11.10.05

DESTOOLING THE CHIEFS. University Diaries reports that American University's Benjamin Ladner will no longer be indulging himself like a medieval archbishop on American's tithes. As part of her research she discovers another destooled chief, Towson's Mark Perkins. The news report suggests something more disturbing at work.
It is easy to lampoon such scandals as bizarre sagas of individual excess, the acts of latter-day Louis XIVs who have figured out how to game the system. But there is a common thread that suggests another dynamic is also at work. All four presidents were employed by workmanlike institutions striving to raise their reputation, and all four were encouraged by trustees to lead a life of luxury, in hopes that this would help project a positive image for the institution. If the presidents crossed the line, their trustees acted as enablers in nudging them near it.
One wonders how effective such a strategy is, or whether it's confirmation of a remark Paul Fussell made years ago about universities serving as the modern version of salons and courts. I think of the early Nucor Steel. For years, this company rented headquarters somewhere in North Carolina. They may still be there for all I know. Their in-house engineering staff kept working away at a thin-slab caster, with which the company hoped to recycle high-grade scrap into sheet steel suitable for appliances and automobile brackets without having to build a two-mile long rolling mill complete with walking-beam reheat furnaces and sufficient stands to mash a slab as thick as a mattress suitable for a medieval archbishop. Bethlehem Steel, a company that indulged its ranking managers in a manner the Upwardly Mobile universities seek to emulate, gave their in-house engineering staff a project. Evaluate the thin-slab caster. The engineers came back with a 1 1/2" thick report, replete with bullet points and executive summary and heavy-grade paper suitable for an illuminated manuscript ... detailing why the thin-slab caster wouldn't work.

Anybody seen Bethlehem Steel lately?

Where is the university president who will ask the trustees not to spend the money on additional janissaries and space grabs for the deans and other trappings of Bethlehem Steel?

This observation defies parody.

Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, says there is something to Ladner's defense. College presidents today are expected to spend so much of their time fundraising that universities are justified in picking up many of their expenses, and in paying for the kind of luxury that will impress a potential donor. This is especially true in Washington, he said, where the bar for entertaining is very high.

"Prospecting for donors is an expensive venture. An institution has to invest money to get money," he said. "It's an attempt [by schools] to break through whatever academic ceiling they have by raising more money. By having a larger endowment you can have more financial aid, so you can get better students and you can get better faculty."

If memory serves, part of the difficulties the academic units face is the reluctance of the universities that have endowments to dig into them.

What is the university's equivalent of the thin slab caster?

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