Margaret Spellings and Celebrity Leadership in Higher Education

If the night is always darkest just before the dawn, as the saying goes, it’s still the case that each new sunrise seems to dawn on yet another new head of a major university whose qualifications have much less to do with the specific nature of the institution to be led and much more to do with… well, what?

In a great new article, Jane Stancill heralds the new era for the University of North Carolina by pointing out all the issues folks have raised with new president Margaret Spellings:

Critics have seized on any number of things: her board service for a for-profit university; her $775,000 UNC salary; her lack of an advanced degree; her penchant for calling students “customers”; her past remarks about a PBS cartoon; her role in the No Child Left Behind law; her hiring of a consultant with private money to study the UNC system office; and her longtime association with former President George W. Bush, for whom she was an education adviser in Texas, domestic policy adviser in Washington, U.S. education secretary and most recently, head of his presidential center in Dallas.

Margaret Spellings is one of a long and growing list of university and college presidents whose institutional credentials — their relation to the people and processes they’ll be governing — are much less important than their ability to do “development” work and their putative business acumen.  And it’s not just the highest-level positions, either.  In Sandy Damico’s contribution to Seasons of a Dean’s Life, she tracks the growing prominence of fundraising experience in the list of desired qualifications featured in dean-level job postings.

So on the one hand, new administrators, from presidents on down, have to be good at attracting capital.  On the other hand, and at the same time, they have to be good at “promoting efficiency” and “eliminating waste,” which is where this putative business acumen comes in. Do more with less, is the mandate; but also, create more (to do less with?)

These are the pressures that brought now-ousted Mount Saint Mary’s president Simon Newman to power, whose business acumen was readily apparent in his concern with making enrollment numbers look good, whatever the actual conditions, even if it was less apparent in the tact with which he addressed those numbers.

These are the pressures that elevated Bruce Harreld to the presidency of the University of Iowa, despite lacking any experience in higher education leadership, or in higher education generally, and despite having fudged his own resume.   But he has connections to wealth and power, presumably, and that business acumen gleaned from executive positions with IBM and Boston Market.

Simon Newman’s presidency, I predict, will be alone in failing so spectacularly that it makes the Washington Post.  But these other presidencies, and many more besides, are already failures, and of a different kind.  Such presidencies are engineered to survive pressure brought on by conditions of scarcity, which would make some sense for for-profit enterprises or small private colleges.  But at flagship state universities — like Iowa and North Carolina — no such scarcity actually exists.  State funds continue to dry up, yes, and “accountability” talk remains all the rage, but these are the fruit of particular ways of seeing the world, not conditions of natural law.

The idea that citizens should only be narrowly and indirectly responsible for a general public good, that private individuals (and private corporations), with their tax breaks, are equally capable of and morally invested in looking after the larger social whole, is the reason that state funds are evaporating in the first place.

Great wealth is all around, even in Iowa. And yet a manufactured scarcity transforms the mission of our great state universities into the mission of every private business: More money in, less money out.  The new class of university presidents only makes this point explicit.

I think it was Milton Friedman who pointed out, accurately, that “the business of business is business.”

Well, now it’s the business of universities, too.

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