College presidency needs conviction, efficiency, rapport

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

College administration differs from any other kind, says president Donna Shalala of Hunter College after 22 months on the job. ''And it's more interesting,'' she quickly adds.

Its uniqueness, she said, derives from the nature of the faculty and the self-governing role they have cherished through the centuries, since scholars first gathered in colleges at places such as Oxford and Paris.

''Any administrator who comes in from outside and doesn't respect that tradition will not survive,'' she noted.

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A short woman of informal and friendly manner, Dr. Shalala speaks rapidly and has moved rapidly - she was 38 when she became president of Hunter - in her career.

Immediately before coming to Hunter, she served in the Carter administration as an assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Earlier, while teaching and chairing a program in politics and education at Columbia University Teachers College, she served on the Municipal Assistance Corporation set up to wrestle with the financial crisis in New York City.

That crisis, she said, grew from a combination of decisions made under political pressure and the impact of outside economic forces, not from lack of administrative talent on the part of New York mayors.

One result of the crisis, which now gives Dr. Shalala and Hunter a sounder financial base, was a shift to New York State of responsibility for Hunter and 16 other colleges in the City University of New York (CUNY).

What did she learn about administration from President Carter? ''Negative,'' she said. ''Personally, I liked him enormously. But he wanted more information than was appropriate for his level. And he didn't conceptualize, didn't put the details into the big picture.''

Her impression of President Reagan is that, although he avoids overinvolvement with detail, he ''doesn't understand the substance.''

As a college president, Dr. Shalala tries to steer clear of both errors. ''I identify the policy aspects, but I'm not interfering in day-to-day operations,'' she explained.

Hunter has 750 full-time faculty, about that many part-time faculty, and 500 general staff, she said. They serve a student body of 18,000. That means many calls for presidential attention. ''They want you into every detail.''

Dr. Shalala seldom takes up individual cases, unless they represent a trend that needs attention, she says.

Directing the general staff, Dr. Shalala said, resembles administration anywhere, and she organizes it ''hierarchically.''

She said that she had also made personal changes so that ''the administration is no longer run by PhDs, but by real administrators who know about things like carpeting.''

After undergraduate work in her home state of Ohio and a Peace Corps stint in Iran, she earned her PhD in government administration at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University. So she allows that PhDs may at times possess administrative capacity, but she thinks they generally lack the training and temperament for it.

Dr. Shalala has the temperament to consider such tasks as building maintenance relevant to good education. ''The floors at Hunter are clean, I hope you noticed,'' she said. ''That is one of my accomplishments. I think it is important because it affects how students feel about the institution and how faculty feel, and therefore how students are treated.''

(The day of this interview was registration day. Not only the floors were clean, but the lines were short and moving swiftly - an accomplishment this administrator spoke of with considerable pride.)

A quite different part of college administration, Dr. Shalala said, is leadership of the faculty. ''Here the concept is primus inter pares'' (first among equals), she said. ''I change my coat when I meet with the faculty.

''In this area, administration is not like anywhere else,'' she said. ''You don't just decide something and do it. Things like curriculum and promotions are basically in the hands of the faculty. A president can shape these decisions, but must enter the process as a colleague.''

As a former professor herself, Dr. Shalala can say, ''I understand in my heart what primus inter paresm is all about.'' She also has an appointment as professor of political science at Hunter, and has taught a course each year she has been there - though this year's schedule may not allow enough time.

As Dr. Shalala analyzes how she uses her time, it appears most of it is spent in meetings. She identified three types: those connected with the CUNY relationship, regular Hunter meetings, and planning meetings she herself initiates. Each type, she said, takes about a fourth of her time.

She also estimated that she gives about a fourth of her time to outside activities, including service on 25 boards.

But then there is that pile of reports waiting on her desk to consume a couple of early morning hours. She also accepts the role of ''ombudsperson'' for students in relation to faculty and for faculty in relation to the outside world.

All in all, Dr. Shalala seems to devote considerably more than 100 percent of her time to her various responsibilites. And, she pointed out, now that she's No. l, she can't go to sleep during the many meetings she must attend.

''Now I can't do that, or they'll say the president isn't interested. . . .''

At Hunter, she said, administration is more difficult than at a private institution like a teachers college, because here funds come from a ''line item'' budget that is voted by the legislature and does not allow the flexibility of trading in a professor for more library books.

Notwithstanding all that, she affirmed without qualification that she likes the job of administrator.

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