Topic 13: Requiem for the academic college president

Debate Question: In this article (published in the Daily Pennsylvanian which is distributed at the University of Pennsylvania) the author objects to the appointment of a person with meager academic credentials to be a President of a University. Was this appointment unethical?

Source: Daily Pennsylvanian

Jonathan Shazar: Requiem for the academic college president
February 14, 2002

Last month, the University of Vermont announced that Executive Vice President John Fry was one of four finalists in its search for a new president. Understandably, the Penn community focused on what Fry's departure would mean for the University. Since his arrival here in 1995, Fry and University President Judith Rodin have comprehensively changed the way Penn does business, increasing efficiency and saving money at the same time.

But there was something almost totally lacking in that discussion -- what would the broader repercussions of Fry's selection as president of UVM be?

Today, those repercussions are no longer something simply to ponder -- they are real. John Fry, MBA, is the next president of Franklin and Marshall College.

More important, he is the first president of such a high-caliber institution to have no scholarly credentials whatsoever.

Traditionally, university presidents come from the academy. They rise through the ranks, as professors, department chairs, associate deans, deans, deputy provosts and provosts before finally reaching the coveted office.

Until he came to Penn, Fry had never worked for a university. He never held a faculty position. He doesn't have a Ph.D. or J.D., as does nearly every other college president in the country.

And this is great cause for concern.

It is foolish to pretend that the days of the quiet, bumbling college president whiling away his time in deep thought about the great problems of the world are still with us. Its also naive to pretend that college presidents, even at elite schools, even in the Ivy League, are still first and foremost public intellectuals.

The days when Ivy League presidents had the ear of United States presidents are long over. There are no more James Bryant Conants and Woodrow Wilsons sitting at the top of academic institutions.

One need only look at Conant and Wilson's most recent successors to leave office for evidence. Harvard's ex-president Neil Rudenstine and Princeton's former leader Harold Shapiro were not noted for their achievements in government or as scholars.

Rather, they will be remembered as prolific fundraisers.

Today, time once spent on academic endeavors is now spent schmoozing possible donors. Our own president rarely steps into the classroom today, and the once prolific author has published barely a word since her appointment in 1994.

She's not just the president of the University of Pennsylvania, she's the CEO of a multi-billion dollar organization, the largest private employer in the city of Philadelphia.

Judith Rodin is at the forefront of modern college presidents -- she's slick, she's savvy and she talks like a politician. She's been the primary force behind the corporatization of this university during the last decade.

That cornerstone of the Rodin administration -- corporatization -- has rightly been a considerable concern both nationally and at Penn; it is one of the most controversial issues in higher education today.

Proponents, including Fry and Rodin, point to Penn's success not only in the financial and business realms, but also in the academic realm.

As a measure, take the U.S. News and World Report college rankings. The pages of this newspaper in September 1995 beamed the wonderful news that the University had reached its highest position ever -- 11th place, for the first time besting more than one other Ivy League school.

Last semester, we used similar language to describe the University's most recent jump -- to fifth place, tied with MIT and behind only Harvard, Princeton and Yale in the Ivy League.

But opponents make some very strong claims of their own. There is a fear, one that is not unfounded, that business concerns today trump academic ones, that administrators in positions similar to Fry's have become too powerful.

Former University President Martin Meyerson recognized this when he noted that Fry's greatest challenge should he become a college president would be faculty resistance, saying, "At various institutions, the faculty might think that this is not the kind of person they particularly want."

In 1999, The Chronicle of Higher Education explained why in a profile of Fry and the new, corporate Penn: "Professors have, for the most part, retreated to their classrooms. A number of faculty members declined to be quoted about Mr. Fry, saying that they feared retribution, or that they find protest futile in the face of the strong current administration."

Regardless of what you think about John Fry's prospects for success at F&M, the silencing of the faculty is a deeply troubling development, a symptom of the sea change in academia from big ideas to big business. John Fry's appointment is the deathblow to the idealized vision of the college president primarily as a scholar and educator.

And the loss of that ideal should be mourned. Colleges and universities shouldn't be run like businesses because they are not businesses. Treating a presidential search the same way you would treat the search for a new CEO is, as this page noted last month, "a cynical recognition" of what higher education in this country has become.

Corporatization has done wonders for Penn aesthetically and on paper. We have pretty, expensive stores to shop in. We even have a trendy Stephen Starr restaurant. Our finances are in the best shape they've ever been. Everything is bright and wonderful.

But at what cost? It is cliche to ask what the effect is on the "soul" of the institution, but it is a fundamentally important question.

Is a university at its heart an academic institution? If it is, then academics must come first, and making a man with no background as an educator and no scholarly credentials the president of a well-respected private liberal arts college will only hasten the downward spiral toward what has been called "Campus, Inc."

Last modified: Wed Sep 13 14:57:24 EDT 2000