Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Doing what comes naturally: Learning university administration on the job

Bruce BensonThe University of Colorado has named Bruce Benson as its president, and Stanley Fish's observations on this appointment are right on the money. A university "which dismissed controversial professor Ward Churchill because of doubts about his academic qualifications, has appointed a president who doesn’t have any."

Benson is an accomplished oilman and an active Republican. But "his highest degree is a B.A., and he has never been a member of a faculty or engaged in research or published papers in a learned journal." This avowed nonacademic is poised to take the helm of "a state university ranked 11th among public universities and 34th among universities overall."

Fish correctly observes that "the political and financial profile of an administrative candidate are . . . relevant because what you want him or her to do is not produce scholarship or teach inspiring classes . . . but interact successfully with a number of external constituencies including regents, legislators, governors, the press and donors." Academic administration isn't purely academic, and searches to fill presidencies and deanships shouldn't be purely academic.

Read the rest of this post . . . .Fish is right to criticize those who would stress either academia or administration to the exclusion of the other. Those who emphasize only teaching and scholarship "forget[] that executive leadership requires skills most faculty members neither possess nor appreciate."

CU BoulderBy the same token, "those who dismiss the importance of academic skills" mistakenly assume that managerial acumen is freely transferable from business to academia, that "[s]omeone who can manage an oil company will be able to manage the enterprise of a university." As Fish observes, "in the academy there is no product except knowledge," and concepts such as market share, efficiency, and inventory yield in favor of "endless deliberations, explorations that may go nowhere, problems that only five people in the world even understand, lifetime employment that is not taken away even when nothing is achieved, expensively labor-intensive practices and no bottom line."

Nonacademic law school deans are hardly an anomaly. I work at a school that was led, not that long ago and for nearly a decade, by a judge with no prior academic experience, and a law firm partner to whom I once answered currently sits as dean of another law school. I wonder whether it's easier for a judge, a law firm partner, or a prosecutor to learn the arcane ways of academia or, by contrast, for a professor to set aside academic tools and norms for the dark art of management. Others can speak about the transition from the bench or the corner office to the dean's suite. I do know that it is challenging but exhilarating to infuse managerial and (most of all) entrepreneurial responsibilities into the strictly academic calling of a law school professor. There is a portmanteau expression for this blend of management, law, and the intellectual life: MoneyLaw.

All that is fodder for future posts. In the meanwhile, let's complete our brief examination of Bruce Benson's designation as president of the University of Colorado. Michael Carrigan, one of the three CU regents who voted against Benson, squarely identified the greatest weakness in Colorado's choice: “I can’t believe that there are no candidates out there with both business acumen and academic credentials.” Fish's endorsement of Carrigan's observation rings true: "Those candidates were out there and they still are. Perhaps the next university tempted to go this route will take the trouble to look for them."


Anonymous Doug Richmond said...

Dr. Fish's NYT piece is interesting and well-written, but I was struck by his statement that Mr. Garrison, the West Virginia University president, has "no advanced degrees in an academic subject (although he does at least have a law degree)." I find this statement stunning given that Dr. Fish is said to be a professor at the Florida International Schoool of Law. Regrettably, FIU is likely unable to get rid of Dr. Fish--that institution is sadly stuck with this once-retired has-been teaching students for whom he has no apparent respect and working with many colleagues he obviously thinks beneath him.

2/26/2008 8:06 AM  

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