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Rally ’Round the Cannon: Are College Presidencies Commodities?

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Prospect House, photographed in 2018, was home to Princeton University presidents beginning with James McCosh in 1879.

Princeton University, Office of Communications, Danielle Alio (2018)

Leaders aren’t born, they are made. 
And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.
— Vince Lombardi

It may not have escaped you that last month’s excursus here in the History Corner involved three nationally prominent college presidents, coincidentally at a time when college presidents were a big deal again among the current Twitterati (Xiles?) and the press generally. There were two substantial differences between that current ferment and our 19th-century story: 1) We dealt with issues the presidents could control, i.e. the curriculum; and 2) With 140 years of hindsight and the demise of all involved, ours had the luxury of having perspective and a defined punchline, namely the current state of U.S. higher education, which beggars any comparative system for overall productivity and variety. (This does not imply perfection. We’ll return to that later.) That might have been all to be said for the coincidence, until a short piece then appeared in the New York Times business section (uh-oh, watch out) inquiring “Who Should Run Universities?” Upon seeing the headline my two immediate reactions were to yell “not me!” and to dive for my trusty Class of ’70 cicada-proof pith helmet. Upon reflection, I felt neither was productive (however logical), and considered whether there were useful lessons to be learned on the subject from our experience of history and those who made it, for better or worse.

Let’s take the question at face value and examine whence it comes. Starting with a somewhat unfortunate stereotype of the “normal” college prexy as some sort of Ph.D. wonk — I guess this was irresistible following the Harvard/MIT/Penn Congressional hearings — the Times column goes on to cite a few successful presidents of recent vintage who don’t fit that image. They include white shoe lawyer Barry Mills, who successfully ran and improved Bowdoin from 2001-15. But in addition to his Columbia Law degree, he has a Ph.D. in biology from Syracuse and degrees in both government and biochemistry from … Bowdoin. He had also been on the Bowdoin trustee board for six years prior to his election, so they obviously knew what they were getting. 

Then the column gets into politicians, as if participating in government alone might give a person insight into such skills as balancing a college budget, finding donor money for financial aid, or deciding between Egyptologists and nuclear engineers vying for one tenured faculty slot. The examples trotted out are again undeniable successes. John Brademas, after 20 years in the House of Representatives, was a huge addition as NYU began to transform itself into the largest private university in the country during the 1980s. Of course, he had spent 20 years on the House education committee and written the legislation creating the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, lifeblood of the liberal arts. Oh, and in addition to his Harvard Phi Beta Kappa key and his Rhodes scholarship, there’s his Oxford Ph.D. in social sciences. Then, importantly involving one of the country’s prestigious public universities, there’s Mitch Daniels ’71, recipient of the Woodrow Wilson Award, whose law degree comes from Georgetown and whose political staff career includes 15 years in Washington and Indianapolis, and who then was elected to two terms as the governor of Indiana. His landmark achievement — freezing tuition and virtually all student costs for all of Purdue University for seven full years — is certainly an intriguing discussion point for other institutions, as is his accompanying focus on students as his first constituency. The biggest effect that seemed to carry over from his political to academic life was the fiscal concentration (he was the director of the Office of Management and Budget under George H.W. Bush) that goes as far back as Daniels’ Princeton thesis on the merger of city and county governments in Indianapolis. Not that bucks (and the Indiana politicos supplying them) were his complete fixation by a long shot; Purdue was the first public university to adopt the Chicago Principles supporting freedom of speech. (and the Indiana politicos supplying them) were his complete fixation by a long shot; Purdue was the first public university to adopt the Chicago principles supporting freedom of speech.

But face it, these folks were all first-rate academic minds with broad experience of excellent colleges and notably their faculties and alumni. They were well-armed in academia going in, arguably more than many Ph.D.s (even gifted teachers) who lack administrative experience. Recall the frustrated warning of the salesman/Cassandra in The Music Man: You gotta know the territory. 

The three historical presidents we discussed last time were hardly of one background: Charles Eliot at Harvard and Daniel Gilman at Yale were old New England money, but fascinatingly each was hosed by the home team, Eliot losing a prestigious professorship and Gilman passed over for president. Each went to Europe, then to MIT for Eliot and Cal for Gilman (a highly valuable public institutional experience), before ascending to their transformational destinies at Harvard and Johns Hopkins respectively. Princeton’s McCosh on the other hand — the other hemisphere, actually — was a farm lad (who felt every boy should have a lamb to tend, to learn responsibility), whose reputation in Scots’ philosophy had expanded from Edinburgh and Dublin to Europe to global in his 50s, who literally preached the coordinate nature of Christianity and Darwinism in the 1870s. His accomplishments at Princeton were not only transformative in his own time, but through his students extended his direct imprint at Princeton (and even his wife Isabella’s, through the infirmary!) until 1932, two-thirds of a century. 

Of course, to show that a Ph.D. is not an ironclad rite of passage for a successful college president, we could simply consider Chris Eisgruber ’83, Princeton’s first non-doctoral incumbent since 1902, a Juris Doctor in the style of Mills and Daniels. But given Princeton’s advances in global education (on one hand) and undergraduate education explicitly (on the other) over the space of the intervening 20th century, we can also examine the trends in our leadership that have either led or undergirded these accomplishments over time, depending in part on the real influence you suspect a president can have. 

There are three major streams of commonality that jump out when we consider the modern emergence of Princeton. The first is the Presbyterian ministry, of all things. The tenets of the New Side of the church in the 1700s continued, through lifetime trustees, faculty hiring and, to be fair, old-fashioned cussedness, the tradition that each president of Princeton from 1746-1932 (with the exception of Woodrow Wilson 1879, ironically a famed orator) was a preacher. This includes arguably the two least effective presidents of the 19th century, Ashbel Green 1783 and Francis Landey Patton, who in fact were far better fits at the Princeton Seminary when they had the opportunity. But there’s a second part to the stream which bears closer scrutiny: Beginning with Wilson in 1902, every president from 1902-72 was the son of a Presbyterian minister. While it’s hard to envision a trustees’ selection committee being fixated on that qualification, it does make you wonder whether that somehow adds a subconscious level of respect or solemnity or whatever to the discussion (“Bob Goheen, brilliant classicist, administrator, and alumnus” is one thing, “Bob Goheen, raised in India by medical missionaries, and decorated American war hero” seems quite another). 

More obviously to the point is the second commonality — every Princeton president from 1912-2001 held an earned doctorate from the tiny (by any global standard) Graduate School. We can debate incessantly the effect this peculiar student/scholar/teacher relationship to the University had on their personal or administrative outlooks, but clearly coincidence is totally inadequate to explain their attractiveness in being selected or their undeniable effectiveness on the ground over such a protracted period. It’s germane to note that, during this era, only two of the five (John Hibben 1882 *93 and Goheen ’40 *48), had Princeton undergraduate degrees.

The third strand is somewhat aligned to the Graduate School pattern, but parallel. Since McCosh left the presidency in 1888, only one Princeton president has not come directly from the faculty, Harold Shapiro *64 (who as a Princeton Ph.D. and then president of the University of Michigan was hardly inexperienced, albeit surprised at some Princeton behaviors such as alums venting opinions on athletics directly to the president). That’s 13 years out of 135. This presidential connection — let’s call it a more of a bond — to the single distinguished Princeton faculty, which has one dean, whose members all teach, certainly minimizes communication gaps and encourages subtle immediate feel for community issues, which in other places may completely elude the most skilled president’s grasp. 

Now, some might look on such presidential traditions (and perhaps the trustees who perpetuate them) as unduly inward-focused, although the undeniable quality of the grad students and the faculty, and their strengthening over the years, seem to undermine most alarm involved. Still, it’s false to suppose that a president who’s informed and widely experienced with Princeton can’t support mistaken causes, programs or people; they do and have. But the idea that some administrator from outside with little prior exposure to Princeton students or faculty might be better (except in some odd circumstance, please enlighten me) seems far-fetched. When national controversy arises concerning college presidents, which will continue due to the current politicization of the academy from outside, think about the above qualities and think about who’s being serious, and whether the institutions in question more closely resemble Princeton or General Motors.

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