Role of University President?

Before I married my wife the opera singer and university professor, my primary interests in the arts were literature, especially F&SF and poetry, and painting. My principal musical interests were instrumental classical music and “non-twangy” country music. The country music has faded to the background as I’ve also come to appreciate and enjoy opera and musical theatre.

I’ve also moved from being immersed in national politics to being a close observer of university and faculty politics… and have come to realize that in all too many instances, Henry Kissinger was right – university politics are every bit as bad as national politics, or they were until the last year or so.

One question that keeps coming to mind for me is exactly what is the role of a university president? Are university presidents primarily glad-handers and fundraisers? Or are they supposed to set the course and policies of the institution? Or, in the case of state institutions, to lobby the legislature to obtain a share in increasingly hard to get state funding?

The current president of the local university is a lawyer, a profession that I’m convinced has created a disproportionate share of the mess in which our federal government finds itself. I have nothing against attorneys in their proper place [and I shouldn’t, given the number of them in my family], but I firmly believe that neither accountants nor lawyers should be in charge of anything. Yes, every CEO needs a good attorney for advice, but attorneys as CEOs or university presidents? Not a good idea. I feel the same way about accountants.

I’m certainly not privy to all this president has done, but I have to say that, from what I’ve seen, his priorities are… can I say, of dubious value.

Every door in the music department had to be replaced not once, but twice, for legal reasons, because professors couldn’t be observed teaching otherwise, not that there were ever any complaints. On the other hand, there’s still no funding to replace the sixty year old defective and potentially dangerous lighting system in the recital hall… although plans have finally been discussed, but the replacement has been postponed for three years running. When asked about the possibility to replace the sixty-year old and overcrowded music building, he told the faculty they needed to find a wealthy donor… and that they “knew what they were getting into” when they became music professors.

The university president religiously attends every football game and touts the football team, which has won the conference title for two of the last three years. He hasn’t commented on the fact that singers from the music department have made it to the national finals of the National Association of Teachers of Singing for the past three years. Nor has he noticed the theatre alumni/alumnae who have appeared on Broadway or in touring national productions. He certainly hasn’t noticed the professors who taught and mentored those graduates. But he has forced out the director of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, one of the two men who built it into a national Tony award winning regional theatre, and eliminated the modest stipend paid to the Festival’s founder. The only music department concert he now attends is the annual choral-rock concert, and he’s inordinately proud of the university’s recent achievement as being cited as the most “outdoors-oriented” university in the country.

For more than fifty years, the university president has served as a board member of the Cedar City Music Arts Association, the oldest all-volunteer arts organization in Utah. Some presidents were more active than others; all attended board meetings [nine a year] occasionally. This president never attended and recently resigned.

So far, after three years, he hasn’t managed to land major financial support, nor has he been able to persuade the legislature to come up with significant additional funding, even though the legislature has insisted that the university accept more students every year, so that tuition continues to climb. And despite the increased enrollment, very few additional full-time faculty have been hired, but the number of adjunct faculty has burgeoned.

But the football team is better.

3 thoughts on “Role of University President?”

  1. John Prigent says:

    If US university presidents are anything like UK university chancellors, their principal role is to take large salaries while complaining that ‘we don’t have enough money to do X’ and pushing up the costs to students.

    1. JakeB says:

      John, you’ve forgotten their other role of increasing the proportion of money going to administrative staff while decreasing the amount going to faculty and teaching facilities.

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    If I didn’t already appreciate your perspective (without necessarily always agreeing), I would have after your line ” neither accountants nor lawyers should be in charge of anything.”

    How often I’ve seen that demonstrated! And for that matter, techies and business majors have a lot to learn about people skills and leadership before they should be in charge of anything, either. Both knowing enough about what your people do not to be misled, and knowing enough about business not to be impractical are necessary, but not sufficient.

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