Tuesday, June 22, 2021
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How Should We Pick Penn State’s Next President? Thoughts from the Star-Man in the Well

Universities are sui generis, which is a fancy way of saying that they’re not businesses or governments or non-governmental organizations or bowling leagues. They’re their own thing – nothing else quite like them.

I bring this up amid staff and faculty concerns about the way Penn State has launched its search for a successor to President Eric Barron.

Specifically, the board of trustees has appointed an 18-member Presidential Recruitment and Selection Committee. Number of faculty members on the committee: two.

A lot of faculty members are unhappy about this. At this writing, more than 700 of us have signed a petition to that effect. (Kudos to my colleague Mary Beth Oliver for getting the ball rolling.)

In their defense, the trustees point to the Next Gen Penn State survey, which asked respondents what qualities they’d like to see in the university’s next president. Close to 2,000 faculty took part, but there’s been a lot of grumbling about the survey design.

Here’s what’s irksome about the composition of the selection committee. First, there’s the obvious: Two voices out of 18 means faculty will have little say in who is chosen to run the joint. 

Then there’s the implication: that we profs have little to contribute to the hiring process.

And behind the implication, I suspect, is a set of stereotypes about head-in-the-clouds academics that reaches all the way back to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales, who, legend has it, was gazing so fixedly at the stars that he fell down a well.

The 18th-century English writer Charles Denis tacked on this moral to his translation of La Fontaine’s version of “the star-man in the well” story: 

How many folks, in country, and in town, 

Neglect their principal affaire;

And let, for want of due repair, 

A real house fall down,

To build a castle in the air?

Perhaps the trustees think this is what would happen to dear old State if they let the castles-in-the-air builders get too involved in university governance.

The stereotype, they should know, is as out of date as the image of the professor as a tweedy, hirsute, bespectacled, pipe-smoking white male. Some of us (hirsute, bespectacled, pale-faced present company excluded) not only wouldn’t fall down a well; we would know how to build the well, what the well would cost and what the well’s impact would be on the local water table.

Another stubborn stereotype lurks here: the belief that the captains of industry know best how to run any and all enterprises. Note the composition of the Board of Trustees. Once you get past the five ex officio members, which include the university president himself, the governor of the state (both nonvoting members) and three state cabinet secretaries, 30 of the 33 remaining members are some kind of higher-up in the world of business, industry or law. 

And while we’re on the subject, consider this: Only seven of the 38 members of the board are women, two are African-American and two are Hispanic. In other words, in the year 2021, the governance of Pennsylvania’s state university is overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly white. 

One other note about the makeup of the board: There’s no one from the arts and humanities world. Again, the persistent stereotypes. Soft-headed types make art and poetry and music. Hard-headed types run things.

I have nothing against the trustees. I’m sure they’re all very good at what they do. But what they do has nothing to do with higher education. 

A concern circulating among Penn State faculty is that the current process could land us someone like Purdue University’s current president, Mitch Daniels, or the University of Iowa’s past president, Bruce Harreld. 

Daniels’ background is entirely in business and government. He has no work experience in academia. Harreld taught in the Harvard Business School (after a career in business), but has no academic administrative experience. 

In most fields of endeavor, one is expected to work one’s way up to the top job. In academia, that would mean going from rank-and-file faculty to department head, to associate dean, to dean, to vice provost, provost, vice president, etc. 

A strong candidate wouldn’t have to touch all those bases, but if you haven’t touched some of them you probably don’t have a comprehensive enough sense of how academic life works. 

I don’t know beans about banking or real estate or law or farming and I would never presume to tell anyone in any of those sectors how to run their businesses. 

All we’re asking the board of trustees to recognize is that they don’t know beans about higher ed and should place the hiring of our 19th president in the hands of those who do. 

For precedent, we don’t have to look any further than the hiring process that brought us President Barron in 2013. A Search and Screen Committee consisted of nine faculty members; one staff member; two deans; one vice president; three students; and one representative each from athletics and the Alumni Association.

Oh, and one other thing: Penn State has had 18 presidents. They’ve all been white men. Time to change things up, no?