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I saw Ben Sasse, now president of the University of Florida speak in a fairly small setting a couple of weeks ago. He was asked about how he spent his time. His response was essentially “running a major state university is basically being CEO of a big hospital system with a pro sports league attached to it, and maybe talking about academics every couple of weeks.”

Sounds about right.

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This doesn't actually seem horrible to me. If the university president needs to be talking about academic matters more than every few weeks, something is probably broken.

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Jun 8·edited Jun 8

A department chair at MIT once tried to convey to me how much of the university's budget went towards academics' salaries.

"Approximately zero percent."

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"Approximately zero percent....went towards academics' salaries."

The MIT academics:

"In that case, you can afford to double our salaries! Hell, triple them!"

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I'm optimistic about the outside chance that the developments in the NCAA over the past year might just cause the whole sports situation to fall apart, which I say as a 15 year college football season ticket holder.

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We can dream about the sports situation falling apart but there’s just too much money it.

It’s unfortunate because the idea of competitive college sports is nice.

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There's a ton of money in it, but do you think there's enough money for the hundreds of D-1 schools, many of whom are a lot more marginal than the couple dozen teams you regularly see pop into the top 25 for football and basketball? Maybe Michigan can pay the players, but Middle Tennessee State?

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Yeah, I was thinking in the context of the comment above re:: Ben Sasse and University of Florida.

I think the Power 5 schools will continue to do their thing.

The mid-majors and smaller schools will just pay their players less and operate at a different level.

the transfer portal will move athletes up who end up at small schools but show skill on the field / court.

But I could be wrong! This will change - you are taught about that.

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Yeah, that sounds about right--a winnowing into an even smaller D-1 and then everyone else. Even my school (Minnesota) is a big one with lots of resources, but has fielded mediocre football and basketball teams for like half a century at this point. It's in the middle of a medium-sized metro area that also has all four major professional sports, and reasonably popular soccer and women's basketball teams. I bought a stupid NIL t-shirt for the kicker (the "Serbian Hammer" is very funny) but I think the athletics department is quickly realizing we're not exactly Bama.

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hell yeah, more gophers in the hoose

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deletedJun 9
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Well, the "Power 5" as we knew it has already collapsed. The Beavers and Cougars are not feeling super about it.

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To me it's just as likely to get worse. Letting the player pay genie out of the bottle will just force the NCAA to make even more money to keep things going. Universities will no longer have to pretend that athletes are students so that their energies can be refocused on creating revenue.

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Did he mention that he sells drinks in the stadium during football games?

https://sports.yahoo.com/uf-president-ben-sasse-slings-201900724.html

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Ben Sasse, what a disappointment

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How so?

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Yeah, no kidding. I'm a lifelong Dem and a UF alum and I think he's doing an absolutely bang-up job

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Between Sasse and Mitch Daniels, maybe the lesson is university boards should just hire washed-up Republican politicians as presidents. Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, and Jeff Flake, you're up next.

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Every other university President should definitely be studying hard. What Mitch Daniels did and trying to replicate it

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The more I think about it, the more I am believing there is something to this. Republicans who believe in the general mission of universities will act in ways to help universities succeed, but they are also not beholden to the progressive, colloquial, rent-seeking factions of academia and bureaucracy.

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Depressing.

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I wonder how much of the problem is not necessarily on the increasingly bloated role of the president in particular, but the more general rising bloat of administration within universities as a whole. I'm far from an expert on higher education, and I know others here will have better information to share that I'll warmly listen to, but that concern is what I tend to pick up from reading articles about the crises in this regard.

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Jun 8Liked by Ben Krauss

I used to be an academic, part of my research was about the historical development of a university managed and funded by Americans (albeit not in the US), and I’ve done a decent amount of reading about the history of US colleges and universities. Here are some factors that I think have contributed to administrative bloat:

1– Regulatory compliance burdens. The more complex the rules governing how universities work and how government funding gets distributed to them are, the more personnel you’ll need to make sure that you’re following the rules and handle lawsuits or enforcement actions when they appear.

