LSU Faculty Senate Publications

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

9-2015

Abstract

Message from President: In recent months, the top officers—or, as they like to call themselves, the “CEOs”—of Louisiana’s university systems have asked their public relations departments to proclaim their great accomplishment in staving off the economic starvation of campuses by a penurious legislature. According to this narrative, a heroic effort by the Fab Four of higher education administration convinced backwoods politicians that prosperous campuses were good for everyone. Like all narratives, this one features a beginning and an ending. Beginnings and endings have a way of eclipsing our vision of what went on before or after the story. By focusing attention on a bad starting point and a good climax, they tend to occlude much of occurred during the story line. If we open the portals at the arbitrary start and stop points of this story, we discover that not very much really happened as a direct result of the efforts of the lead characters in this slightly tall tale. The story had already been written. Decades of compliant leaders, spurred on by political appointees from both parties, had cooperated in the writing of an economic story in which universities need enough funding to produce sports entertainment and provide a competent but home-loving workforce willing to work at below-market wages. Very few experienced observers believe that legislators, most of whom have some political or economic motivation to keep their favorite campus alive, would allow institutions to fall much below or rise much above this threshold. On the other, post hoc side of the narrative, we see little evidence that the highest level of administration wants to continue forcing the point about funding. Rather, System Presidents are now cowering in fear, convinced that the slightest pre-Halloween “boo” will scare lawmakers back into an anti-funding posture. Looking all the way around the narrative, it is important to note that the top, system level of leadership has seen a fifty percent turnover in the last eighteen months and a one-hundred percent turnover in the last two years, suggesting that whatever is going on with regard to politics and funding has little to do with any one set of would-be leaders. More fundamental than the question of whether this, that, or the other leader led the charge and saved the day is the question of whether any campus or system “CEO” can do, say, or achieve anything in an environment that prizes the abstraction “leadership” rather than the fact of competence or courage. When was the last time that the head of a Louisiana campus or system took a stand on any topic other than administration itself? The full range of contemporary favorite topics— environmental stewardship and population control; the possibility of extraterrestrial life; the worldwide surge in fundamentalism in all creeds; the world after the age of nations; what “race” means— are de facto off-limits. Entering into any of these areas will brand an administrator as a crackpot, an ideologue, or, worst of all, someone who is not perfectly “balanced” in every way. By stylizing themselves as the exclusive experts in the abstract practice of “leadership,” chief academic executives have painted themselves into a corner where they not only can say nothing of substance but, in fact, can do nothing, for any action or statement at all is potentially offensive—dangerous—to someone. The cult of student retention and student success is but one epitome of the debilitation of university leadership. No one wishes students anything other than long-running success, but the prizing of that as a thing in itself rather than a consequence of action produces debacles such as abandoned climbing walls and exercise-free, ornamental “lazy river” swimming pools. Perhaps it is time to challenge both administrators and students to run some sort of risk and to note that the some of the most memorable contributors in human history have recognized that worldly “success” and generalized “leadership” may come at a higher price than occasional honest failure.

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