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The role of a college president. Is `fund raiser' displacing traditional `scholar, teacher, leader'?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 1, 1986


WHEN Boston University president John Silber recently bestowed an honorary degree on South African Zulu leader Chief Gatsha Buthelezi - a moderate who opposes sanctions - he provoked a small furor among some BU faculty and students. They charged that it was an attention-grabbing power play designed to further Silber's own conservative political agenda. It was inappropriate for a college, they said. Other BU faculty and outside educators, however, say college presidents are supposed to stir controversy. They note, as does an Oct. 10 New Republic magazine item, that while pro-sanction South African leaders such as Nelson Mandela regularly command front-page headlines in the Western press, Chief Buthelezi ``is reduced to writing frequent letters to American newspapers.''

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In fact, many educators who take a longer view see the recent Silber tempest as a paradox. It comes at a time when the role of the college president as a civic and intellectual leader has never been more devalued, they say. With the exception of Derek Bok at Harvard and Donald Kennedy at Stanford, few college presidents command much attention. Instead, there has been a steady retreat among these figures from two historically major roles: the college president as a preeminent scholar and teacher, and as a leader in debate and discourse on local and national public policy.

Chancellor Joseph Duffey of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who in the past three months has given honorary degrees to Zimbabwe socialist leader Robert Mugabe and Argentine president Ra'ul Alfons'in, says such actions ``go against the conventional grain of student-faculty expectation.'' He feels college presidents today must ``fight to establish a voice on campus - contend both with and for the faculty.'' Silber has tried to ``rise above a typical bureaucratic role,'' he adds.

The problem, most experts agree, is the rise of a ``managerial class'' of college presidents.

``Administration has become a self-contained profession,'' says Leon Botstein, president of Bard College in upstate New York. ``College presidents have become enamored with bureaucracy. Rarely are they scholars of note who are integrally connected with the functions of learning on campus.''

Experts point out that college presidents have had a far more complex job in recent years because of economics and demographics. In a recent poll of 500 public university presidents, the Chronicle of Higher Education found finance and enrollment were the two top priorities. Thus, say experts, presidents have slowly become fund raisers rather than spokesmen for the mission of higher education.

This underlines a ``key current debate'' that will determine the integrity of colleges over the next 20 years, say such leaders as Ernest Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation, author of a recent massive study on colleges: Will campus leadership reemphasize the primary role of education in the schools, or be reduced to pure management?

``The president has the job of providing the vision,'' says Dr. Boyer. ``Without that, the inspiration is gone.''