2– Increasing complexity and non-fungibility of funding sources. Universities are funded by a combination of tuition dollars, federal and state government money, proceeds from collaborative ventures with the private sector, grants from large foundations, and both conditional and unencumbered donations from private individuals. They need people to manage relationships with all of those revenue sources, handle relevant paperwork, and, because a lot of the revenue sources are purpose-specific and non-fungible, control the flow of funds within the university. In some cases, gifts also create new sub-organizations within a university which themselves need to be administered (eg: the anti-racism research center which Ibram X Kendi struggled to manage)

3: Both admissions and the financial aid process have gotten a lot more complicated as schools try to serve a wider range of possible students, engage in more complicated forms of price discrimination, and have to handle bigger applicant pools

4: An increasing trend towards providing services like security and healthcare in-house. (Probably a reaction to weakening US public safety and state capacity in the 1970s and 1980s)

5: Amenities becoming a growing part of the competition for students (and creating admin overhead)

6: Increasing scale and complexity of experimental scientific research requiring more administrative support to manage

7: A certain degree of vanity-driven bloat as senior administrators hire staff to carry out initiatives and don’t have much pressure to cut them if they fail.

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Excellent comment, Polytropos.

I'd add another number to your list, which connects to your 1), 4), and 5):

8) increasing student gaming of the "disability accommodation" status.

In order to receive Federal money, universities have to make their services available to people with disabilities. And they have to offer "reasonable accommodations" for those disabilities -- a deaf student should receive transcripts of lectures, or have them translated into sign language.

Unfortunately, students can make frivolous claims of various kinds of disability in order to gain an advantage over their classmates. E.g., a student can argue that they need twice as much time to complete tests. And the university is bound by federal law to accommodate this request, if it is backed up by a doctor's findings.

Kids start doing this in high school, and continue into college. And the number of disability claims is sky-rocketing -- I saw one school in which it went from 7% in 2019 to 20% in 2023. Yup, one in five kids are claiming that they need special accommodations. It becomes just another arms race -- if your classmates are lying in order to get better conditions for testing, then you need to do it, too, in order to stand a chance to get into med school.

Now imagine the administrators needed to support these new disability claims. It's another source of bloat.

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We often have to refer accommodated students to a testing center on campus since we can't manage it ourselves, e.g., requiring a distraction free environment, 2x time, and so forth. But the testing center is overwhelmed with requests and literally does not have enough private rooms to accommodate everyone. And like you say, the numbers are only growing.

What's ironic is that you can always tell the ones who really need from the bullshitters. The ones who really need it are always willing to work with us to get it addressed in as painless a way as possible, and we'll usually bend over backwards to help them out. But the bullshitters tend to be very demanding and give no thought to practical realities.

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Yeah— the ADA created some potentially huge unbounded and unfunded mandates, and the law could probably use some bug fixes (more clarity on the nature of reasonable accommodations; more support for organizations which need to make them.)

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Just blanket approve them it’s easy

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I would read this comment expanded as a guest article.

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I’ve been thinking about launching my own Stack this summer (vibe would be sort of “Brett Devereux meets Scott Alexander meets Byrne Hobart meets Matt Bruenig”). Maybe I’ll write about it there.

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This should be a top level-comment. >:(

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Relative to point two, and mildly to point one, I think that part of the issue has been the conjunction of two different goals into the same institution: research and teaching. Most universities are founded to do the latter, but money and prestige come from the former. This creates a lot of conflicts, especially in personnel as those who are good at one are often not good at the other.

Would be curious given your background if you agree, or if you are that as a more minor issue?

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Universities that combine research and teaching are almost certainly more complicated to administer than single-function institutions are. If you built a centrally planned university system from the ground up, it might make sense to create separate institutions for undergraduate instruction and for research and graduate education (ie: the training of new researchers). But in practice, the US’s research universities (which emerged in a decentralized way through state government initiatives, bequests from extremely rich guys, and the evolution of colonial-era colleges) developed in a way that combined the two functions, and when the post-Manhattan project US government started plowing a massive amount of funding into scientific research to drive economic growth and geopolitical dominance, they decided to make use of already-existing institutions rather than building from the ground up. This strategy certainly has created some problems, but it was also a huge public policy success for most of the 20th century. (The US is a research powerhouse and its big university clusters tend to generate clusters of world-beating technology companies.)

