In April 1981, David McLaughlin was named the 14th president of Dartmouth College. Though separated by four decades, there are striking similarities between Dartmouth’s appointment of McLaughlin and the University of Florida’s selection last week of its next president, Ben Sasse. If the past is prologue, Sasse and Florida are in for a rough ride.
McLaughlin was an alumnus of Dartmouth, both as an undergraduate and subsequently with an MBA from the Tuck School. While not from the Senatorial arena of Sasse, McLaughlin was a highly political animal. Dartmouth’s choice of him as president came at a moment for the college when disaffected conservative alumni were outraged about racial diversity and the opening of their male bastion to women. McLaughlin’s conservative politics and his purported fiscal belt-tightening reputation and presumed budgetary savvy as a corporate CEO at Champion Paper and Toro Corporation were thought by supporters to be great assets.
The conservative student newspaper, the Dartmouth Review, was about a year old. Conservative alumni, led by monied outside supporters, were opening their wallets and clamoring for more of the contentious voice of the Review. McLaughlin was expected to appease those forces. He promised reinstating ROTC, which had sat dormant for over a decade dating to when the faculty, in the heat of the Vietnam War, cut Dartmouth’s academic ties to the program. Conservative alumni and students cheered his arrival. McLaughlin was to be the fixer for conservative complaints about a new progressive Dartmouth—minorities, women and other changes—that they could not stand.
Sasse carries into his presidential tenure similar conservative baggage. His supporters have grand hopes that he will use the cudgels for which he is famous in the world of politics—decrying gay marriage, advocating overthrow of the Affordable Care Act, and being against abortion—to instill his social brand and edge into the culture of the university. He claims that will not be the case. But given his undeniable high-profile public positions on gay and lesbian issues and rights, abortion, healthcare, affirmative action and the MAGA agenda, the idea that Sasse will change his stripes and that his conservative political bent will now somehow disappear strains credulity and credibility.
As part of his welcome to the campus, the University of Florida faculty have already voted no confidence in the board’s selection process, a tantamount rejection of how and why Sasse was appointed in the first place. Again, if the Dartmouth experience with McLaughlin is any gauge, this vote is only the first salvo in what will be a continuing debate about Sasse as a university president.
From the outset of McLaughlin’s appointment, the Dartmouth faculty, like their Florida counterparts, voiced immense skepticism about the board’s process that resulted in his selection. In the introductory open public faculty meeting that April 1981—I was in the room, then a student affairs administrator—McLaughlin was greeted by pointed criticism from Dartmouth professors. They questioned his capacity to lead in a college and academic culture that was the antithesis of his exclusive corporate sector autocratic and top-down experience. Several faculty members railed to his face about his glaring lack of academic credentials—an MBA, but no Ph.D.—about having no experience teaching and leading a college, bringing only business experience that would never translate to being Dartmouth’s voice in the presidential pulpit.
There was no vote of no confidence in the trustees at the time of their decision. That came four years later dressed in the garb of the unprecedented impaneling of a committee to review McLaughlin’s performance as president. But the Dartmouth faculty restiveness and fear was unmistakable. Their misgivings and judgment that day were born out in a tumultuous, contentious and divisive presidential tenure marked by aggressive, vindicative grudge-based senior administrative turnover, duplicitous leadership, e.g., saying one thing to one group or individual and then the direct opposite to someone else, and a divide-and-conquer style that pitted campus constituencies against each.
For many observers, the Sasse and McLaughlin appointments are sadly only grasped as institutional overreach designed to satisfy certain constituents, rather than aspiring to the greater good of the entire university. McLaughlin lacked fundamental leadership abilities in a president of a college or university. As Sasse assumes the presidency of the University of Florida, there are eerie parallels to Dartmouth’s experience more than 40 years ago. This reality dictates that the Florida faculty must be robust in their scrutiny of how Sasse carries himself, the decisions and actions he takes and his leadership of their university community and its culture. Based on the experience of McLaughlin at Dartmouth, that means the Florida faculty must be vigilantly tuned in to what goes on in the who’s and why’s of senior leadership turnover and new appointments and to kneejerk tendencies to favor conservative causes and to support conservative over liberal professors, student groups and leaders. They must also be attentive to any fiscal and fundraising sleight-of-hand and abuse of the books to make the president look successful.
What is always essential in the leadership of America’s colleges and universities is the naming of presidents who possess critical capacities and commitments: moral grounding, the broad center of understanding and the intellectual gravitas essential in the quest to engage academic communities in the forthright pursuit of intellectual inquiry, freedom of ideas and discourse, and the common good.
Worthy and great college presidents are not accidents or the result of luck. Ill-fitted, ill-suited presidents can do great damage. Early glimmers of what is in the offing reveal what the path might be. Sasse, his faculty and all the constituencies of the University of Florida are on a precipice. They should look at the prelude at Dartmouth in the 1980s when pressures for conservative, return to a bygone era leadership overwhelmed conventional wisdom for an academic, intellectual and balanced, credible presidential appointment, one truly fit for the complexities and diverse voices in a university community. At Dartmouth and under McLaughlin’s leadership, the tragic result was the destruction of the esprit de corps of administrative staff, erosion of the stature and public image of the college and a corrosive cynicism in the campus community about its culture. The realities of such presidencies should make all wary indeed.
Stephen J. Nelson is professor of educational leadership at Bridgewater State University and Senior Scholar with the Leadership Alliance at Brown University. He is the author of the recently released book, John G. Kemeny and Dartmouth College: The Man, the Times, and the College Presidency. His forthcoming book, Searching the Soul of the College and University in America: Religious and Democratic Covenants and Controversies, will be released in 2023. Nelson served on the student affairs staff at Dartmouth College from 1978 to 1987.
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