March 6th. 2006
Sent to but not published in the Boston Globe

John Silber and Robert Putnam provide disparate views on the ideal university president (Ideas, March 5th, 2006).

Silber views the ideal as a corporate CEO operating with the faculty in a command and control mode and, as long as he/she has the support of the Board of Trustees, riding rough-shod over the views of the faculty to impose a vision on the university.

On the other hand, Putnam views the President as a persuader; as someone who, in the common phrase,  is a "herder of cats" -- not an impossible task but a difficult one.  He views the president as one who establishes the vision through gaining the input of the faculty and then works with the faculty to implement that vision. Silber will have none of that. He claims that the average professors  "maybe well-informed in their specializations but they have little knowledge and experience -- and no responsibility-- with regards to the needs and goals of the university as a whole." But the President too, though having the responsibility, is a captive of her/his own discipline and background and training. The President too is ill equipped to understand the needs of the whole University with its disparate and conflicting parts. The President has to learn from the faculty, the President has to negotiate with the faculty, and the president has to earn the support of the faculty.

The University is not a like a business corporation, however much John Silber wishes that it were. It is, in Henry Mintzberg's words, a professional organization. In such organizations, the goals and vision have to be hammered out by the professionals. In the University, the role of department chairs, Deans, Provosts and Presidents is to facilitate the work of the teachers and researchers who make up the core of the university. They are NOT there to direct that work.

John Silber did much good for Boston University, but he also did some harm -- look at the debacle of finding his successor. Robert Putnam is correct: in the University, excellence cannot be coerced.