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Agree that the research part of the university has been a great success. However, its success has made the teaching part of the university worse because it makes education a secondary priority for the institution relative to research. I think we could accomplish much of that same success by having the research institute be across the street and function as a separate institution. They could still have a highly networked relationship, but a clear division between the two would help both sides be better at what they do.

At least I think it would be worth trying. There's a decent chance that I'm missing out on critical cross subsidization between the two parts that make it more not less than the sum of its parts.

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CalTech, UC Berkeley, Iowa State, and Florida State all have attached federal research institutions. JPL at CalTech, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab at UCB, Ames National Lab at ISU, and the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at FSU. I wonder if those institutions operate in ways that are substantially different from other research universities, and it such differences can be implemented elsewhere if they indeed operate better?

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Anecdotally, they don't, but the big public research universities are not where we're seeing the biggest problems in the first place.

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Maybe? The biggest cross-subsidization that I can see has to do with revenue source diversification. You can support a bigger teaching staff if research grants pay part of their salary, and the revenue from tuition (which, unlike grant awards, is fungible) provides a stable base to fill in gaps which crop up on the research side. Also, the combination of research prestige with undergrad alumni base is likely good for fundraising.

But I do think it’s a worthwhile experiment, especially in countries which just have central government-funded universities (so the funding stuff is less of an issue) or if like, some very rich American wanted to found and generously fund a brand new university. (Bezos U?)

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We have an applied research institution on campus. They are actually trying to forge more and deeper connections with the academic side, so they clearly think something is missing. While very productive in their own right, they also don't churn out the scientific breakthroughs that produce the best papers and get the public's attention.

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Any idea what is missing there on the research side?

Does the academic side feel the same absence?

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We have two people directly under the president who each focus on one of these two missions, the provost for academic affairs and an equivalent position for research. I think it works reasonably well. Education entails a lot more than just textbooks in a classroom, and students usually want to be as close to the "action" as possible.

I don't see the two missions as conflicting, but I get what you mean about personnel often being better at one or the other. We are increasingly specializing by having more teaching-focused faculty, in addition to research-focused tenure-track faculty (who still teach, but more upper-division and grad courses). Personally, I don't mind teaching so much; it keeps me better connected to the students and offers a distraction from the grind of writing proposals and papers.

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I'm curious about that. It appears to me that you have universities offering tenure track roles based primarily on research and then filling in on the teaching side with adjuncts. In terms of students wanting to be close to the action, my experience was that was much more true when I was a grad student than when I was a undergraduate. I did take some graduate courses as an undergraduate which had that experience as well though.

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There is a lot of pressure to get undergrads involved in research, including various programs to offer support for it. I think the vast majority of students in the sciences (maybe 75%?) do at least take some research hours in a lab, although my experience has been that only, say, 1 in 5 actually show sufficient interest and aptitude.

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I think this is right...but I'd like to identify one other source of this pressure -- drinking your own koolaid.

The real thing universities do to influence their students is to choose who gets to go there as students will work up or down to the level set by peers. But the PR need is to make it seem like it's all driven by university programs and faculty and etc.. Unfortunately universities have started to believe this themselves and that drives extra spending on various programs and lifestyle things for students.

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Yes--actually managing the organizations has taken a back seat to creating more lines on an org chart. The DEI stuff is one thing, but for decades now universities (and other, similar not-for-profit organizations) have been creating junior senior associate vice presidents of administration discussion and consideration. It doesn't seem like they're working better than they did before they started doing this.

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Much like the biggest problem with journalism is the audience expectation and preferences, the biggest problem in academia is society's expectations and preferences.

Universities' primary goal has expanded from providing an excellent education, to being a finishing school for young adults and helping them transition into responsible adulthood. This is historically been something that happened to someone at college, but that's because they are there during the age most people make that transition and assigned tasks that help develop skills to make that transition. The difference is now that society holds the university responsible for that transition and its to large a task for them to be responsible for.

