Tales from the Presidency: The Dartmouth and NYU Chapters

An expert on the college presidency weighs on on challenges facing presidents at Dartmouth and NYU …
Cashing chips at Dartmouth? Dartmouth College did not need the round of controversial headlines that were about to come its way nor the cascade that was surely to follow. Only weeks in office as president, Philip Hanlon found his back to the wall. What had happened and so early on his watch? A quickly brewing storm was gathering as a result of the college’s recent appointment as dean of the Tucker Foundation of a high-profile African bishop who until a very recent apparent change of heart, held highly public views not only failing to condemn but arguably no doubt condoning his home nation of Malawi’s criminalization of homosexuality.

Hanlon had very little choice confronted as he was with a looming disaster. Smartly, though having to cash in a lot of chips early in his presidency, he quickly moved to pull the plug on a failed senior administrative appointment. The historically esteemed Tucker Foundation where chaplains, religious life and community service leaders are to guide the “moral and spiritual” life of the whole of the Dartmouth community was going to have as its leader a man with hefty moral and spiritual baggage. Something had to be done.

Hanlon and Dartmouth confronted the reality that it would be nearly impossible for this imported bishop, James Tengatenga to have the stature required of the foundation’s mission let alone Dartmouth’s grander principles of decency, equity and fairness. Given his strong, outspoken negative opinions about gays and lesbians, notwithstanding Tengatenga’s recent protestations of a change of heart, it is impossible to fathom how he could fulfill the role of dean. Needless to say, it is unbelievably puzzling that his appointment got this far along the chain of a search process and formal offer to serve Dartmouth in such a position of religious, moral and spiritual leadership. But indeed, he was about to assume his office.

Freshly minted college presidents, as any new leaders, have honeymoons of indefinite duration. There is a pile of chips at the ready on their desks to be played in the face of inevitable crises and problems. Hanlon acted decisively. Some may applaud the courage of his stand, ready and willing to extend his honeymoon. He has expended chips, but they may turn out to be well spent.

However, Hanlon’s honeymoon could be significantly abbreviated if the wolves decrying political correctness come to the Hanover Plain to condemn his rescinding of the bishop’s appointment. They may say, “Here you go again,” now in the form of presidential action at a college marked over three decades as the epicenter of collegiate ideological battles fought over race, women’s, gay and lesbian and other minority rights and agendas.

But Hanlon cannot be worried about how his staunchest allies and his sternest critics will line up in degrees of support and condemnation. He had to act and he had to act then.

What would this appointment have looked like if it had gone forward? Tengatenga could have tried to remain silent about gays and homosexuality, taking a when in Rome do as the Romans do approach. He could have argued for his recent change of heart. But he still would have been rightly hounded to speak out about whether his new rhetoric was simply a guise to cover long believed and argued assertions for which he is so noted in his home country and in his church community there. He is certainly entitled to believe what he believes, to feel what he feels. But the extent to which he is entitled to do this anywhere, with any audience is the question. Certainly, he is free to return to Malawi and preach to his heart’s desire in favaor of criminalization of homosexuality—or against it, if that is his new position.

The problem for Dartmouth and Hanlon was that they could not have a leader with a questionable, even if more recently mixed batch of assertions about gays and lesbians in their community. If he remained, everything that the college asserts that it stands for would be continually hoisted on a petard as nothing more than mere hypocrisy.

Dartmouth may well be assailed for being politically correct as a result of Hanlon’s decisive action. There will be those who will cloak their criticism of the president’s stand as an infringement of the bishop’s academic freedom. There will be de rigueur allegations that Dartmouth is a bastion of ultra-liberal, progressive intolerance. This despite the counter dose of political incorrectness created by the Dartmouth Review, the independent rightwing campus newspaper that for decades has sought to instill in the public mind an alternate caricature of the college. But the notable reality is that Hanlon has exhibited courageous leadership, cutting is teeth as a new president in a state of affairs that had to be confronted. In the face of those who react by condemning him as a high priest of political correctness, Hanlon can justly wear the outlandish allegations as a badge of honor.

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Sexton under siege at NYU.

While Hanlon confronted presidential challenges at the very outset of his tenure, John Sexton was deep into his time at New York University when he was forced to grapple with faculty upheaval.

