Blog Post

The Silence of the Presidents

This week's images of the corporate university turn out to be pretty indelible. Once seen, they are impossible to forget.

Like everyone else, I have been reflecting on the events at Penn State, Berkeley, and now Davis that have shaken U.S. higher education. Everyone knows the problems at these places and elsewhere—the continuing decline of public investment in research universities; the moral evacuation of such institutions in favor of business and athletics; the disappearance of a future for the cynosure of a responsible society, educated young people; and the unjustified attacks on faculty and student demonstrators who "occupy" Berkeley, Davis, and other campuses in protest of their university's complicity in the disempowerment of the middle and working classes.

What will happen next? I have no better idea than anyone else, but I can suppose one lesson that should come out of what we're seeing, the discrediting of the professional administrative class in higher education. One video, made today at UC Davis, tells the tale.

The context is, first, the shocking display of violence this week by a UC Davis campus police officer in spraying peaceful student protestors with pepper—a gesture that has since been defended by the chief of police; and a few days earlier, the no less astonishing reaction by UC Berkeley police to a mostly pacific demonstration by faculty members and students, in which (among other events) the director of Berkeley's Townsend Center for the Humanities, Professor Celeste Langan, was pulled to the ground by her hair and arrested.

There are many issues here, including the paramilitary character of the police tactics that have come to seem normal even on college campuses. James Fallows observes that "this is what happens when authority is unaccountable and has lost any sense of human connection to a subject population." I want to dwell on one academic version of this unaccountability.  

In the video here, the Chancellor of UC Davis, Linda Katehi, walks through a large group of students who confront her silently and with arms linked. Any educator would grab a microphone and try—at the least—to address the jagged differences in values that are palpable even in a video. But Katehi does nothing except walk to her car with a frozen look on her face.

Katehi's detached air, and most of all her silence, is the creepiest thing I have seen in these several weeks of tumult. The protestors' silence is a statement; Katehi's is an abdication.

Like Berkeley's Chancellor Robert Birgeneau (who waited four days to watch the videos of the demonstrations on his campus), Katehi is responsible for misconduct by campus police in the face of peaceful protest. They were obliged to brief their police officers on the limits of force, not only generally but in light of recent events that presaged peaceful but vivid protests at every campus. I suspect that Katehi will resign under pressure within a week or so, after she pushes out the officer shown in the video and the Chief of Police, Annette Spicuzza.

Katehi, Birgeneau, and former Penn State President Graham Spanier (as well as UC President Mark Yudof) have at least one thing in common: they belong to the class of professional administrators who have largely taken over public (and many private) American universities in the past twenty years.

Whatever they might have been earlier in their careers (in most cases, highly distinguished professors), these people are no longer really educators, scholars, or citizens of their communities. They are the hired agents of corporatized governing boards, moving from one university to another in search of some grail of ambition. It's not uncommon for presidents and chancellors to have held senior administrative positions at three, four, or five institutions. As far as I can tell, the four leaders mentioned above have had, among the lot of them, senior administrative roles at 14 universities in the U.S. and Canada. (Spanier's 16 years as president of Penn State was a long tenure, but it was his fourth high-level administrative job.) Having been everywhere, in another sense these people belong nowhere. They have been hired for certain things at which they excel: fundraising, cultivating outside constituencies, dreaming up new names for declining fortunes (this Partnership or that Compact), and remaking the "brands" of their campuses. 

Beholden to the business interests that dominate governing boards, and steeped in the conventional wisdom of the higher education establishment, these professional administrators lack the connection to the everyday work of their institutions that would let them produce, as Cathy Davidson proposes, a "Gettysburg Address" to confront the moral challenges of this moment. The most junior faculty member at one of these campuses would be better prepared for such a task. The unaccountability and lack of connection remarked by Fallows in police officers—and which could just as well be said of the athletic scandal at Penn State—starts at the top of these institutions.

The "Occupy" movement will have its successes in society at large, but on American campuses it might have one salutary result: to show governing boards that these itinerant professional administrators can't be entrusted with the future of our institutions. They may know how to run a campus day to day, but when some unforeseen event profoundly disrupts the life of a university, they tend to lack the capacity to respond as almost any regular professor would, with care and decency. Their first answer is silence—followed by rushed statements that temporize and obfuscate. 

The silence is not strategic or rational, even from a legal standpoint. It is, I think, plain befuddlement at a world gone awry from their plans and programs. It is the cognitive crisis of the corporate university—and I suspect we will see it more often in the months ahead. 

Universities such as Berkeley, Penn State, and Davis have legions of brilliant, passionate faculty members who deserve better leadership than what these figures provide. Each such campus includes a handful of faculty leaders—everyone there knows who they are—who could serve as presidents or chancellors right now.

It's time for trustees to bring a halt to this aspect of the corporate university in favor of local, indigenous leadership—and maybe, under a different kind of leader, other elements of corporatization would be called into question. (For example: why the budgetary crisis at Berkeley and many other places does not embolden administrations to reduce or even cancel intercollegiate athletics, I don't understand. The outcry would be unprecedented, but so would the resulting conversation about the priorities of a university.)

The silence of the presidents before crime and injustice reveals the failures of the model of corporate leadership into which many schools have sunk by degrees. Will some videos help to change that? 

Greene is a scholar of early modern culture, especially the literatures of England, Latin Europe, and the transatlantic world, and of poetry and poetics from the sixteenth century to the present. He is the author or editor of five books and many articles. His current projects include books on the poetry of the hemispheric Americas and on the Baroque. Since 2001 he has taught at Stanford University, where he is the Mark Pigott KBE Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences.