AT a time when colleges and universities face major challenges -- cutbacks in student financial aid, scandals in college athletic programs, academic standards lowered or compromised for vocational interests -- A. Bartlett Giamatti is a steadfast defender of what he sees as the mission of higher education: ``to constantly order the mind so as to set it free.'' In 1978, Dr. Giamatti became Yale University's 19th president, the youngest in more than two centuries and the first not to come from wholly Anglo-Saxon stock (his father is of Italian, his mother of English ancestry). A former English professor and recognized authority on Renaissance epic poetry, he began his tenure with no administrative background.
When told he was being considered for the position, he impishly quipped: ``The only presidency I ever coveted was president of the American League,'' spotlighting his lifelong love affair with the Boston Red Sox. He nonetheless emerged as an outspoken champion of higher education. Recently, he announced plans to resign next June.
``The university is our culture's assertion that what is made by the mind has value and can convey values,'' he told the Monitor in a lengthy interview at his corner office in historic Woodbridge Hall, near the center of this Ivy League campus known for its granite buildings. ``Universities are not here to be mediums for the coercion of other people,'' he says; ``they're here to be mediums for the free exchange of ideas. Americans have been remarkably devoted to the capacity for belief, to idealism. That's why we get into trouble all the time. We're always viewed as naive.''
Looking back on his seven years in office, he feels the greatest challenge has been the myriad of constituencies a college president faces. He ticks them off: federal, state, and municipal demands, alumni and legislative demands, legal demands; personnel issues with faculty, staff, unions; the needs of students and alumni; the requirements of travel and the ceremonial function of representing the university to the outside world; and the internal appointments process, the budgetary process, the allocation process. They ``all tug and pull for your attention,'' he says.
``And then of course there's supposed to be some time for reflection about the direction of the institution or the direction of education. There's supposed to be some visionary -- no, that's too fancy -- some capacity to think about what's ahead for the institution,'' he adds.
During his tenure Giamatti presided over the doubling of the endowment, from about $500 million in 1979 to nearly $1 billion today, which included a doubling of alumni giving. He reversed the downward slide of faculty salaries. He improved the physical plant and emphasized restoration of historic buildings, while overseeing the construction of a new library.
Himself the son of a Yale graduate, Giamatti eased Yale's traditional town-gown antagonisms. Despite a bitter 10-week strike last fall between the university and its clerical workers over a comparable-worth pay issue, he was chosen to head this year's United Way campaign for Greater New Haven.
Last fall, a report issued by a national commission chaired by Clark Kerr declared that ``the American college, and the university presidency in particular, [are] in trouble.'' It described college presidents as ``a group of able, well-motivated people'' who, nevertheless, are unable to lead their institutions the way they would like, especially on academic matters that are the very essence of the institution's reason for being.
Giamatti says one of the greatest dilemmas a president faces is a prevailing sense that the faculty has split off from the administration in acting as stewards for the university's academic mission. It ``is something that has happened unintentionally in the last 10 or 12 years as a result of federal regulation,'' he says.
``University and college administrators have had to become more and more the custodians of the codes that the federal government, and [therefore] we ourselves, promulgate on account of the federal models for a whole variety of things. The faculty, on the other hand, increasingly thinks of itself as the custodians of the [intellectual] values,'' he says.
Also undermining academic traditions are powerful economic forces that ``press young people and their parents and schools away from an education concerned, at heart, with ethical choice and civic effort and toward a view of schooling as immediately, intensely, insistently useful,'' says Giamatti.
The college experience is at risk, he says, because of a misplaced emphasis on vocationalism. There is pressure for students ``to be professional early, so as to have something later.'' One of the more negative effects has been a misperception about the idealism of today's college students, he laments.
``I think their idealism is one of the greatest wasted natural resources in the country. . . . I think that the young people today feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to their brothers and sisters because of the sacrifices that most families make to send their children to college,'' he says.
It is the college's responsibility -- and that of the president more than anyone else -- to prove that a liberal education is not just vocationalism, he continues. ``It's meant to induce in people some sense of the joy in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. That's the great education adventure that's going to last a lifetime.'' It means more than any career or profession, he maintains.
Facing the demographic decline in the number of 18- to 22-year-olds, colleges ``must guard against simply packaging and marketing the educational process as if it were a commodity'' so as to compete for scarce students, Giamatti says. ``If you market your institution by way of television football half times, then you will get the kind of seamy problems you get in sports.''
When asked by this reporter what advice he would give his successor, he declined to comment. But without wishing to influence the search committee, headed by former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, a Yale alumnus, for his replacement, he did give an inkling of the kind of person he would not like to see succeed him: a former chief executive officer from a major corporation.
``In the last few weeks, a number of very fine people have said to me, `Do you think the next president should come from the corporate world?' It's up to the trustees. But I have never heard of a corporate board saying, `We have to find another president for such and such [company]. We are a multinational conglomerate -- we've been around for almost 300 years -- let's go find a crack professor.' ''
As for himself, he denies the persistent rumors that he will run for a United States Senate seat from Connecticut in 1986. This husband and father of three says he will be very happy teaching literature again. ``It's a wonderful way to earn a living.''