Sexton was in the middle of the transition as president New York University (NYU) from appointment to inauguration when the September 11th 2001 attacks rained a horror and debris over the university. There could be no more inauspicious moment to start a university presidency. Over a decade later and in his 12th year in office, Sexton confronts a rising tide of rancor from his faculty and its vote of no confidence in his leadership. What is to become of Sexton’s presidency? Have his grand, some argue overreaching, visions for NYU created a wake so large that the community can no longer follow his lead?

Sexton’s personal style is impossible to miss for anyone who meets him or even follows his life and career from afar. He can be summed up in a word: passion. He is passionate about life, about NYU, about the academy, about teaching and learning, and when he meets you, about you. He is a fascinatingly high-energy, enthusiastic and epic figure. The tales of his way of doing a presidency are legion. He teaches a remarkable load for a college president, in most semesters between one to three courses. There are other college presidents who teach but not to this degree. Sexton holds open office hours and town meetings on the campus with students and faculty. He dedicates many Saturdays to morning and afternoon sessions meeting individually and in groups with professors about their research, about the issues and problems they confront in teaching, and about who they are as people.

However, despite Sexton’s passion and dedication, yet maybe because of it, all is not well at NYU. If Sexton once looked like he brought about Camelot, harsh reactions from constituents rubbed the wrong way now cast a shadow on Sexton’s future. His plans for the university have always been grand, to his critics, grandiose. The result is a severe test of Sexton’s leadership; fearful faculty arguing that NYU’s over-the-top plans are fashioned by the grandiosity of its president.

The foremost contention is “Framework 2031,” a two-decade plan unveiled five years ago that sets the university’s future sails and now moves into its construction stage. It calls for a gigantic expansion of NYU’s footprint in its already-cramped confines in Greenwich Village that would spread even further to surrounding parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn. This shape-shifting strategy already includes Sexton’s highly touted launch of not a mere satellite campus, but truly NYU in Abu Dhabi. To underscore his personal commitment to this venture and how much this piece of Middle East desert no different than NYU in Washington Park, Sexton flies there regularly to lead, to meet, to greet, and to teach courses. But this too only confirms his critics’ contention that he and the university are spread way beyond reality.

Represented by enough of its leaders to create a fuss, NYU faculty have heaved their bodies in Sexton’s path saying, “enough is enough.” The result: a no confidence vote by a large but not overwhelming majority. The hugger-in-chief, the open and engaging Sexton is now viewed as arrogant, detached at least from faculty interests, a CEO having to tolerate his minions, mounding up too many frequent-flyer miles. But in their actions, ironies pile on ironies. Throughout the landscape of our colleges and universities many, joined no doubt by significant numbers of NYU faculty, mourn the passing of the colossal college president of old. “Why can’t we have leaders like that?” is the all-too-frequent cry. We need activist presidents in- and outside the gates of the campus to move us, move our colleges to ever-greater heights and visibility, move our hearts, speak out in the public square.

Ironically John Sexton is one of those titanic figures. Of course, beware what you wish for. When we confront a contemporary giant, especially up close as the leader of our university, then we don’t want them. However, Sexton can take cold comfort because many of these larger-than-life presidents of yore—Nicholas Butler at Columbia, James Conant at Harvard, Robert Hutchins at Chicago–swooned over in many quarters today, were frequently reviled in their day.

Sexton too is a force to be reckoned, a 21st century university president who embraces the classical ideals of the academy, is willing to fight to preserve its best interests and principles and embraces the bully pulpit. He has relentlessly criticized political correctness. He insists on a university that can stand for the social and cultural discourse that we must have in a democracy. He decries the shouting inanities of the masses at the gates and on cable television, not to mention among our elected leaders. And he wants to be remembered as the president who built the NYU of today into what it will be in the future. That is a leader with large visions and intent on generating a legacy.

Sexton is a giant. Maybe with sufficient giant-killers around his feet, he will be brought down. However here the NYU faculty must be careful about what they wish for. They could be left with a much lesser light as Sexton’s successor.

 

Stephen J. Nelson is associate professor of educational leadership at Bridgewater State University and senior scholar with the Leadership Alliance at Brown University. His most recent book is Decades of Chaos and Revolution: Showdowns for College Presidents. A new work, College Presidents Reflect: Life In and Out of the Ivory Tower, will be released later this year

 

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