Why do we think academic achievement makes for good leaders?
Disclosure: I never got good grades until graduate school
Ever wonder what it’s like to be the president of a highly selective and prestigious institution of higher learning? We all received an insight into what the job entails last week as three such leaders testifying last Tuesday before Congress could not say with any degree of certainty whether they condemn, or consider hate speech, any calls on their campuses for the “genocide of Jews.”
The consensus of the presidents of Harvard, MIT and Penn seemed to be that such judgements are “context-dependent.” I’d say that technically they are correct, but that should not be the answer. They appeared to be avoiding the question and that’s not what leaders should do.
As I told my wife the other night, as feckless as they seemed in that moment, I kind of felt sorry for them. They should have condemned any expression of anti-semitism in the strongest of terms and made it clear that it would not be tolerated on their ivy-covered campuses.
But I’m sure they all met with their lawyers and comms teams before traveling to Washington. If I had to guess what they heard from their people, it was something along the lines of: “You can condemn it, label it hate speech and insist it won’t be tolerated, but the next day you’ll probably have 200 students staging a sit-in in your office and it will be very unpleasant. Campus security might not even be able to guarantee your safety.”
So what to say? Just be coy and insist the categorization of the speech must be contextualized first. But while such evasiveness may go over just fine in the faculty lounge — and even be technically correct — ravenous politicians like Rep. Elise Stefanik will have a field day with it. She’ll chew on you, spit you out and embed videos of the exchange into fundraising emails and make a killing.
While I detest Stefanik, who initially ran in 2014 as a moderate Republican in NY-21 and two years later became a rabid Trumper, that does not mean she’s always wrong. In this case, if you strip away her histrionics, her line of questioning is reasonable and the denizens of the academies should have been able to hit the ball out of the park.
The blowback was so severe that Liz Magill, the president of Penn, resigned to resume her work as a tenured law professor. I happen to know the Penn board chair Scott Bok, who surprisingly also resigned from that post. Bok is an investment banker who has a home near mine in Salisbury, Connecticut, and once owned the White Hart Inn, the famous lodging and dining establishment where Henry Ford often stayed while visiting his kids at Hotchkiss. Bok and his wife Roxanne are also generous patrons of the arts in my neck of the woods.
Why did Bok also step down from his post? You’d have to assume that either Bok, who is also a lawyer, was part of the team that prepped Magill for her testimony, or that he was a major booster of her candidacy when she was elevated to the presidency of the Penn only last year. In his public statement, Bok did not explain exactly why he quit, but he got it right when he said of Magill, “she provided a legalistic answer to a moral question, and that was wrong.”
The episode raises the question of why prominent leaders in the academy feel they must equivocate on matters of moral urgency. After all, these institutions take exception to far lesser offenses. If you were to ask these leaders whether it was hateful for students to address each other without using their preferred pronouns, would we hear pusillanimous evasions about “context?”
Of Harvard President Claudine Gay, Andrew Sullivan wrote:
This is the president whose university mandates all students attend a Title IX training session where they are told that “fatphobia” and “cisheterosexism” are forms of “violence,” and that “using the wrong pronouns” constitutes “abuse.”
It’s worth noting that Stefanik was actually conflating two different calls to action. She equated actual chants on campuses for “intifada” (Arabic for uprising or resistance) with the “genocide of Jews.” We should expect such dishonesty from demagogues like Stefanik, but the question she asked demanded a clear answer. Indeed, the clearest came from MIT President Sally Kornbluth, who flatly told Stefanik, “I have not heard calling for the genocide for Jews on our campus.” Perhaps that’s why, of the three presidents who testified, Kornbluth appears to be the least at risk of being fired .
Gay has another problem. She’s facing credible charges of plagiarism after a report in the conservative Washington Free Beacon that in her scholarly writings she lifted entire paragraphs from the work of others and presented them as her own. The Harvard Crimson described Gay as “under fire” for the allegations, but the university is sticking by her, at least for the time being, dismissing the controversy as “a few instances of inadequate citation.”
Gay, 53, has only authored 11 peer-reviewed scholarly articles — pretty thin for the leader of Harvard and leading some to conclude that she was a DEI hire. I can’t speak to that, but I have long thought that having a deep scholarly record doesn’t necessarily make one a good leader of an academic institution. In fact, academics as a class of professionals are notoriously poor managers.
No less than the Harvard Business Review itself noted in 1971 article, entitled Myth of the Well-Educated Manager that, “How effectively a manager will perform on the job cannot be predicted by the number of degrees he holds, the grades he receives in school, or the formal management education programs he attends.” And in my own career, I have seen scant correlation between managerial skills and academic achievement. None, actually.
That said, I do believe it’s important for the leader of an educational institution to have an academic passion that infuses everything they do and drives his or her vision for the organization. I was once a semifinalist to become head of a private school here in Connecticut. The school was in some fiscal distress, so the trustees wound up hiring a career school business and finance manager.
If all you want is a manager who knows QuickBooks, then you don’t need an academic. But a non-academic manager probably won’t have much of a vision for the organization either. That kind of pragmatic but uninspiring boss could probably make the trains run on time, but s/he won’t lift all boats. And, my friends, making everyone around you better is an essential element of leadership.