They are supposed to fun, encouraging, transformative, enlightening, safe, career enabling and defining, etc. We want them to be places that they can explore, but also safe. Places they can expand their minds, but not in bad ways. Places that enable careers choices, but that also delay having to make a choice for half a decade or more. So long as we expect so much out of universities, we will continue to find them failing at something all the time.

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> Universities' primary goal has expanded from providing an excellent education, to being a finishing school for young adults and helping them transition into responsible adulthood.

If anything, this seems backward. The fraction of people going to college for a career, versus going to be finished into polite society, must be higher now than it has ever been.

I think the grandparent article for sure, and probably many of the comments in turn, are going to be highly Ivy-inflected while the overwhelming majority of students and graduates are going to Slow Tech, Boring CC, or Big State U.

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The Ivies have massive influence on the other schools, what happens there spreads. That's because their graduates are more likely to be hired as professors at other schools, and also because what happens there makes the news and set expectations for parents and students on what to expect at college.

I think it's likely to get worse before it gets better because as enrollment shrinks, schools are going to make more attempts to be everything to everyone to keep students choosing them.

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In less than a half-hour drive from my hometown, there are 4 colleges/universities, and they're all struggling with enrollment and (probably fatal) budget cuts. I suspect that if they consolidated into 2 campuses, they would "solve" the enrollment problem, and probably be able to keep most of the faculties from all institutions. But, because they're a mixture of state and private institutions, such a scheme would be ~impossible to organize. Instead, I predict it'll end with two closing anyway, but no protections for the faculties and little accomodation for the students, but it'll be a slow death which leaves every institution significantly worse off. It's hardly the worst example of this dynamic, but it's frustrating to see a Tragedy of the Commons (maybe Tragedy of the Quads) play out in your backyard and know you can't really do anything about it.

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Think this is a twist on a prisoner's dilemma. If the schools cooperated, then they could in aggregate save more jobs, but each school would suffer some. Meanwhile, if they compete then more of the schools will lose, but the winners will likely suffer less. So the schools have an incentive to try and win, not close and in doing so capture the students from the ones that do close.

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>> I think it's likely to get worse before it gets better because as enrollment shrinks, schools are going to make more attempts to be everything to everyone to keep students choosing them.

well said

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I get that the goals have changed over the decades and they're more focused on keeping their "customers" happy, but I don't know, are they even doing a good job building and managing the lazy rivers in a cost-effective way?

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Yes! Politicians and journalism are in the same boat. Both are trying to give more of what their core constituents want, but doing so leads to greater overall dissatisfaction.

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founding

I think this is all about the same issue that the co-presidency is meant to solve - too many responsibilities for an existing administration to deal with.

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The case for co-presidency seems kind of weak to me inasmuch as we have hierarchy and tons of administrative positions to handle the respective magisteria already. The President is just where the buck stops rather than the person obligated to take the keenest bureaucratic-managerial interest in day to day affairs.

It's not that the issues Ben points to aren't problems, it's that they're problems that have been faced by large organizations since time immemorial, and the traditional response is typically "add hierarchy and increase autonomy" rather than making who actually runs and speaks for an organization even vaguer.

Perhaps college university presidency is simultaneously important enough to care and unique enough to justify a co-presidency in this arrangement, but it seems like a greater willingness to say "that's the provost's problem" and to hire spokespeople is a more conventional alternative.

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Perhaps instead of a co-presidency, college presidents should be more like prime ministers- first among equals in a cabinet of diffuse responsibilities

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founding

That seems reasonable.

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Something I see a lot is taking an issue or gap or goal and putting it in a new job title, hiring someone (or creating an office, or department, or program) and then never asking if that made the thing work better. Particularly in these organizations where there's...not really a market mechanism to sort out what's not working well, you just end up with one or five or 1,000 extra people and then it's getting financed by some other third party that also doesn't care about how it's working. In the case of the universities, it's further messed up because the superfluous staff are in themselves a constituency that the government (or at least one political party) is trying to please.

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That's a reason to change who has the real responsibility not who is the figurehead.

More generally, I don't see how a second figure you need to negotiate with decreases burden. Like you'd never think a constitutional structure with 2 presidents would have an easier time formulating coherent policy.

