The University of Connecticut board of trustees has just assembled a 39 member committee to select a president to replace their previous leader who quit after less than three years into his tenure. The committee now has the onerous responsibility to appoint not only the best candidate available but someone with a deep sense of commitment and obligation to the institution, its faculty and student body.
Let me list and discuss the qualities to look for in an individual who applies for the job of president of any university. This list will make sense only if we keep in mind the equation that a president is the First Teacher in a university.
Character: It is essential that the individual has an excellent record as a person of high character as determined by the manner in which the individual has addressed problems/issues faced up to the present time. It is essential to seek and obtain views of not only the references cited by the applicant but also from communities at large where the candidate has served. Society pays a heavy price when a president is selected who may be eligible in every other aspect that a committee may define as essential except the strength of character.
Passion to teach: The single most important function of a university is teaching students. The president is first and foremost the First Teacher as stated earlier. Without this passion it will be hard to inspire young faculty and students who look for examples to follow. University presidents may set such example by insisting on teaching a course each term in their own fields.
Passion for research: The second most important function of a university is to expand the horizons of knowledge. Again the leadership of presidents is crucial here and setting an example will require participation in contributing to research in their fields.
Extraordinary interest and commitment to the arts: Students attending universities not only focus on subjects they have chosen to study but expect to have their lives made richer by exposure to the cultures and art forms from around the world to broaden their lives. The commitment of presidents to support and encourage these activities as part of a curriculum is essential.
Extraordinary commitment to sports: American university life is incomplete without sports teams competing to excel in a variety of sports activities and the young look for leadership and inspiration from their president in the context of encouragement, allotment of resources and attendance at games.
Ability to lead an otherwise independent faculty: “Management” of a faculty can bear no relationship to management of a commercial or military organization. The independence of faculty is the hallmark of scholarship. Thus a leader needs to have extraordinary skills to “manage” and achieve measurable goals in both teaching and research.
Ability to lead in innovation: This century offers both extraordinary opportunities and challenges to experiment with innovative ways to expand horizons of knowledge and disseminate knowledge. The new tools that provide easy access to enormous amounts of information need to be exploited with skill to maximize knowledge and minimize real estate infrastructure on campuses.
Ability to have a dialog with parents and the larger community to encourage active involvement including raising funds.
These will undoubtedly be considered extraordinary requirements. That is indeed so because the responsibilities thrust upon university presidents are extraordinary. This burden on the part of presidents translates to a 24/7 involvement. In this context, a recent report in the New York Times is an eye-opener (Graham Bowley; “The Academic-Industrial Complex”; Sunday Business, NY Times, Sunday, August 1, 2010). It relates to six presidents of universities across the country who have chosen to serve on corporate boards, receiving compensations that are, except in one case, more than the salaries they receive from their universities. One president serving several boards received nearly twice the university salary.
The governing parameter in this report is clearly the greed that we have recently associated with some business enterprises. The difference here is something very fundamental that is at stake. It strikes at the very root of an unwritten, but nevertheless sacred, relationship between the presidents and the students they serve. These university leaders are entrusted with the extraordinary responsibility of preparing our youth to become good citizens capable of contributing to the future of their communities, states and nations. And the students, in turn, are
expected to place their faith in such leadership.
Further, it is this bond that young people recall with pride later in a successful career, which they attribute to the guidance and inspiration they received from their teachers. It is this trust that is violated when presidents choose to devote their energies on issues outside their primary responsibility when it should be clear that their role as president (First Teacher) demands a 24/7 involvement to lead and inspire the students and faculty, especially in these hard times. This therefore should be an essential requirement and understanding between the president and the governing board.
Dr. Srinivasan has served in industry (Kaman and UTC) and has taught in New England as an adjunct professor at RPI (CT), UConn, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He also served on the Glastonbury Town Council (1997-2001) and is currently a member of the Board of Directors of Connecticut Innovations. The opinions expressed here are his own.