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The problem with higher education starts at the top: a failure of strong leadership

There are a lot of problems facing higher education, but one of the most pressing ones often doesn’t get enough attention — the fact that many college presidents nowadays lack the moral fortitude and vision to properly guide their campuses through crises and enforce strong academic priorities over politicking, kowtowing to leftist demands, and fundraising.

Complicating matters, the job comes with lawsuits and threats of lawsuits such that — even with seven-figure salaries — many executives now look at the position more as a stepping stone to retirement rather than a dedicated career.

That is what a new op-ed in the Washington Examiner argues as it sounds the alarm on this growing threat to the longterm stability of higher education. Headlined “Destroying the college presidency,” Naomi Schaefer Riley and James Piereson examine the new “woke” pressures college presidents face:

A president of a major college or university must satisfy a host of conflicting constituencies, many of which did not exist on campus three or four decades ago. In addition to their boards (and legislators who are watching public universities), there is a long list of donors and potential donors; a class of administrators angling for money, special centers for more power; faculty who want more money, less time in the classroom, and are engaged in a struggle with administrators over who runs the university; students who demand an ever-woker campus and their parents who want their sons and daughters protected from any harm, perceived or real.

The legal issues that presidents must concern themselves with have also expanded. As the president of Harvard joked last year, “I looked at my watch and I said, ‘It’s four o’clock and I haven’t been sued yet, but the courthouse is still open for another hour.’” Civil rights lawsuits against schools and universities doubled between 2013 and 2017. Sexual assault complaints nearly tripled from 2005 to 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and the resulting Title IX complaints have skyrocketed. …

And this doesn’t even cover the kind of shaming that comes from people who have nothing to do with the university at all. When someone points out that there is a statue of a slaveowner on campus or that the English department has decided to drop all the white male authors from the curriculum, the president will have to manage the fallout in the press and now on social media.

The column points out that these new job descriptions have edged out a college president’s former role — “the building of academic empires.” It continues:

The president of a major college and university today is unlikely to be the bookish professor steeped in the ideals of the academy, but the modern manager skilled in raising funds, placating advocacy groups on campus and off, and tending to his or her own career. … We don’t need to throw a pity party for the folks who decide to lead colleges and universities today. But if you want to know why it seems like the job, even with such high salaries, is not attracting better candidates, or any kind of long-term commitment, these changes are a good place to start.

Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and Piereson is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Read their entire op-ed in the Washington Examiner.

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