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founding

Copresidencies have an analog in the private sector - co-CEOs, which are generally a sign of weak leadership and leads to lack of clarity over who is in charge (that said, I’ll grant that notable exceptions, such as Netflix, exist). The “too many responsibilities” problem is generally solved with a C-suite.

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I think that is what all the vice associate deputy presidents, provosts, and deans are supposed to be.

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founding

Maybe in theory but they don’t present as actually in charge of anything the way a CFO or COO would. They present as bureaucrats at best and apparatchiks at worst.

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Jun 8·edited Jun 8

I would like to see a fuller explanation of how the job is harder than CEO of many companies.

Don't get me wrong: I'm willing to believe it is, the apparent hiring problems are strong evidence. But it feels like there's some implicit knowledge being assumed in this piece that I'm missing as someone decades away from academia.

All I read was something about managing entitled groups but lots of companies have entitled groups. I'm sure a CEO in a heavily unionised, heavily regulated, heavily covered by the press industry would have similar complaints about entitled groups.

Is this just that seven figures isn't actually very much money nowadays and the job requires eight figures to attract candidates? Because usually a mismatch in supply means prices are too low.

Is there an explainer out there that helps with how they're different?

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Jun 8·edited Jun 8

I think it’s all the competing power centers and the lack of a single defined objective. At the end of the day most businesses can at least point to ward profit and you generally answer to a board representing stock holders. So if you have to engage in a strategy that limits profit in the short term , you have fewer stakeholders.

At universities you have something like a board, but also have faculty senate, student leadership, alumni associations, and unions for support services that have to be dealt with in a much more kid glove kind of way due to sympathies from faculty and students. These stakeholders have different goals and objectives ( at the end of they day most investors want to make money…however at universities things like teaching, research, success at sports, money, social justice issues, etc. all

Compete. And the different power centers often have conflicting ideas about what success looks like.

Finally, in many institutions you have highly intelligent stakeholders who are capable of spending more time trying to sabaotage leadership than leadership can spend defending itself (if they want to accomplish anything else). So leadership is basically always on the defensive.

This is just my sense of things as an adjunct and research analyst. That said, I have also worked in other sectors and own a small business so I think I have a more detached and broad view than someone who has spent their entire life in academia.

I’m in the group of people who you could not pay enough to run a university. I’d rather volunteer

As an organizer for Anarchists Against Organizion. More likely to succeed and fewer headaches, even if they pay sucks.

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I wonder if part of the issue has to do with free speech and academic freedom. Both students and faculty are allowed to say lots of outrageous stuff—especially political stuff—that would easily get you severely disciplined or fired at a regular employer, but that is explicitly protected in a university setting. And even when students or faculty do things that do cross the generous limits that have been set, I think a lot of college administrators are still anxious about the optics of punishing people for speech.

I think another factor is that for a lot of businesses, your customers can easily vote with their wallets and your employees can (often) vote with their labor. If you don't like a company, you can shop or work somewhere else. Whereas students and faculty are generally engaged in a years-long relationship with universities, so they're less likely to just pick up and go somewhere else and more likely to protest in place (especially thanks to, again, the significant protections afforded for free speech).

So I think these factors create a more unruly collection of stakeholders.

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The protesting in place is a good point. In most fields, people that upset at their workplace would immediately start looking for a new workplace that better fits their values and goals. Not at colleges! They stay for years while protesting their bosses/leaders.

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founding

Not just free speech but tenure!

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I don't think this is actually much of a problem if you adopt a clear prospective rule and follow it.

The problem is that the local incentives are often to not enforce limits on speech or protests that seem relatively benign to the university (dumb or not students demanding we eliminate nukes or cut military spending are PR benign) but leaves them fucked when the protests start saying something actually controversial because they academic freedom and 1a concerns prevent them from treating that speech differently.

From a institutional POV part of this is an incentive problem leaving these choices up to a short lived president rather than having these policies set by the board or academic senate and demanding the president comply.

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Revenue streams not being fungible is a big one.

