Wanted: Someone Who Knows Nothing About the Job

From NYT article.

In one of those ironies that makes life interesting, the University of Colorado, which dismissed controversial professor Ward Churchill because of doubts about his academic qualifications, has appointed a president who doesn’t have any. (The final vote was taken on Feb. 20.)

Bruce Benson is an oilman, Republican activist, failed candidate for governor, co-chairman of Mitt Romney’s (now ended) campaign, successful fund raiser, donor to the university, former chairman of the Metropolitan State College Denver Board and chair of a blue-ribbon panel on higher education. Obviously he has a strong interest in education, but his highest degree is a B.A., and he has never been a member of a faculty or engaged in research or published papers in a learned journal. In short, he is no way an academic, and yet he is about become the president of an academic institution, and not any old institution, but a state university ranked 11th among public universities and 34th among universities overall.

Not surprisingly, the announcement a short while ago that he was the only candidate being put forward by the 17-person search committee drew protests from faculty, students and some alumni. The faculty assembly voted 40-4 against him. A group called ProgressNow gathered signatures for an “oppose Benson” petition. The House Majority leader, Democrat Alice Madden, said that when she heard the news, she though it was a “really bad” joke; she added that “he will be the least educated president ever considered in modern history.”

Maybe in Colorado. But some people in West Virginia believe that they have a candidate for the “least educated president” prize. Like Benson, Michael Garrison has no advanced degrees in an academic subject (although he does at least have a law degree), and his appointment, in April of last year, was opposed by the Faculty Senate.

Again like Benson, Garrison has a long-term interest in higher education – he was chairman of the state’s Higher Education Policy Committee – but his main career work has been first as a chief of staff to a former governor and subsequently as a lobbyist. In recent months he has become involved in a rather murky controversy. A daughter of the present governor (a Democrat and a political ally) had claimed a degree on her resume that apparently was never awarded. When apprised of this fact, a university spokesperson said that a clerical error had been made and that the degree had indeed been earned.

But some inside and outside the university claim that the record had been re-written after the story broke. The university has now established a panel to review the matter, and Garrison has denied that he did anything wrong, or did anything at all: “The president does not award degrees.” The affair has revived suspicions that Garrison’s appointment was politically motivated.

Two different states, two different political parties, but the same concerns about the academic credentials of an academic leader, about the integrity of the search that led to his appointment and about the corruption of a supposedly academic process by partisan interests.

These concerns, however, should be separated and distinguished. It is mostly faculty members who focus on the process questions – was it a genuine search? were member of the committee acting as political agents? was the fix in? – and assume that the wrong answers (no, yes and yes) would be enough to invalidate the search. But this only demonstrates how little they understand about the world of senior administrative searches. While it would be wrong to take into account the political affiliations or business connections or wealth of a candidate for a faculty position, it would be wrong not to take these things into account when choosing a president.

The reason is obvious: the political and financial profile of a faculty candidate are irrelevant to what you want him or her to do. But the political and financial profile of an administrative candidate are altogether relevant because what you want him or her to do is not produce scholarship or teach inspiring classes (although both would be welcome bonuses), but interact successfully with a number of external constituencies including regents, legislators, governors, the press and donors – to name a few. The search for such a person cannot be purely academic, because the responsibilities of the office are not purely academic.

By the same reasoning, it is unrealistic and even unwise to expect a search of this kind to be open in the sense that you cast your net as widely as possible and just see what turns up. If the qualifications for the job include the ability to win friends and influence the right people, it would be good to have spotted some types who fill that bill in advance, and then make sure that the rails are a little greased for them.

The truth is that there are no perfectly straightforward senior administrative searches. They are all a bit cooked, and often they serve more as window dressing than as genuinely deliberative processes. Indeed, given that search committees are always advisory, those asked to serve on them should be aware that the work they do will quite possibly be to no effect, either because a decision had been made before the process ever began or because the ball is taken away and given to someone else just as the goal is approached. (The phrase “university service” takes on new meaning for those who agree to participate in this piece of theater.) That’s just the way it is, and it’s not a matter of blame, but a consequence of a process that straddles two worlds, the world of teaching and scholarship and the world of high-stakes finance and politics. Those who complained about that process in Colorado wanted it to be confined to only one on those worlds, forgetting that executive leadership requires skills most faculty members neither possess nor appreciate.

But a parallel mistake is made from the other direction by those who dismiss the importance of academic skills. Their argument (which I heard at dinner last week when I was in Boulder) is that academic credentials are not that necessary because management skills, like those Benson is presumed to have, are transferable f


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