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Archive for Sunday, May 14, 2006

A difficult year for college presidents comes to a close

May 14, 2006

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— This year, college students aren't the only ones ready for summer.

The academic year that's winding down has been one of the most contentious in recent memory, and a brutal one for college presidents. Several high-profile leaders including Harvard's Lawrence Summers lost their jobs, while others are facing unprecedented crises, from hurricane recovery to the Duke lacrosse scandal.

"This has probably been as hard a year for presidents as we've had since the Vietnam era," said Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education.

Circumstances vary, but broad themes are apparent. Often, the cast of characters includes an ambitious president, alumni and faculty who insist on being actively consulted, and a board of trustees caught in the middle - all under the media spotlight.

Harvard's Summers got the most attention, but he was just one of several high-profile presidents to fall recently.

Case Western Reserve's Edward Hundert announced his resignation in March, after angering faculty and lackluster fundraising. William Cooper, of the University of Richmond, was toppled by an alumni revolt over his management style and comments comparing students there to "mush." The University of Maine's chancellor stepped down after four quarrelsome years, and American University fired its president in an expense-account scandal.

Other presidents still have their jobs, but their hands are full. Gallaudet University's newly chosen president is facing a revolt over her qualifications to lead the country's only liberal arts college for the deaf. In recent weeks, faculty have passed no-confidence votes in the presidents of Eastern Oregon and Indiana State universities, while a similar vote at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York narrowly failed.

Stephen Trachtenberg, outgoing president of George Washington University, poses in his office in Washington, Thursday, May 11, 2006. Modern college presidents must be "intellectual leaders, scholars, managers, sensitive to people, knowledgeable about monetary affairs and investments, boosters of athletics, culture and dance, good with neighbors, agile fundraisers," said Trachtenberg, who recently _ and without any particular controversy _ announced plans to retire after 19 years as president of George Washington University. "The job description is so expansive and so unforgiving that what is impressive is there are as many people as are willing to stand up and take a shot."

Stephen Trachtenberg, outgoing president of George Washington University, poses in his office in Washington, Thursday, May 11, 2006. Modern college presidents must be "intellectual leaders, scholars, managers, sensitive to people, knowledgeable about monetary affairs and investments, boosters of athletics, culture and dance, good with neighbors, agile fundraisers," said Trachtenberg, who recently _ and without any particular controversy _ announced plans to retire after 19 years as president of George Washington University. "The job description is so expansive and so unforgiving that what is impressive is there are as many people as are willing to stand up and take a shot."

Then there's New Orleans, where several colleges were almost destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and presidents including Tulane's Scott Cowen are now facing criticism from students and faculty over budget cuts. At Duke, President Richard Brodhead is confronting the national fallout from rape allegations against two lacrosse players.

Of course, with more than 4,000 degree-granting institutions nationwide, it's hardly surprising to see several college presidents have a difficult time each year.

Yet many academics agree 2005-06 seemed exceptionally discordant. They also agree it's getting harder to be a successful president.

Many leaders are overwhelmed by the unrelenting fundraising demands (22 colleges are in the midst of official campaigns to raise at least $1 billion), tripped up by big-time sports programs, or bowled over by parents and students who pay more than ever and no longer hesitate to complain about the slightest imperfections.

Many also agree on another factor behind the turmoil: the new, CEO-style leaders that many colleges hire, and who arrive with agendas for reform. When people like Summers push - and faculties push back - the friction can be intense.

Some veterans of the job say college presidents should be held to a high standard, but worry it's become an unforgiving one.

"The slightest transgression by anybody on campus is brought to the president's threshold," said Stephen Trachtenberg, who recently - and without any particular controversy - announced plans to retire after 19 years as president of George Washington University. "The president is supposed to not only do a mea culpa, but fall on their sword."

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