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It also seems to me that the types of people who are generally selected for these jobs are not particularly qualified for them. The role of large university President is certainly at least as complex as running a similarly sized private company, and yet no company would hire a 30 year history professor to be the next CEO. Academics who have come up as academic Chairs and Deans certainly learn something about the academic portion of the job and about wrangling entitled professors, but have virtually zero training and experience doing the "CEO -Type" functions that are so important. I seems like the Universities and Colleges really need to stop hiring professors to do complex executive jobs.

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Came here to ask this same question. Personally I think I could do a pretty good job btw so if anyone is hiring I’ll give it the old college try.

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I think it's more about the selection process. The ones flaming out in quite public fashion were probably chosen by prioritizing DEI criteria over more prosaic skills. I don't say this to imply they were wholly unqualified, just that when a crisis occurred, they were ill equipped to balance the various interests by their relative influence and paid the price accordingly.

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“All Problems Are People Problems” is an old saying. I guess in Ivory Towers you have vastly more entitled people from students all the way up. And then outward facing you have to solicit big money from big egos, etc.

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College presidents are like mayors of New York. Having everyone hate them IS the job.

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founding

In my time at Texas A&M, everyone looked back fondly on the time that Robert Gates had been president. Both the progressive academics and the conservative alumni. Both the humanists and the engineers. I don’t know how he did it, but occasionally there is a beloved leader.

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Honestly, the public only cares about university presidents when they do something reckless. Otherwise the public ignores them. What this means is as long as presidents don't comment on everything happening in society at the moment, enforce university rules as written, and essentially stay the course during times of large spotlights on universities, the public probably won't notice university presidents at all. TL;DR Be more like U Chicago's president.

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Diversifying responsibilities may not be a bad idea, but the real problem is that the quality of these people has gone down precipitously. As I watched the pathetic performance of some of the current Ivy League presidents before Congress, I kept thinking of philosopher Amy Gutmann (Pres of Penn for 22 years) and First Amendment scholar Lee Bollinger (Pres of Columbia for 21 years). These people retired only a few years ago. Is there no one of that quality left?

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I think it's interesting to note that when describing how the “the quality of these people has gone down precipitously,” the example that you cite is the Congressional hearings. Where is the main place that you have seen these Congressional hearings? For me at least, it has been Twitter and Instagram.

If these hearings had happened 30 years ago, would we have heard about them nonstop? Probably not, because social media didn't exist then, so (1) we wouldn't have been bombarded with these kinds of video clips the same way that we are now, and (2) politicians weren't yet conducting their hearings with the explicit goal of generating spicy viral 20-second video clips for social media.

I say this not so much to criticize your point but rather to point out that I think social media has been a major aggravating factor here.

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I am sure you are right about social media. For myself, I don't do social media and I got my information about the hearings from the NYT and the Chronicle of Higher Education, which covered them extensively.

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Perhaps a better way of framing my point would be more about the internet in general and not just social media. Once upon a time, the New York Times was only (or primarily) a print publication, so we wouldn't have been seeing these videos from them. (Of course TV existed, but realistically things weren't the same.)

And I think point #2 still holds here: politicians (e.g. Elise Stefanik) are behaving in a way that is intended to generate viral video clips—playing to the incentives of online distribution.

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Absolutely! And it's outrageous that the anti-semitic Right is claiming to be concerned about antisemitism!

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You’d do better to actually watch one of those hearings for yourself before forming an opinion, no?

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Jun 8·edited Jun 8

It’s hard when dei considerations dramatically limit your pool... That said, columbia at least did choose a very high caliber president to replace Bollinger (even if we may nonetheless have qualms with her handling of the current crisis).

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High caliber academically, but a craven embarrassment before Congress. It's like these people don't know what a university is FOR, so they can't stand up for it. (I should also have mentioned Michael Roth, Pres of Wesleyan for 17 years.)

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Did Gutman and Bollinger ever get called into Congress the way the current crop did? I'm open to the possibility that the new people are worse but it's not clear to me that they're being graded on the same scale

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I watch 90-95% of that hearing and thought her performance in Congress was excellent. Her leadership on campus is another matter.

And by the way, as a former governor of the Bank of England her resume goes beyond the purely academic…

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“The job of any college president is to simultaneously inspire, but really you’re just dealing with a whole bunch of ridiculously entitled interest groups.”

