No ghostwriters wanted
A UNIVERSITY is advertising to hire ``The President's Writer'' - an ``energetic, quick-thinking, and hardworking person equipped with intellectual breadth and confidence to: (1)interpret and expand the President's thoughts and ideas within tight deadlines; (2)undertake and complete complex assignments with minimum direction; and (3)contribute creatively in policy and planning discussions with the President and senior officers.'' Such jobs are not new to society or to the campus. Bob Hope does not hide the staff who write his gags. The daughter of the best writing teacher I ever had makes far more than her father ever dreamed of by preparing speeches and articles for corporate executives. We remember some of President John Kennedy's greatest lines as the handiwork of individuals like Ted Sorensen. The president who seeks a ``president's writer'' undoubtedly knows several colleagues who have one.
The advertisement is refreshingly direct. No apologies! Anyone who manages knows how hard it is to find time among schedules of meetings and travel to sit with pen or word processor. Anyone who writes for a living knows he would have trouble finding time to manage.
Think of the benefits! A bell-ringing talk on trends in international business or microbiology can bolster the university's reputation in a field where it already has strengths - or create the illusion of potential in a field it seeks funds to develop. Witty lines for a TV appearance in Denver will boost alumni spirits there and help new applicants from the Mountain States. A thoughtful essay on financial aid may even persuade Education Secretary William Bennett to soften his position. Nothing that is said well on behalf of the school can hurt the president's own visibility and prospects for the next job move.
But there are questions to answer. Are the advantages to the institution and its students ones that would satisfy a parent's question about avoidable college costs? How does a teacher, or the president, explain the ``president's writer'' to a sophomore who is about to be suspended for plagiarism? When we hear students' alibis for why they took the thoughts and words of others as their own, we dismiss excuses about lack of time, aspirations to produce a better product, fear of parents with unrealistic grade expectations, or competitive pressures to look good to prospective employers. We argue that they are cheating themselves and violating the creed of scholarly work if they use their money to buy from a term-paper service. What are the ethics of appropriating their money so that the president can so invest?
Is it reality or ego that leads presidents to assume we need help because only we can speak officially for our institutions? One glory of a college or university is its role as a showcase for diverse individual talents. Its teachers and scholars can often dazzle the public with very little help from their chief executive.
A university makes news and friends by its chemists' ideas on environmental protection, by press-quoted comments of a Russian expert about Soviet moves toward glasnost, by an accounting professor's analysis of tax legislation, by medical reports on AIDS research, and by poems and novels from the English department. Even on issues of educational or economic policy, areas that presidents are often asked to address, better answers may come from faculty. Presidents may be more appropriately cast, not as speakers, but as masters of ceremonies for those who really have the ideas or who have done the work.
Presidents do feel at cross-pressures. Like leaders in business and government, we deal with publics who have a fascination with executive personality. Yet grasping to know us as individuals, they drive us to take refuge in depersonalization. Gary Hart may represent an extreme in offering the post of chief speech writer and adviser on projection of image to a man he had never met and did not want to meet. The jury is still out on how well Max Headroom sells soda. He is ill suited to become the icon for higher education.
Abe Lincoln is not the only busy leader who took time to scribble on the back of envelopes. Winston Churchill found a good deal of time as well; and Walter Wriston, as head of America's largest bank, rationed his schedule of speeches to numbers he could help substantially to prepare.
The ``presidential writer'' will probably be hired. I hope, contrary to most current practice, that his or her employer will at least share visible bylines and honest credits.
William R. Dill is president of Babson College, in Wellesley, Mass., and sole author of this column.