Messages from the Ivy League

After Harvard, four schools must pick new presidents. The choice can reveal their values.

These days, finding that perfect Ivy League president is a lot harder than just plucking a tweedy dean from the ivory tower. Today's successful candidate must have the entrepreneurial elan of Jeff Bezos, the diplomacy of Colin Powell, and the urbane authorship of Tom Wolfe.

Now, in an odd twist of timing, the competition for this rare breed has never been more keen. Among the Northeast's most rarified universities, no fewer than five - Columbia University, New York University, Princeton, Tufts, and Harvard - have been or are about to be conducting a presidential talent hunt.

As in American industry, a shortfall of stellar candidates besets search committees. Choices are limited, experts say, by the heavier demands and wider versatility required of these new captains of erudition.

But the selection of a college head affects more than those who study or teach within the ivy walls. In fact, some experts say, it sends a signal to society about a school's core values. In that vein, some people inside and outside universities have decried what they see as the evolution of college presidents into fundraising czars. While there's little doubt that the ability to build a university's endowment has become a larger share of the job, others see the need for a shift away from fundraising experts toward leaders who can articulate a vision and carry it out.

"The presidency is not just about fundraising - it can't be," says Stephen Trachtenberg, president of George Washington University in Washington. "You can imagine an institution that has nothing but money that's lost its way, lost its soul."

What universities want, observers say, is someone with top academic credentials who can get alumni to fork over millions, give great speeches, soothe ruffled faculty feathers, connect with students, and navigate the swiftly evolving high-tech, higher-education marketplace.

One study concluded there are about a dozen such individuals in the US - and Harvard University appears to have found the one it wants. News outlets reported yesterday that the Cambridge, Mass., institution is poised to name Lawrence Summers, the recent US Treasury secretary, as its new president.

"There are probably lots of people who are capable of being a top university president who will never be considered because of the snob factor in American higher education," says Robert Atwell, a former president of the American Council on Education and a veteran search consultant. "They have to have a pedigree."

Brown University in Providence, R.I., is one of the few schools to point a different way. In November, it selected Ruth Simmons as president. The daughter of Texas sharecroppers and the great-great-granddaughter of slaves, Dr. Simmons will be the first black and only the second woman to be president of an Ivy League school. Even before She takes up her post, she is focusing on higher education's higher values - not fundraising.

"We should be linked in the public's mind with amassing knowledge and preserving democratic ideals," Simmons said in an interview with the Monitor in November. "That's what a president does."

There's another reason to choose presidents for more than fundraising ability: Universities will need to adapt to the technology revolution, which could affect everything from how professors teach to competition for students from online educators.

Yet it is not clear whether America's elite universities will feel compelled to choose a visionary leader over someone less likely to shake the status quo.

"They'll write a job description that looks like the second coming, and the faculty types will talk about academic leadership," Dr. Atwell says. "But those qualifications are completely irrelevant to the job. The job is money, money, and money.... That's what the game is."

Neil Rudenstine knows the game. Harvard's outgoing president, who formally hands over the reins in June, is a top English scholar. While president, he wrote eloquently about the need for campus diversity. But he also got everyone to show him the money. His 5-1/2-year capital campaign was the most successful in higher-education history, raking in $2.6 billion - $1.3 million per day.

Can anyone top that? Well, they may not have to. At Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia, the past decade was financially spectacular. As tuitions rose, endowments soared with the stock market. Harvard's is $19 billion, Princeton's $8 billion, and Columbia's $4 billion.

Such success may mean these gilded institutions will put a slightly softer emphasis on fundraising - and somewhat more emphasis on other priorities - when they select new presidents.

George Washington University's Trachtenberg, for one, sees "a need for more outspoken university presidents who are prepared to participate more robustly in the American dialogue." Since World War II, he says, university presidents have pulled back from public discourse.

Brown's Simmons, for another, says it's her job "to promote ideals." Though no slouch as a fundraiser at Smith College in North Hampton, Mass., where she doubled the endowment in five years, she wants "to make sure there are always people who are well-educated and who understand why it is this democracy grew up and what it will take to sustain that democracy."

Brown's selection of Simmons sent an almost-electric signal through the education world, says Atwell. "There have not been enough Ruth Simmons decisions out there and too many choices for aging white, male lions with predictable pedigrees," he says. "If you always play it safe and don't take a chance, you don't get exciting results."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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