That sums up what I saw of it. We had a university president who tried to micromanage research budgets to bail out failing departments in a rob Peter to pay Paul scheme, all the while cutting costs. My dean called it "Death of academia by a thousand cuts". Why did the president do that? Because of ridiculously entitled interest groups. We had another university president hired because he was politically well connected to the national Democratic Party.

Both presidents did face plants and left under a cloud. Both were hired by flawed boards of regents.

I think we have to decide what is important in academia and narrow our focus to what it is supposed to do best: create and pass on knowledge.

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We have one president for the United States

I think the college president's can manage.

Delegate, delegate, delegate.

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To be fair - a lot of large public universities siphon off campus life to a student affairs VP (an under recognized source of administrative bloat). One of the elements though that has increasingly consumed higher education time is the mission creep associated with solving student success issues. A lot of academic institutions have been pressured to try and resolve many of the societal issues that contribute to student achievement gaps - cynically I think some of this is a diversion by some faculty away from resolving some of the issues with curriculum and teaching quality. This includes increasing focus on how higher ed institutions can resolve homelessness, mental health issues, child care, racial inequity specifically for their students. The result is a lot of high ed institutions trying to juggle the operations of multiple very discrete operational and employment sectors. For example, I worked at a large community college that wanted to expand its programs for homeless students and students with mental health issues - we had to have a separate manager with experience with HIPA who could ensure all the data systems associated with the mental health office met security standards in addition to the extensive staff who knew the legal standards for FERPA (the educational equivalent to HIPA). In addition, we operated a preschool that had an entirely separate regulatory structure and accreditation program that was set by the state department of education - a group that no other entity at the college interfaced with or had experience with.

In addition to expecting less from college presidents, colleges would be wise to really consider mission creep and find better ways to partner with other entities for help in resolving some of these secondary issues or step away from resolving them entirely.

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I think a central issue here is the impact of the internet, and social media in particular. Two key points:

1. Discoverability: Lots of the stuff that college presidents deal with today is stuff that they've always dealt with; the difference is that 30 years ago it wasn't going viral on the internet.

2. Incentives for performativity: Now that random people can easily make stuff go viral, it has incentivized many of these relevant actors to modify their behavior in a way explicitly intended to cause drama in order to make something go viral on the internet.

The Congressional hearings were a great example: Elise Stefanik's behavior was almost certainly at least in part intended to create viral videos for the internet (as is the case with the behavior of many Reps and Senators in committee hearings) + the internet indeed successfully facilitated those videos going viral. These kinds of theatrical hearings were probably less likely to happen 30 years ago—and even if they did, you would have been much less likely to hear about them.

While I do think that the scope of the college presidency has expanded somewhat (and people indeed expect way too many things from a college president), perhaps a bigger issue is that every part of that scope is now being closely watched and shared unlike ever before. Everything: protests, meetings, course syllabi, Congressional hearings, emails, you name it. Being under the microscope like that all the time—plus constantly dealing with actors who have altered their behavior to be more dramatic—sounds really unpleasant.

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founding

I suspect that Elise Stefanik’s real goal was to prompt months of pro-Gaza encampments by students so that she could say how awful they are.

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Important topic, thanks for raising. It is a symptom of the "fundamentally illusory" nature of universities themselves, as lucidly described by expert Kevin Carey a decade ago:

"[C]olleges and universities ... are not coherent academic enterprises with consistent standards of classroom excellence. When it comes to exerting influence over teaching and learning, they .. barely exist. ... the real differences exist at the departmental level, or within the classrooms of individual professors ... The illusory university pretends that all professors are guided by a shared sense of educational excellence specific to their institution. In truth, as the former University of California president Clark Kerr observed long ago, professors are “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.” The problem for students is that it is all but impossible to know ahead of time which part of the disunified university is which. Consumers of higher education have been taught that their main choice lies between whole institutions that are qualitatively different from one another. Because this is wrong, the higher education market often fails, which is probably one reason that a third of students who enroll in four-year colleges transfer or drop out within three years. ... Because universities aren’t as they appear, systems designed to improve them tend to fail. Consumer protection in higher education is accomplished primarily through accreditation, in which colleges, through nonprofit agencies, are examined by members of other colleges who certify that they meet minimum standards of quality. ... In other words, accreditors are charged with an impossible task: to certify that a whole college, which doesn’t really exist, educationally speaking, is educationally sound."

