Hey hey! Ho ho! Fundraisers-in-Chief have got to go!

I’ve generally kept this blog for work-related topics, but now that my old dorm has been occupied by the NYPD (or at the very least is being “secured” by them, whatever that means) I will comment on the leadership vacuum that has led to the recent events. I’ll leave the rest of the politics to others, as anything I might say has been said thousands of times by people far more eloquent than myself.

It’s telling that the former CEO of Boeing and the presidents of so many top universities are in the same position: unable to respond to a major crisis because the reason they were chosen for the job had nothing to do with their ability to run the organizations they’ve been nominally charged with running.

Writing earlier today on Bloomberg, Beth Kowitt said:

Based on the communications coming out of presidents’ offices, the impression many are leaving is that pockets of higher education desperately need more crisis-management training — a surprising revelation considering a university president’s top responsibility is supervising a passionate group of young adults with still-developing prefrontal cortices that make them prone to risky behavior.


It sounds right, and it should be right, but it’s not. At least not for the past couple of decades.

How we got here

Fundraisers-in-Chief Larry Summers and Minouche Shafik. (Photos courtesy of Harvard Crimson and UK Department for International Development)

The past few months have demonstrated a lack of leadership skills, communication skills, and crisis management skills by the leaders of American universities.

This is not new. If you haven’t been paying attention for the past 20-25 years — and Beth Kowitt apparently hasn’t — presidents of large universities are no longer expected to run the university or deal with those pesky young adults and their risky behaviors. They are hired as well-connected fundraisers-in-chief who do not expect to have to deal with academics, student life, or labor management, let alone major political protests. Whatever the “official” bios and job descriptions may say, their real job is hobnobbing with, and currying the favor of the world’s top 1%.

This mirrors corporate America where, when there is a crisis, management is usually clueless about how to respond. Running the organization is not what they were hired to do either. That is supposed to be delegated to lesser individuals or outsourced completely so the “leaders” don’t have to worry about it. It’s a nice theory of how to run things that works until it doesn’t, but even then the person who oversaw it all will probably do fine even as the organization implodes. Just look at Boeing and its ex-CEO.

This trend, like so many other awful ones, can be traced back to former Harvard president Larry Summers, who by this point has perverted the role of university presidents, Treasury secretaries (and their counterparts around the world), and — to the extent that this is even possible — the World Bank, while also cheerleading similar perversion across other social and business institutions. Summers was an academic economist of some note, who then moved to the World Bank — a kleptocratic institution that also happens to be one of the best places on the planet to establish ties to, and learn how to grift from, the top 1% — before going to Treasury, and eventually returning to Harvard as fundraiser-in-chief, aka “university president.”

But Summers’ success as a fundraiser even as he was controversial as a leader, established a pattern for “university leaders”: they are to be very, very well connected rainmakers who whose job is not academics, faculty or students, but bringing in money. By now, only the thinnest veneer of academic qualification is expected, and even that is only to keep up appearances. If that has meant putting up with somebody who is prone to speaking authoritatively about things they don’t know anything about and haven’t researched well, or acting on their poorly-formed opinions, that’s a price that universities have been willing to pay.

The sorry state of leadership today

We shouldn’t be surprised that the results eventually yielded “leaders” like Shafik at Columbia, whose primary qualifications are a tenure at the World Bank (really, can we just stop hiring anybody from that global criminal enterprise?) and other quasi-governmental and government institutions, followed by a very controversial time as president of the LSE where her response to legal labor action was as ham-fisted as recent decisions at Columbia. Running a university and dealing with the challenges of internal conflict was never supposed to be her real job at either the LSE or Columbia, so in a sense, she’s performing just as expected. Knowing her history and the expectations of those who hired her, we shouldn’t be surprised.

Leadership through a crisis demands clarity and consistency, which is not something you learn at the World Bank. Brown University has also suspended students, but it’s a lot easier to justify those actions when the rules are well-articulated and you show some level of moral clarity upfront, rather than as a knee-jerk response to the latest action covered up by professional PR. If you start with clarity, you can later later justify your actions, as Brown president Christina Paxson was able to do. At Columbia it doesn’t appear that anybody even thought that articulating clear expectations and identifying the “red lines” around student protest was even necessary.

Ironically, at this point even dealing with the major funders and political charlatans would be easier if there were clear expectations. Nobody wants to hear that today’s students don’t share their viewpoint, but it’s a lot more palatable when you’re delivering a hard message about the reality of political opinion on campus, when you’re able to articulate the framework within which decisions about what is and is not acceptable are made, and the red lines that can’t be crossed. When the rules are up for grabs, everybody is going to be grabbing and you’re in the middle.

Where forward?

In a better world, we’d realize that hiring “leaders” with no meaningful leadership experience is a mistake, we’d fire most of these people, and we’d move on with better. That’s not what’s happened. At Columbia, as was the case initially at Boeing and in so many other places, the effort seems to have been on damage control and returning to business as usual. No introspection or fundamental change necessary. Shafik seems desperate to call the situation over so she can go back to her job of not actually running the university.

There are few people left to step in, to advise these “leaders” with better ideas, or to replace them with greater competence. Boards of Trustees (of whatever form they may take) have been restructured around the goal of ongoing fundraising rather than providing long-term strategic vision for the institution. Running the institution is something done by lower level and middle managers, whose roles at most universities have multiplied even as visibility and respect for their contributions has declined. When trouble happens, only a handful of universities have accidentally found themselves with real leadership in place to deal with it.

After a couple of decades of easy money, we have ended up with university presidents who can’t run universities because their only real role is absorbing as much of that easy money by any means necessary, and corporate CEOs who know nothing about the businesses they supposedly operate because their sole role is to funnel money in the opposite direction, also by any means necessary. The roles are not dissimilar in the sense that they are “leaders” who are mostly allowed to be absent from any real involvement in what their organizations actually do, and in fact what the institutions do and how they do it is almost incidental to their real jobs. But when things get tough, you can’t ride to the rescue with a share buyback because you’re running out of cash, and nobody wants to give money to a university that’s imploding due to lack of clear and present leadership.

It’s going to be rough going. Boards of Trustees can’t even vet candidates for their ability to lead a university, because anybody who knew how to do that or how to identify that talent, is long gone. Nobody has been grooming upcoming leaders with the skills that will be needed in more challenging times, when facing problems that demand leadership and consistency.

It’s taken a couple of decades of easy sliding to get here. It’ll probably take a couple of decades of much harder work to get out.