Friday, February 16, 2007

Selling your university franchise 

I had a chance meeting with someone who is serving on the committee for our university's search for a new president. Happy with the quality of the candidates the committee has reviewed (when isn't this the case?) he said "I hope people remember that a search is a two-way street. We're interviewing them, and they're interviewing us." He implied, of course, that we sometimes don't present ourselves very well in that process.

In today's Chronicle of Higher Education (subscriber's link) are comments by five people identified as targets of the search for the Harvard presidency, a position recently filled) on the reasons they might not take the job. One reason is that you are satisfied with your current job. Hanna Gray, former president of the University of Chicago, said
It is absolutely no reflection on an institution or on a person that the person makes the choice of remaining in a position where his or her investment and commitment are both satisfying and significant in their consequence.
Lawrence Bacow, president of Tufts, echoes that sentiment, saying that since Harvard will be a great institution regardless of who runs it (presumably because of its history and its faculty and its endowment), the marginal return to leadership may be greater elsewhere. That's true, but why is it that presidents would value the perceived marginal value of their product, rather than the prestige of the job they have? Analogous to this, would you rather become head coach of a moribund football team (say, the Arizona Cardinals), a disappointing football team (Dallas Cowboys), or a team with the best record in the NFL (San Diego Chargers)?

Of course, there's more to it than the prestige of the school or the football team's franchise. Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, on why he reportedly had turned down a chance to interview for the Harvard job:
To really succeed in the job, to use an overused clich�, you have to make the whole more than the sum of the parts. Many of my friends on the faculty at Harvard currently say the whole is less than the sum.

There is a disconnect between some of the faculty who have a real commitment to reforming undergraduate education at Harvard [and others there]. A lot of bright lights want to make this happen, but somehow it hasn't been incorporated into the fabric of the institution; it hasn't become part of the culture there. ... It's not a Harvard-specific challenge. ... I would say that many institutions have recognized that a number of years ago and have started a culture change. At Harvard the improvements are still mostly in the future.
He didn't see it at Harvard. Do we see it here? The fellow I spoke with this morning said the search committee heard perceptions from the candidates they interviewed that whatever bad reputations we had in the past were largely gone, and that we were "a pretty good state university." I'd settle for pretty good, given where we were. But is there a commitment to reforming undergraduate education? Are we pretty good because we haven't had a lawsuit for a few years that made the newspapers, or was there a cultural change?

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