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/24/upshot/the-fundamental-way-that-universities-are-an-illusion.html

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founding

There is something that a university does in a unified way. It puts a bunch of students in the same geographic location, often sharing housing, and with whatever structure the common core and academic calendar has. At some universities, like Chicago and Columbia, and at liberal arts colleges that dominate a small town, this is actually a very big qualitatively shared experience. But at big universities without a substantial shared core, there’s not much.

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I think this is extremely important and even for very large universities it makes a big difference.

Ultimately sorting students makes a huge difference. The mere fact that the other students at a huge university like UC Berkeley are also high achievers pushes the individual students to achieve more.

I think you could exchange the professors at Caltech or MIT for those from any research university without much effect on student outcomes but reduce the selectivity in who gets to go there and you have huge impacts.

Unfortunately, I think some university administrators don't realize this and make some poor choices regarding admissions as a result.

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>professors are “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”

Ha!

Yeah, even within departments they divide into factions that HATE each other. It’s because of scarce resources. To get that which you need it’s like 10 cats fighting over one scrawny dead mouse.

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Thanks for the close reading and helpful suggestion. Carey wrote that, to support his thesis as glossed in the following sentence: universities are essentially **disunified**.

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I mean, you definitely could pay me enough to be president of Yale. I’d do it for a cool $500K. We will make laundry free and abolish WGS and ERM as majors. Vote Singh!

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I'd do it for $499,999.

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Yeah, I mean I would happily take a university president job, and would happily kiss donors’ asses for the salary and the lifestyle. The rest of it basically runs itself tbh.

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What’s WGS and ERM?

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Yeah, when he becomes college president, he will need to speak in a way that all connected to the university will understand, especially older alums with money

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founding

“WGS” is usually “women and gender studies” (though at Yale they actually have “women, gender, and sexuality studies”). I can’t interpret ERM though.

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Ethnicity, Race, and Migration maybe?

https://erm.yale.edu/academics/requirements-major

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The CEO / president company model is already reflected in the President / Provost university model so I’m not sure how new it is.

Also - has Slow Boring given into “impactful?” I shudder.

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What's wrong with impactful?

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Nothing's wrong with "impactful" -- on the contrary, it's nimble and synergistic!

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Also proactive and win-win!

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I like the way that you pivoted to thinking outside the box!

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Is this entire post based on the premise that the college president manages every aspect of the institution? Any school's leadership has several C-level officers besides the CEO (aka president/chancellor). For example, Chief Academic Officer (aka Provost) handles all the teaching/graduation/research/faculty hiring matters. There are C-level officers for finance, HR, investment, student life, and whatnot. To take a random example (Cornell): https://leadership.cornell.edu/senior-leadership/

With all that, there has to be someone who personifies the institution as a whole: one would not send a committee to be grilled by Congress or to give a graduation speech in unison.

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I think that’s the strength of having a board or council at the highest levels. Why have a single person personify an incredibly complex institution with different goals, standards and missions? I think the last thing a university wants is for someone (any one person) to represent an organization that is really just one big umbrella. Harvard is very liberal, it is also very conservative. Harvard is hard sciences and scientific research but also humanities and studying ancient philosophy.

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It is interesting to see how hard this job has become lately. I used to say that being a university president was one of the cushiest jobs in the world since you're basically paid to get people to donate to the university while the provost or chancellor is charged with the day-to-day operation of the campus.

I like the co-presidency idea, but would probably take it a step further. Just have the board of regents (sometimes called board of trustees) run the university with perhaps one member being the chair or president of the board only in a "primus inter pares" sense. They preside over the meetings of the board and perhaps have some limited authority to make snap decisions when the board cannot convene in a timely manner (e.g. deciding to close the campus due to inclement weather). The Swiss Federal Council is a good model.

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