A few weeks ago, in a conversation with an engineering dean at a university in another state, I was asked, “If you had it to do again, would you be the chancellor of a public university?” I’ve often thought of the things I would do differently if I had the opportunity to be UA’s chancellor again, but not would I be willing to do it again.
My response to the question then is the same as it is now, NO! In my most recent post about G. David Gearhart’s, Confessions of a Chancellor: The Politics of Higher Education, I mentioned “the underbelly of public universities—politics, inside and outside the academy.” The polarization that has occurred in society has poisoned the well for me—and probably for many others.
People ask why there aren’t better candidates available for elective offices, but they aren’t willing to be candidates themselves. They aren’t willing to be subjected to the negativity accompanying the election process. I find myself in the same position regarding serving as the chancellor of a public university.
The polarization within state legislatures is bad enough (and is getting worse), but it is accompanied by governing boards that have lost sight of their responsibilities to provide oversight, not management of universities. Examples abound of university trustees who don’t adhere to the sound advice Frank Rhodes, former president of Cornell University, gave to members of the National Science Board when he served as chairman: “have your noses in, but fingers out.”
In bonus material posted on https://johnawhitejr.com/WhyItMatters/, I describe how, when he was Governor, George W. Bush chose university trustees in Texas. When he met with candidates, he asked them to elaborate on the differences between oversight and management. He reminded them that the role of trustees wasn’t to manage the university, but to select people who would do so. Bush understood that trustees need to have their noses in and fingers out insofar as managing universities is concerned.
This is not a new concept. More than 2,000 years ago, Sun Tzu addressed the dangers of leaders micromanaging. In The Art of War, he said, “Now there are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army: When ignorant that the army should not advance, to order an advance or ignorant that it should not retire, to order a retirement. This is described as ‘hobbling the army’. When ignorant of military affairs, to participate in their administration. This causes the officers to be perplexed. When ignorant of command problems to share in the exercise of responsibilities. This engenders doubts in the minds of the officers.”
Lest you wonder, I have no regrets about serving as UA’s chancellor. I’m thankful I did so during a time that was quite different than it is today. I’m also pleased there are some who follow King Henry V’s command, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.”