January 29, 2013

University Presidents to Keep an Eye on

By Richard Vedder 

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 directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, teaches at Ohio University, and is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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