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.''
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.''
Before World War II, when there were fewer than 1,000 colleges in the United States, the college president had ``tremendous moral authority'' as one expert put it - both on campus and in the local community. The president was looked upon as a leader - someone to comment on ethical questions, and local and national issues.
With the rise of major research universities, mass education under the G.I. Bill, and a crowded marketplace of some 3,100 schools, however, higher education changed. Presidents began to be chosen not for their native scholarly abilities or insights, but for their ability to run a campus like a corporation. Colleges became ``product oriented.''
In a recent, stirring speech at Harvard University, Frank Rhodes, president of Cornell University and chairman of the American Council on Education, described the problem when he told 150 college presidents: ``GM produces cars and trucks. IBM produces computers. Higher education produces ... certified students.''
Too often, Dr. Rhodes says, college presidents are preoccupied with ``making sure the conveyor belt ... is functioning smoothly.'' Neglected, he says, is the nurture of ``some larger sense of commitment'' - what he says Reinhold Niebuhr called the ``emancipation of self,'' which is the beginning of all learning.
Some experts note that the debate surrounding the role of the college president is symbolic of profound questions about leadership itself in the 1980s and 1990s.
Dr. Botstein likens the issue to that faced by a church. Does one select bishops or church officials for their business ability or high-powered salesmanship? he asks. Or does one select those whose ``primary commitment'' is to ``matters spiritual and devotional''? The same qualitative question applies to colleges, he says.
Yet even those presidents who want to weigh in more heavily on the side of academics and the spirit of free inquiry say the job is difficult.
``I have to raise $1.3 million a week!'' exclaims New York University president John Brademas, even though he also feels a responsibility to ``speak to values the society seeks to realize.''
Experts such as Boyer note that the challenge facing presidents today is to make management serve the cause of education, not to ride herd on it.
Dr. Brademas agrees. In 1980 he turned down the presidency of a large college when he discovered that one of his primary duties would be to help finance and build a new football stadium.
Other structural or inbred problems wear on the role of the college president: They are often afraid to say or do things that will upset faculty, and especially trustees. Dr. Duffey says that, in most institutions, so many different groups have veto power in the selection of the president that the individual selected is often ``gray,'' and ``not the risk-taker you need to bring moral or intellectual leadership on campus.'' Further, there are few internal rewards for being that kind of leader, he says.
Petty politics kills an enormous number of constructive presidential initiative and ideas, says Boyer, who jokes that, at many universities, the ``debate is so intense because the stakes are so low - what department will get this or that extra office.''