Thursday, April 26, 2007

Letter to the New President of Zenith

Dear New President,

Welcome to Zenith!

In their infinite wisdom, University Relations has scheduled your “get acquainted with the new President” visit for Friday, the day when it is least likely that there will be faculty present to actually meet you. In fact, they have scheduled your address to the community and the reception to follow for 4:15, when the only faculty who will be around will be the nabobs from the Tenure and Promotion Committee. The Radical would cancel almost anything to be at this event, but unfortunately it is a conference that calls, and the plenary begins at 5:00. And I worry that if I so much as glance at the T & P committee, I will turn into a Pillar of Salt.

So instead I thought I would send a letter drawn from my experience of having had three different Presidents over the course of my career at Zenith. Let me preface this by saying that we expect Great Things from you. The students seem particularly smitten at this point, and members of the faculty have heard good things from colleagues elsewhere. We at the Castle sent someone over to the archives to find out who your thesis advisor was when you were a history undergrad at Zenith, and are pleased to have found he was one of Us and not one of Them. From our perspective, that’s a good start. Even though it means nothing.

We are also pleased to see that you and Mrs. New President seem to be with it about the importance of interdisciplinary work. And you are a real scholar (although our experience with the president who came from Palo Alto and fled to Atlanta indicates that this is only a vague indicator of future success as a chief exectuive.)

Perhaps the only thing I find disturbing about you is that we are practically the same age. But that’s not your fault. And it also means I can, in the most self-interested way, regard you as Youthful.

As your introduction to Zenith in the blogosphere, I would like to do what many will do for you in person in the next few months: offer you a little unsolicited advice.

1. Be a walk around manager. Sure, being a President is time consuming. But schedule free time in your week that will allow you to drop in on people, take a stroll around the campus, and go have coffee in the new campus center. Show up where and when you are least expected. Go to talks. Come to the History Department Tea, and Pie Day at American Studies. Go over to Interlibrary Loan and order your own books so that you can say hello to hard-working people who will never be asked to meet you in a more private way. Presidents need a sense of who their constituents are before they come asking for something, or protesting something, or are Tangled Up In (some kind of) Blue.

2. Don’t inject the word “excellence” into everything you say and expect that we know what you are talking about, or that it answers any question about a course of action to be taken. What excellence actually represents is – well, nothing. It’s a buzzword, the verbal equivalent of a Rorschach test. And some of the great disagreements in education and scholarly life today have to do with prioritizing some kinds of knowledge over others and calling it "excellence." Us queer and colored folk, for example, are exhausted by the continual requirement that we exhibit excellence that conventional people can translate into their own, conventional, world view. Look at our diversity as an intellectual institution, figure out where the energy is, and jump on the bandwagon. Find out what Zenith does best and do what you can to cultivate what you find. Find out what we don’t do and how it would enhance our life as a thinking community to start doing it.

3. Take a serious look at how large our administration has grown over the last decade, who pays for it, and what justifies it. It is very hard for faculty to understand why we spend every April hiring contingent faculty (fifty or sixty of them across the university) when we seem to add numbers-crunchers, Vice Presidents of This-and-That, and student services workers one after another. If we need all these people, and we don’t need teachers at a university, fine. But someone needs to tell us why. And exactly what our mission is as a liberal arts college if it isn't having enough faculty to have the time and energy to pay attention to students as individuals.

4. Do what you can to stop the griping about Division III athletics and move on to things that really matter. This is not, whatever William Bowen says, a major problem that the liberal arts college must face. Sports are fun, and exercise is good for young adults. Over fifty-percent of the Zenith student body is involved in varsity athletics of some kind, and most of these kids are not recruited. For those that are, athletics is actually one of the few ways that working-class kids can still get into Zenith when they didn’t go to such a great public high school (which is, frankly, most public high schools), and in my experience these kids are just as academically capable as the children of celebrities and the wealthy alumni/ae legacies.

5. Start a campus-wide conversation about how much stress and anxiety students cope with, what we are doing as an institution that enhances that stress, and why, as a community, we talk about it as if it has nothing to do with discourses of “excellence” and our pedagogical practices. We wouldn’t need so many elaborate “student services” if students weren’t made so desperate during the college admissions process, and subsequently more desperate as they claw their way through college.

6. Here’s a good place to start addressing faculty stress: the tenure and promotion process at Zenith is a mess and it is taking far too much of our time for no good purpose. When you get to know us better, put together a committee of people *not* drawn from the people who have served on the T & P committee. This committee should hold public hearings, invite people from other universities and the AAUP to consult, and then put together a set of recommendations for university-wide reform of the personnel process. And while you are at it – reform the T & P committee. Many of them are (to be frank once more) zombies. And if they aren’t zombies before they are elected, they often become zombies as a result of their service. This doesn’t seem like a good outcome, and it means many of us who would actually be thoughtful about tenure and promotion would rather eat glass than serve on that committee.

