Presidential Chaos

Perspectives from Stephen J. Nelson, who recently authored his fourth book about college presidents, Decades of Chaos and Revolution: Showdowns for College Presidents.

Nelson is associate professor of Educational Leadership at Bridgewater State University and senior scholar in the Leadership Alliance at Brown University.

NEJHE published his thoughts on two previous occasions: Success and Failure in the College Presidency and Balance Wheel: Presidents Should Use Their Moral Authority to Protect Academe.


About the upheaval on the doorstep of colleges and their leaders . . .

Beginning in the 1960s, colleges and universities became proxies in a larger social and political battle about the nation’s institutions and bureaucracies—the government, the military, the corporate military-industrial complex. But these forces were too large, too insulated and too powerful for any relatively small band of protestors to affect. Colleges and universities on the other hand were much easier targets. Their traditional values of supposed openness, free debate and inquiry, and taking all comers made them a perfect Petri dish for the tumult, disorder and, in many cases, violence that ensued. Enormous distractions from the normal order of business ensued: criticism of conventional thought about education, changes in campus life mores, research and its funding sources, and upheaval in the traditional comity that many a president thought was the job they had gotten into—that it was their business to lead and glorify to the public. All of a sudden, the deck changed. Presidents were now referees, if they were lucky to have that much influence and, at worst, bystanders to unprecedented upheaval. To stand up and do something required great wisdom and courage. Even some who tried to do so found their presidencies torn asunder.

About the foundation of the academy on trial . . .

Presidents of the 1960s were forced to operate with one hand tied behind their backs. That is, they were expected to uphold the core values and beliefs of the academy: free speech, the right to organize and petition, the notion that debate and personal inquiry could lead to moral, ethical, political, cultural and social conclusions and principled stands. The “opposition”—the student protestors, fed by outsiders—could use all those tools but had vastly less accountability and no compulsion or compunction to adhere to the grandest values and traditions of the academy. Minor and even major instances of going over the line for the protestors were viewed by them and by even moderate supporters as part of the game, the only way they could make their points and raise their cause. Presidents had to try to take the high road and, when they did not, they were readily vilified for it. When they did take the high road, they simply had fewer weapons at their disposal than their opponents.

On portraits of presidents in the crucible . . .

In spring 1969, James Perkins, president of Cornell, had been battling black students over their demands that were the standard menu justly pressed at colleges and universities across the country for years. In mid-April, continuing to force these demands—minority recruitment of professors and staff, increased minority admissions, other symbolically important gestures of money and commitment by the university—and following an arson fire at the Black student house, students took over Willard-Straight Hall, the university’s student center. The students were armed with rifles, handguns and bandoliers. Negotiations with the administration ensued, and two representatives of Perkins’ senior staff were sent into the building. As the negotiations stalled, Perkins (or the provost speaking on his behalf) gave the green light to get the students out even if that meant that they would exit by the front entrance with the guns in hand. They did just that. Photographers shot award-winning pictures that were on the front pages of all major newspapers worldwide the next day. The rest is history. After a few days of Perkins mostly stumbling in public meetings, things began to die down. But the damage to Cornell was done and Perkins announced his resignation shortly before commencement. This was only one of many such forced departures sparked solely by the tumult of the times. Who knows how long Perkins and many of his other colleague presidents of the day would have served had their tenures not been short-circuited by campus protest and upheaval.

On presidents who not only survived but thrived in the 1960s and early ’70s …

I have become more and more convinced that “good” successful presidents of necessity lead from the middle. I think this has always been the case, even with what we consider to be the “giants”—predecessors that some believe today’s presidents and even those of the past few decades cannot hold a candle to. But I think the Hesburghs, Conants, Eliots and other giants all led finally from some middle ground. They were able to find a center that could hold. In the 1960s, in particular, this was absolutely critical in order to keep moderates, particularly student moderates, the non-protestors, even those that might otherwise have been viewed as apathetic, from streaming to rally around the more radical elements. Robben Fleming president in those days of Wisconsin and Michigan, often makes the point that if he drove moderate students into the arms of the radical factions, he would lose the battle and maybe his presidency. He was by no means alone.

On the big picture takeaway . . .

The biggest revelation about the era of 1960 to roughly the mid-1970s is the judgment that the presidents who served in that time had the toughest slog in contemporary times. This past decade featured two bad financial hits, the Great Recession of 2008, by far the worst in many decades (though the 1973-74 recession was almost as bad and there were two other minor ones in the 1970s) and the other recession and economic downturn after the shock to the country, campuses and presidential leadership of September 11th. But these do not come close to the range of issues, the depth of conflict and antagonism, the outright violence, and disintegration of faith in institutions and leaders that marked and marred the 1960s and 70s.

Those were times of unrelenting chaos and revolution. If it was not one thing, it was another, or overlapping and complementary confluences of events, angst and difficulty. There were few good ways out. The choices were often reduced to making the least bad decision. And many presidents were driven from office because of these events. That exodus does not compare in other eras, including any time before.

The era of the 1960s to the mid-1970s was the most difficult for college presidents and their colleges and universities in the entire history of higher education in America. But with all the sturm and drang, there were great presidents and others equally solid but less in the public limelight and historical consciousness who stood the test of those times. From them, we and their successors in the ensuing decades into today and likely well beyond profit enormously from the wisdom, steady hand in unsteady times, and determination not to have the university as we knew it previously, knew it then or have it today, simply to dissolve into nothing more than an ideological haven, its identity no doubt irretrievably left to be shaped by whatever ideological group is able to control it at any point. That threat was at a zenith from the mid-1960s to 1975. That threat uncontested would have destroyed the academy. College presidents of that time not only resisted but overcame what could have been most dramatic and disastrous turns of event which, handled differently, could have permanently altered the nature of the university. Presidents of that day were able to win that battle by their willpower and smarts, and even more so by absolute belief in the fundamental foundations of the university and a recognition that they absolutely had to be sustained. That said, every era presents unique challenges and crises. Today’s presidents may not have battles in the streets to cope with. However,  they do have  battles within and beyond the gates with both cornerstone supporters and no-holds-barred critics. The struggles at hand are over not only the ideological off-spring of the 1960s and 70s, but the continuing need to justify the ever-escalating price of a college degree and competition from for-profit and online factories that argue for changing the rules of the game.


Related Posts:

Editor’s Memo: Bully Pulpit

College Presidents Speak Out on Public Issues















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