that cost control…is someone else’s
    problem.”

President Daniels was saying what many,
including myself, have long said, and while he was careful not to fully
subscribe to all of these criticisms, he is not beginning with the
Pollyanna-like view that “higher education is wonderful and needs more money
and resources to get even bigger.” Moreover, from private conversation with
him, I know that he has innovative ideas about cutting costs, improving
efficiency, and developing good relationship with the campus powers that
usually thwart reform -faculty, senior administrators, wealthy alumni,
politicians, etc.


Speaking of politicians, I used to believe it
was inappropriate for non-academic types to run universities.  I thought that they simply neither appreciate
nor understand the academic culture or the missions of universities. But I have
seen examples of persons with political/business backgrounds functioning well:
Erskine Bowles (former presidential chief of staff) at the University of North
Carolina, David Boren and Hank Brown (former U.S. Senators) at the universities
of Oklahoma and Colorado. The job of university president is increasingly one
of raising funds and mediating between sometime warring university factions
-skills politicians are good at.


Mark Yudof is the quintessential modern
university president -cool, analytical, politically skilled, good in debate and
conversation (I once semi-debated him on the PBS News Hour and felt very much challenged). He has had an extremely
difficult job -dealing with a state arguably in economic decline (largely
self-imposed) that heavily cut university support until recently. I saw him in
action on a couple of occasions related to my service on the Spellings
Commission, and always thought he was a cut above other presidents in terms of
general smarts, articulateness, and presence. His will be tough shoes to fill.


Charlie Reed was my favorite big-time
university leader of recent years -almost as colorful as Gordon Gee of Ohio
State, but fascinatingly pragmatic and innovative. The Cal State system is the
ultimate “school for the common man”, and owing to its size, funding
challenges,  extraordinary diversity,
etc., it is a very tough organization to oversee, but Charlie did it reasonably
well under trying circumstances. Charlie told the Spellings Commission: find
the “one big idea” -or at most two or three–that will change the system, and
home in on them -don’t try to change everything at once. Good advice, which we
(the Spellings Commission) and the nation largely ignored.


Returning to rhetoric versus reality:
University presidents are masters at sounding eloquent and innovative -but they
ignore hard facts and fight needed reforms. The incentives are out of whack. A
good president in the eyes of the educational establishment raises buckets of
money and then distributes plenty to all the various constituencies that can
give him or her trouble -the faculty, the students, the alumni, etc. He or she
is the equivalent of a snake oil salesman, raising money selling a dubious
product; or perhaps a somewhat suspect but generous Sugar Daddy who keeps his
friends and relatives happy with benevolent gifts. Ohio State’s Gee is probably
the nation’s best at this game.


But what is perceived good by a narrowly
focused university community is not necessarily good for the nation. The snake
oil approach has led, as President Daniels so beautifully points out, to
expensive education of dubious quality. It has created an arrogant intellectual
elite that believe the laws of economics and democratic politics do not apply
to them.


Keep an eye on Mitch Daniels. He showed as
governor he could cut costs, confront powerful special interests (e.g., public
employee unions), keep the price of government services (taxes) reasonable, and
still remain pretty popular. I am sorry he did not want to be the nation’s President.
I think he just might have what it takes to confront and overcome the many
powerful forces preventing constructive change in American higher education
-and set a model just like others (e.g., Clark Kerr in the 1950s) did before
him.

Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder teaches at Ohio University and is the author of "Restoring the Promise: American Higher Education Today."

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