Sunday, February 11, 2007

Leadership in Politics and Academia

I thought this column by Frank Rich today was pretty good in the way it quotes Barack Obama and discusses his candidacy:

But at least one rap against him [Obama] can promptly be laid to rest: his lack of experience. If time in the United States Senate is what counts for presidential seasoning, maybe his two years’ worth is already too much. Better he get out now, before there’s another embarrassing nonvote on a nonbinding measure about what will soon be a four-year-old war.
That's absolutely right. Experience means more than marking time in a position that other people envy. It means developing leadership capacity and a track record of taking responsibility for decisions. That's why, in the realm of presidential candidacies, a few years as governor of any state can trump decades in the Senate. Obama is later quoted in the article as saying, "They don't want experience, they want judgment." Given what typically passes for "experience" in this context, that's true as well.

Also this week, we learn that Harvard will soon have a new president. The Harvard Crimson reported that Professor Drew Gilpin Faust, a Civil War scholar who currently leads the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, is slated to be approved by the Board of Overseers today. I wish her the very best of luck and hope for good things from my alma mater under her leadership.

Some of the reactions to her appointment surprised me. Consider these quotes from a Washington Post article:
Sheldon Hackney, who was president of Penn from 1981 to 1993 while Faust was a teacher there, said Faust was not only a great educator but always displayed sound judgment and was well-respected by her peers.

"She will be really good for Harvard," he said. "There is no big significant change that you can make in the university for which you don't need faculty support, and she will be able to get that."

Some educators said the choice of Faust was a surprise because she does not have extensive administrative experience. That was probably a plus, said George Washington University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg.

"They didn't want anybody with administrative experience," he said. "They wanted an inspirational leader, a political symbol, a decent person that everybody could feel good about to help them do what the presidents do best."

I'll go along with Hackney (and Obama) that sound judgment is more important than any particular administrative experience. But I don't see how he can assert that "she will be able to get faculty support." Tenured faculty at Harvard (or Hackney's Penn or my Dartmouth) are deeply entrenched in their positions, particularly on matters related to resource allocation. This was the biggest challenge facing Summers as he sought to position Harvard for the next century, and it will be Faust's as well. What's the evidence that she will be able to get faculty support for major initiatives, in which some will be winners and some will be losers, if not prior administrative experience in which she's done so on a smaller scale?

It is also impossible to believe that the presidential search committee really behaved the way Trachtenberg suggests. That warm glow that's being described--everyone feels good so they'll help her accomplish her goals--will vanish the moment this "inspirational leader, political symbol, a[nd] decent person" tries to tell one group of faculty that, in the allocation of resources across departments, their department will get less because other departments are more deserving.


Anonymous said...

Chayes got alot of USAID money from Shayes. Maybe she is better for the job. CIA hired alot of those University Presidents after the WMD thing, maybe she is better for the University?

Tom said...

From the outside, it seems like a large, stable university is like a game of Survivor with a few more winners. Since everyone is relatively equally qualified going in to the contest for unlimited job stability, they will use unsavory methods to enhance their status...mostly backroom politics. Tenured faculty, in essense, consists of smart people (but not necessarily the "smartest") who are really good at politics. Not an easy group to deal with.

Furthermore, management theory says that people will do what they've been successful at, even when it's inappropriate. You'd think that once they reached the promised land, the politics would stop, but, if anything, it seems worse -- and all around the size of budgets, etc. Add to this mess the fact that all PhD's think they're smarter than God...thus, all administration is stupid...this becomes an unmanageable mess...if I got that job, I'd negotiate quite a golden parachute, that's for sure.

bakho said...

As part of the Bush administration, how do you rate the current WH in terms of experience, leadership and judgement?

The knock on Mr Bush coming in was that he had very little experience in foreign policy and with the exception of the TX Rangers, all his businesses were failures.

Do we choose our presidents based on whether or not they posess the traits necessary for the job?

soccer said...

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investigate any unusual source and level of human commotion and report immediately back to our ZX-879 headquarters.

Turning on our invisibility shield helped us get really close to the subject of examination without being detected.

As we reached the egg shaped concrete container filled with 100,000 or so human subjects, the noise level rose to

such unimaginable heights that we had to shut down our frequency analyzers for fear of damaging their sensitive


When we cleared the top of the concrete structure we were blinded with thousands of light-emitting radiation


Then we saw them -- 22 voluntary humans darting back and forth in alternating sequences of random and

seemingly-goal-oriented sprints. We have checked our central computer to decipher the modal characteristic of such

kinetic outbursts and we were advised to locate the focal source of coordinated agitation.

Anonymous said...

It's nice that Harvard selected as its first woman president a person named Dr. Faust. An auspicious follow-on to Larry Summers, who was bedeviled by women.