A Game of Leftist Whac-A-Mole: Why College Presidents Are Quitting

The last few months have seen a rash of resignations by college presidents, most of which have been voluntary. These are no lightweights—the growing list of outgoing presidents includes those at some of the nation’s leading institutions, including Dartmouth, UPenn, Northwestern, MIT, Fordham, and most recently, my own alma mater, Columbia. Early resignation seems to have become the norm, not the exception.

What gives? Why are so many willingly leaving what should be the most coveted position in the game? Why walk away from the seven-figure salary, the prestige, and the fame? Many have speculated about the recent uptick, but ultimately, the reason is quite simple: today, the college presidency is plainly unbearable and amounts to a vicious and unwinnable game of leftist Whac-A-Mole.

College Presidency Then and Now

College presidency ain’t what it used to be. The role has changed tremendously since it first appeared, to the point where today’s college presidents operate more like corporate CEOs than anything else. In a 2017 article, Deloitte Managing Director Cole Clark traces five broad eras of the job, noting that it initially wasn’t even conceived of as a stand-alone profession.

“Multidisciplinarian” is a nice way to describe the modern college president. Others have used the phrase “multidimensional leader.” But both of these are manifestly euphemistic—they are an excuse to load college presidents with tasks and concerns that shouldn’t be their job in the first place, or the job of a university at all. It should be no surprise, then, when presidents drop like flies.

An Inverted Purpose

College presidents are charged with an amazing range of responsibilities. There’s nothing wrong with this in and of itself. Indeed, the president of any organization or company ought to be busy with wide-ranging duties, higher education being no exception. But what exactly should a college president be busy doing? In short, he should devote himself to protecting and promoting the core mission of the university. And what is that mission? This will make clear what a college president’s job should be, and what it should not be.

In his 2016 report The Architecture of Intellectual Freedom, National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood points to four primary purposes of higher education.

We rightly expect higher education to address four things: vocation, culture, truth, and character. … Most institutions of higher education seek to weave these elements together. They seek some balance that will prepare each coming generation with the knowledge and skills to succeed in practical careers; endow each coming generation with a worthwhile knowledge of our own civilization and a lively understanding of the broader world; join each coming generation to the pursuit of truth; and shape the character of the individuals who make up that generation so that they become worthy and constructive citizens.

The last of these four may seem the least definite, but it is surely the foundation of the other three. We seek a form of education that teaches young men and women how to be free.

Vocation, culture, truth, and character. That’s a lot for a college president to keep track of, especially when he must not only be concerned with academic matters, but also with ensuring that the institution holds together administratively and remains afloat financially.

But today’s college presidents are asked to promote a quite different set of values, in many cases the exact opposite of those listed above. After all, if this holy quaternity is actually the unholy vestige of white supremacy, as many claim, then we ought to invert it entirely. Barbarous activism supplants vocation; culture (at least Western culture) is to be “deconstructed,” not promoted; objective truth-seeking is discarded in favor of postmodern subjectivism; and demographic identity replaces character. This great inversion has had disastrous consequences for academia and has fundamentally transformed higher education as we know it, and thereby the college presidency itself. College presidents have sowed the seeds of this transformation for decades—out of ignorance, cowardice, or malice—and are now reaping the bitter, perhaps unforeseen, consequences. The college presidency has lost its way and, in the process, has lost its luster.

Activist-in-Chief

One such consequence is that college presidents are now expected to embrace the new and all-consuming role of “Activist-in-Chief.” After every domestic or international tragedy (limited to leftist-approved tragedies, of course), faculty, staff, students, and alumni wait with bated breath for the Office of the President to issue a statement condemning the bad guys and praising the good guys. This is, of course, indicative of a broader trend that includes leaders of virtually every field (as I prepare an article image for this piece, I note that Adobe’s loading icon is blue and yellow in support of Ukraine).

Speaking of Ukraine, shortly after the story broke, many American college presidents began to issue statements condemning Russia and praising Ukraine. President Lee Bollinger of my alma mater published multiple statements to this effect. Now, I happen to believe that Russia’s actions are unjustified and reprehensible, but that is beside the point. It is simply not a college president’s job to comment on current events, especially those occurring halfway around the world. This is not part of a university’s mission, and such missives will necessarily be limited to the issue du jour. For instance, has President Bollinger ever issued a public statement on the ongoing slaughter of Nigerian Christians by their Muslim neighbors? Of course not, and he never will.

