Pomona Professor John Seery‘s article, “Somewhere Between a Jeremiad and a Eulogy,” is a moving description of the changes at elite liberal arts colleges over the last 30 years. (See here for a shorter version.) Almost everything he writes about Pomona is just as true of Williams, including the death of faculty governance, the growth of college staff and out-of-control administrator salaries. Let’s spend a week going through it. Day 3.

Seery pulls few punches:

For the rapid destruction of the American small college—which is what we are witnessing—I could wag my finger at a number of culprits and conditions. But I want to focus my ire here on one main responsible party: small liberal arts college presidents. They bear the bulk of the blame. The fish rots from the head down.

This conflates two separate issues. First, small liberal arts colleges have been decimated over the last 30 years. Scores have closed, almost always because students stopped applying/enrolling. Maybe a few of the presidents involved were greedy/incompetent. But not all of them! Second, elite liberal arts colleges like Pomona and Williams have changed a great deal. That is the “rot” that worries Seery.

Colleges are formally and informally governed far more like top-down Leninist organizations than hippie communes. Members of the board of trustees, operating according to a set of by-laws for the corporation, bear the legal and fiduciary responsibilities for good stewardship at the top, but in fact the president holds the keys to the Chevy and can drive it pretty much wherever he/she wishes (and over time, the president handpicks many of the members of the board and also pushes out critics, so it becomes more or less an old boys club). The president thus enjoys a great deal of formal and discretionary power, and isn’t constrained, as would be a CEO of a for-profit company, for overriding and clarifying concerns about bottom-line profit or shareholder returns.

True and false. It is true that college presidents, like corporate CEOs, have a lot of power and that, in general, trustees defer to them. But there is some amount of “market” discipline. Look at all the liberal arts colleges that have disappeared! Look at the movement in prestige and rankings. Look at the college presidents that are forced out, people like Hank Payne at Williams and Nancy Roseman at Dickison.

More importantly, it is naive to blame person X for something if that same something is happening everywhere. You can believe in the Great Man theory of college presidencies: The reason that Williams looks the way it does is because Morty Schapiro caused it to look that way. But you can’t simultaneously believe that and also observe that every elite college has changed in the exact same way. If every college now has highly paid administrators or too many staff, then the fault can not lie with a specific president. The cause must be systematic.

The hallowed and possibly countervailing notions of “faculty governance” and “academic freedom” are not professorial prerogatives or rights inscribed somehow in Nature or the Constitution but are, instead, discretionary privileges extended by the beneficence and norms of the Powers-that-Be at the uppermost echelon of the college. Oh, faculty committees can write reports and hold meetings and take votes and make a small ruckus. But the president is in charge, and can ignore or squelch all the noise below. And so the ultimate responsibility for the college’s corruption and demise should not be distributed or attenuated. No buck passing.

Huh? The faculty at Pomona used to be X powerful. It is now X/2 powerful. The same thing has happened at Williams. You can blame college presidents for grabbing more power — and Lord knows that I love to blame Adam Falk — but you have to blame the faculty as well. They could have fought much harder than they did. They could fight much harder now. What precisely has Seery spent the last few decades doing? Not much, I bet.

[S]mall liberal arts college presidents don’t know what they are talking about, and yet they talk as if they do. As a class of professional liars, they shouldn’t be trusted with the truth-seeking institutions with which they’ve been entrusted. They are to promote the college as a place of teaching. But they are not teachers. They are to sing the praises of the liberal arts classroom. But most of them have never set foot on a liberal arts college campus before heading one up. Most of them, I dare say after perusing their lifelong track records and educational and career choices, would never have sought out a presidency at a small liberal arts college but for the enormous pay and status that now come attached to those jobs.

“[P]rofessional liars?” Come on! To be a college president, you have to be a bit of a politician, you have to get along with people you don’t like — obstreperous senior professors of government, for example. You can’t tell people exactly what you think all the time. You often speak in platitudes. But that has been true of college presidents for hundreds of years. This is hardly the same as being a liar.

It is a separate question whether or not the current (outrageous!) pay of elite college presidents attract the wrong sort of candidates. I agree and, moreover, even if it doesn’t, there is no reason to expect that high pay actually leads to better presidents.

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