7. Encourage the faculty to form an AAUP chapter. Give one or two members of the faculty a course relief to get it done. An organized faculty is a faculty that knows how to negotiate, cooperate, and adjudicate. And while you are at it -- ask faculty why they don't go to meetings. Figure out how to change that, and what kind of meeting the faculty would agree to go to. It's demoralizing that we don't, and because no one goes, it's as demoralizing to go to faculty meetings as it is to stay home. Kind of like eating in an empty restaurant (which you look too cool to do.)

8. Let the students chalk on the sidewalk. It just really isn’t that important. And the students whose chalkings were originally banned have graduated anyway. I don't think the students we have now even know how to chalk.

9. Make retirement a realistic possibility for faculty who are in their sixties and seventies. Provide incentives that signify how much you value past service and that simplify the lives of senior faculty in ways that enhance their last decade of service and enhance the quality of our community. Get faculty over the age of 67 out of the personnel process and out of governance (except in cases of extraordinary administrative competence), and provide resources for cultivating their teaching and scholarly lives. Very senior members of the faculty who are more concerned about who the next hire is going to be than how they are going to get their last book or two done before they die are not the people you want messing in decisions that affect what Zenith will be twenty years from now. These decisions belong to the younger generations who will live with them and have their careers shaped by them.

10. Zenith has lost much of its uniqueness in its quest for “excellence:” for those of us who have been here a while, sometimes you feel like you could wake up and be anywhere (except Williams. Never Williams.) Remember why you loved it here in the 1970’s, and see if you can’t bring some of that back. A good start would be to withdraw from the U.S. News and World Report College Rankings system.

OK, New President. You’re on your own for now. I’m off to my conference. But one last thing. You have to love our students. We complain about them constantly and tear our hair out over their foibles, but it’s a family thing. You *have* to love our students. And if you start there, we’ll help you with the rest.


Zach said...

Nice! I hope you send this to him.
What was his thesis topic, anyway?

Anonymous said...

Freud and Revolution

anthony grafton said...

The last paragraph is the big one. Many presidents start out as great teachers (my undergraduate mentor, Hanna Gray, was a great teacher at Chicago long before she returned as president; so was Bill Bowen at Princeton). But something seems to happen--maybe it has to do with that language presidents feel they have to speak, with those words like excellence (at Princeton it's teaching'nresearch, spoken as one word). At a place like Zenith above all, the President should be able to know and love the students, for real and not in generalities.

Bardiac said...

The one about moving folks in their final years away from personnel work would be great advice at pretty much every school, I bet.

Good job, and good luck with your new president.

Anonymous said...

Here, here!

It's time for a president to take the responsibility of leading seriously. Seriously enough to actually communicate with his constituency.

I for one hope the walkaround management we so desperately need here extends into the classroom. We could use some more theory professors, and I look forward to taking a class from Professor President Roth.

-A wes student

susan said...

I hope he listens.

Anonymous said...

I take issue with your #6. Trivializing sports? I doubt you would ever apply that attitude towards some other extracurricular activities. Please be sensitive and realize that for many of us, the qualities we have gained from our sports experience (throughout our entire lives) have helped us maintain work ethic and be better people- not just get 'good excercise'. If anything, I (as a female recruit) think President Roth should place MORE emphasis on sports and recuiting- athletes are NOT given enough credit here, are NOT rewarded in any way for representing the school on a weekly basis and most of our programs are severely underfunded and disorganized.

Please talk to some student athletes and consider our opinions about a commitment that takes up almost 4 hours of our day- before you make such a bold statement as "move on to things that really matter."

-Anna Pachner, Wesleyan '09

A. Kathryn Pachner said...

I'm sorry, I meant #4.

Tenured Radical said...


Nice to see you on my blog. But I think you misread my point -- it was pro-athletics, not anti-athletics. I am a former varsity athlete too, and have continued my competitive sports career up to the present. I agree with what you are saying. But my point about athletics responds to the major themes of the Bowen report, perhaps something that faculty would be more familiar with than students. When I say "things that really matter" I am not saying that sports don't matter; I am saying they are not a problem, and that other things are.



Anonymous said...

Claire, we want to know what you think about the resignation of the MIT admissions dean after it was revealed that she lied about her credentials 27-28 years ago. Let that be your next post.

- "zenith" student

Noa said...

"A good start would be to withdraw from the U.S. News and World Report College Rankings system."


Anonymous said...

Getting out of US News & World Report sounds nice in some ways, but being visible to those who aren't in the academic know is a good thing if we're really interested in recruiting students who aren't being college-prepped from birth.

wayne fontes said...

You might like this post from Stuart Rojstaczar about the US News college rankings. He's also written a couple of Op-EDs on the topic.

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