- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 14, 2006

BOSTON — This year, college students aren’t the only ones anxious for summer.

The academic year that’s winding down has been one of the most contentious in recent memory, and a brutal one for college presidents. Several high-profile leaders, including Harvard’s Lawrence Summers lost their jobs, while others are facing unprecedented crises, from hurricane recovery to the Duke lacrosse scandal.

“This has probably been as hard a year for presidents as we’ve had since the Vietnam era,” said Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education.

Circumstances vary, but broad themes are apparent. Often, the cast of characters includes an ambitious president, alumni and faculty who insist on being actively consulted, and a board of trustees caught in the middle — all under the media spotlight.

Mr. Summers got the most attention, but he was just one of several high-profile presidents to fall in recent months.

Case Western Reserve’s Edward Hundert announced his resignation in March, after he angered faculty and lackluster fundraising. William Cooper of the University of Richmond was toppled by an alumni revolt over his management style and comments comparing students there to “mush.” The University of Maine chancellor stepped down after four quarrelsome years, and American University fired its president, Benjamin Ladner, in an expense-account scandal.

Other presidents still have their jobs, but their hands are full. Gallaudet University’s newly chosen president, Jane K. Fernandes, is facing a revolt over her qualifications to lead the country’s only liberal arts college for the deaf. The faculty issued a no-confidence vote for her and urged the school’s board of trustees to reopen the presidential-search process.

Also in recent weeks, faculty have passed no-confidence votes for the presidents of Eastern Oregon and Indiana State universities, but a similar vote at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the nation’s first engineering school, in Troy, N.Y., only narrowly failed.

Then in New Orleans, where several colleges were almost destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, college presidents, including Tulane’s Scott Cowen, face criticism from students and faculty over budget cuts. At Duke University in Durham, N.C., President Richard Broadhead is confronting the national fallout from rape accusations against two lacrosse players.

Many leaders are overwhelmed by the unrelenting fundraising demands (22 colleges are in the midst of official campaigns to raise at least $1 billion), tripped up by big-time sports programs, or bowled over by parents and students who pay more than ever and no longer hesitate to complain about the slightest imperfections.

Many also agree on another factor behind the campus turmoil: the new, CEO-style leaders that many colleges hire, and who arrive with major agendas for reform. When such leaders as Mr. Summers push — and faculties push back — the friction can be intense.

“As the academy becomes every more corporatized, as presidents are less academic leaders and colleagues and more CEOs, then faculty who retain the proud identity of an academic are going to be estranged,” said Roger Bowen, president of the American Association of University Professors.

But Anne Neal, of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said the problem is trustees’ caving in to faculty pressure and failing to give presidents the support they need to impose “tough-love” changes, such as curriculum reform.

Some veterans of the job say college presidents should be held to a high standard, but worry it’s become an unforgiving one.

“The slightest transgression by anybody on campus is brought to the president’s threshold,” said Stephen Trachtenberg, who recently announced plans to retire after 19 years as president of George Washington University. “The president is supposed to not only do a mea culpa, but fall on their sword.”

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