This is likewise inappropriate regarding domestic controversies. Take, for example, the 2020 killing heard ‘round the world: that of George Floyd. Within days of this incident, college presidents scrambled to issue statements condemning the “systemic racism” inherent in the police force and in America as a whole—well before the facts of the case were made known. Turning again to President Bollinger, we see one statement issued shortly after the killing occurred, another for the one-year anniversary of the event, and yet another after the jurors in the Derek Chauvin trial announced their decision. Bollinger is far from alone—the National Association of Scholars counted over 300 similar statements issued by college presidents around the country. I’m sure many of these presidents felt genuine dismay at the killing of George Floyd, as did I. But again, that is irrelevant. College presidents ought not comment on current affairs that do not directly affect their school, and they ought not make such rash statements before anyone knows the facts on the ground.

These statements are not merely instances of irresponsible leadership. They also create a de facto institutional stance on these issues which may not be violated without serious consequences. The Floyd incident itself generated a series of academic cancellations, all of which were patently absurd. José Sartarelli of UNC Wilmington, Ronald Caltabiano of DePaul, W.P. Chedester of WVU, Daniel Patrick Moloney of MIT, and Gordon Klein of UCLA were all canceled for saying or doing the “wrong” thing in response to George Floyd’s death—including questioning Floyd’s character, displaying a Thin Blue Line flag on a Zoom call, and declining to postpone a final exam for black students.

It’s abundantly clear that these ideologically charged statements by college presidents are both inappropriate for the role and detrimental to academic freedom. What these presidents may not have realized, though, is that their own statements will at some point bite them back, and that their attempts to pacify the pervasive anger on campus will not be enough to save them in the end. The recent uptick in resignations shows that they are beginning to wake up to this reality.

A Game of Leftist Whac-A-Mole

Eventually, college presidents get trapped in a vicious game of leftist Whac-A-Mole. It’s simply impossible to pay equal attention to all of the Left’s favored causes—climate change and fossil fuel divestment, racial “justice,” graduate student compensation, sexual harrassment, “gender-inclusive” facilities, COVID-19 mandates, etc.—so when college presidents focus on whacking one mole, a few more pop up in its place. No matter how hard they try, they can never keep up. I imagine that all of this mole-whacking is exhausting, even if a president’s statements are primarily ghostwritten. 

More than that, I doubt that most college presidents sought out their role in order to become Activist-in-Chief. It’s a thankless job—at best, you save your own skin for a few weeks; at worst, you feel the wrath of a thousand leftists because you didn’t issue the statement fast enough, you didn’t issue enough statements, or you phrased the statement insensitively. Perhaps some incoming presidents look forward to wearing this hat, but that bright-eyed naivety is sure to wear off before long. Only after getting battered a few times do they realize that by making such pronouncements, they have made themselves the plaything of the activists. They are no longer in charge, and they must constantly look over their shoulders to see if their new masters approve of their behavior.

All of this to say, the modern college presidency is unbearable. Our institutions, including the presidents themselves, have made it unbearable. Any college president with at least a few brain cells remaining will see where this is going and hightail it out of there. Given the state of affairs, their decision makes perfect sense. But it will leave a dangerous power vacuum in American higher education. College presidents who actually seek to lead their institution rather than follow the whims of enraged activists will either resign or be forced out. Those who take their place—those who see the state of the college presidency and actually want the job—will be far worse than their predecessors. “Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first” (Matthew 12:45, ESV). But even they won’t be radical enough, and the cycle will continue until our colleges and universities are a smoldering ash heap of bitter resentment.

America’s college presidents must grow a backbone and refuse to kowtow to campus activists. It’s not their job, and it never was. If they don’t stand up to the madness, they’ll get trapped in an endless game of Whac-A-Mole with only themselves to blame. It’s a self-destructive game that’s impossible to win, and the president is far outnumbered by the moles.


Image: Sarah Stierch (CC BY 4.0), Wikimedia Commons

David Acevedo

David Acevedo is Managing Editor of Minding the Campus and Communications & Research Associate at the National Association of Scholars.

11 thoughts on “A Game of Leftist Whac-A-Mole: Why College Presidents Are Quitting

  1. By the end of his term, Bollinger will have served 21 years. This is triple the average tenure for a university president and the third longest at Columbia itself, only surpassed by Butler and Barnard. This article cites a handful of Bollinger’s boilerplate emails, yet omits that relevant context in a discussion about turnover. Moreover, those examples obscure his actual record.

    As an older Columbia alumnus, I think Bollinger has been an adept leader with the very backbone Acevedo laments. He pushed forward with Columbia’s largest expansion ever, even amid nonstop “gentrification” complaints about Manhattanville (notably, the 2007 student hunger strike). He signed the agreement to bring back Naval ROTC in 2011, which had been banned since 1969, despite Lucha student protests. He refused to kowtow to the “Mattress Girl” protests in 2014-2015. He reaffirmed the university’s commitment to free speech and the Core over the last two decades (compare the vast “elective system” changes in UChicago’s Core to Columbia’s Core which has, at most, replaced 2-3 books and added Frontiers of Science). This is on top of, of course, massive fundraising and restoring Columbia’s prestige from where it stood in the 80’s and 90’s.

