- - Sunday, May 27, 2018


By Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, Gerald B. Kauvar and E. Gordon Gee

Johns Hopkins University Press, $34.95, 310 pages

In their last book, “Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How To Prevent It,” Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and Gerald B. Kauvar, along with E. Grady Bogue, wrote a critical study of unsuccessful college presidencies.

This time around, with E. Gordon Gee, the president of West Virginia University as the third editor, they present a collection of essays from more than 30 very distinguished academicians, all present or former college or university presidents.

The contributors to this readable and, dare I say it given the complexity of the subject, enjoyable volume represent the full spectrum of schools in the United States, and all these men and women have, as the cliche has it, “been there and done that” with success.

“Leading Colleges and Universities” doesn’t contain something just for those who in higher education; there is something of value here for anyone who runs an organization, be it a governmental agency or a Cub Scout den. Good advice is often applicable across the board, no academic pun intended.

The essays are divided into four sections: Getting Started; Internal Challenges; External Challenges; and Personal Challenges, plus a seven-page Concluding Thoughts section written by the three editors. (President Emeritus Trachtenberg and his friend and colleague Gerald Kauvar have worked together — both at George Washington University and before that, at Boston College — for so long that they could probably finish one another’s sentences, written as well as oral.)

The range and diversity of the contributors to this book are impressive, and a number of the names will be familiar to Washingtonians, including William Kirwan, who’d held all the top posts at the University of Maryland, Sanford Ungar, once a Washington Post reporter and then a dean at American University, president of Goucher College from 2001 to 2014, and today the director of the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University, and Angel Cabrera, president of George Mason University (the first native of Spain to head an American university).

In the preface, the editors state: “This book is not a primer for how to be a college or university president It is the editors’ hope that offering candid reflections and examples from successful practitioners will prove to be more effective and interesting than trying to codify the principles (should there be any) of senior level leadership It is our belief that our contributors, to parrot the language of the commercial for the Fireman’s Fund insurance Company, ‘know a thing or two because they’ve seen a thing or two.’ “

Thus, it is both interesting and instructive to look at the problems (and pleasures) of the “Ed Biz” from these lofty perspectives.

Some examples: Michael K. Young, who has been president of Texas A&M, and of the universities of Washington and Utah, advised: “Don’t go anywhere you can’t fall in love with ” [and], “Find a strong assistant who knows the school well and can say ‘no’ to you.”

Mark G. Yudof: “The best administrative job I ever held was being dean of the University of Texas Law School. Better than being president or chancellor of three universities? You bet (or you betcha in Minnesota). The faculty was smaller than the average public university English department, the colleagues were brilliant and engaged, the students were a blessing, the legislature rarely bothered me, and the media more or less left me alone Those days ended when I assumed the top administrative job.”

The editors’ final take, “Concluding Thoughts” in the Personal Thoughts section at the book’s end, is sprinkled with humorous asides, such as “Important too is the need to maintain the academic integrity of the institution and to be certain the gift doesn’t come with restrictions that would suggest otherwise. The wisdom of the late Cardinal Cushing (the only trouble with tainted money is that there tain’t enough, and that money is sanctified by its use) isn’t always sufficient. Years ago one of us was offered a gift of $10 million by Moammar Gadhafi and turned it down. Wouldn’t you?”

In one of the book’s final essays, Mary Sue Coleman, who’d been president of two universities (Michigan and Iowa) before becoming president of the American Association of Universities, writes that as tough and lonely as it may sometimes be at the top, the bottom line is that most of them in fact love it — or should:

“Almost every day, I found something to smile about or to celebrate or to ‘touch the future’ in the company of bright, engaging, and creative young people. In tough times, remember to rejoice in your good fortune to have been chosen to lead your Institution.”

• Washington-based writer John Greenya’s book “Gorsuch: The Judge Who Speaks for Himself,” was published in January.

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