    It’s a thankless job. That part, the article got right.

    1. John, Bollinger has a background that doesn’t sound terribly “woke” to me. Raised in Baker City, Oregon which is about as conservative a part of the country as you will find. A frat boy at the University of Oregon where he got his undergrad degree — not some Yale or Harvard Ivy League son of privilege and East Coast attitudes and manners. His wiki bio makes a point of his Catholic background and his two kids getting married in Catholic ceremonies.

      You do a good job of detailing how Bollinger often went against the tide in a situation where that probably was fraught with risk.

  2. “Vocation, culture, truth, and character”

    That’s so American! I’ve taught higher ed in England, and studied in the USA, but at no point was I concerned about any of the above, except Truth, and that only in the truth-tables of Logic, and the value of Booleans in Computing.

    One can stand against the leftist cancer simply by teaching Logic, Science and the Humanities, not including Shakespeare’s whiteness. I wouldn’t try to mould the characters of 18-22-year-olds, but subtly try to inoculate them against the logical absurdities of antiracism, gender, etc..

  3. 15 years ago, I was stupid enough to agree to serve on the search committee for the new president of a major university.

    It was an eye-opener.

    It’s all search firms now, and like a modeling agency, they have a set of candidates who they try to sell you – and everyone else. A group of professional vagabonds who wander from institution to institution as they repeatedly wear out their welcome at each.

    Professors have been more loyal to their field than their university for some time now, and these nomatic administrators are loyal only to their careers and thinking only of their next gig.

    Nearly 30 years ago, Silverglate & Koors wrote that the mantra was “no trouble on my watch.” Now it’s also is get out of town before there is trouble.

    IF there actually are more presidents outright quitting (as opposed to going on to something else) and if it isn’t just baby-boomers retiring, perhaps it’s the exact opposite of what the author suggests.

    College presidents are always begging for money – from both donors and politicians, and selling their school to both applicants and businesses (who hopefully will hire their graduates).

    Could they be hearing from the silent majority? Could it be that they know that society has had enough of this foolishness?

    For 30 years, their management style has been to appease the radical left. If they see that no longer being an option, are they just leaving while the going is good?

    1. This is insightful and what is increasingly happening in my country (Australia). Spoiler Alert – at some point I will plagiarise your term ‘professional vagabonds’ as a perfect description of the nomadic administrators that have been plaguing our universities for decades.

  4. This is a problem of their own making. I have never understood why college presidents cave to the whining of a bunch of so-called “students”. They are not students. They are not even adults. They are leftists, largely ignorant, immature and petulant little children activists who have access to far too much money and nothing meaningful to occupy their time. Any president with a backbone would tell these little children to go pound sand and, if they don’t like it, find some other school to attend.

    But alas, we have too many college presidents who are woke. (Mine made a big deal out of the fact he is homosexual, as if anyone really cares.) The unfortunate thing is, without exception, if you find someone who is woke, you have found someone largely without principles and without a backbone. I do not see this situation changing any time soon.

  5. I don’t think that this really is anything new, and that the author neglected to ask the two questions he ought to have: what do they do next & how many of them were paid to leave early…

    I suspect that a lot of these presidents are winding up with cushy gigs on the boards of nonprofits or as consultants. There’s big money to be made in social justice & DEI — big money.

    Remember too that they structured their compensation for tax purposes, with a good chunk of it coming to them now (when they are in a lower income bracket).

    And they are often paid to quit. It doesnt look good to fire your president so you instead buy out the contract. Wave wads of cash and ask the person to leave quietly.

    I suspect that it is more churn and outside opportunities than anything else as you don’t see them going back to the faculty the way you did 20 years ago.

  6. Ah, the standard call for univerity presidents to acquire some backbone. You know a big reason why they don’t? Because the trustees and legislators don’t back them up when things get difficult. It’s not just private universities or public universities in blue states. Look what happened a few years ago at the University of Missouri.

    The presidents work at the pleasure of the trustees and public boards. By and large, they are giving those bodies what they want.

    1. The standard call for university presidents to get a backbone is wrong because most of those who are “activists in chief” are in fact true believers eager to impose their wokeness on their institutions. That’s certainly the case at my institution. Nobody is forcing our president to do anything; he’s a committed leftist and wants to force everyone else to conform to his views. And he is surrounding himself with woke deans and administrators.

      In most cases the problem is not a lack of backbone, but hubris combined with basic moral/ideological error.

      1. Well, if the trustees or boards hire “activists in chief,” who is responsible for that?

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