University of Georgia President Michael Adams, left, slips the collar on interim mascot Russ during a ceremony. The role of university presidents has been ever-evolving.
After 15 years of leading the institution, the University of Georgia’s president is stepping down this June.
Among the many accomplishments during Michael Adams’s tenure, the university was consistently a top-20 public university, was ranked 4th in student participation in short-term study abroad programs and added master’s and Ph.D. programs in engineering at a time in which STEM education has come to the forefront of the national conversation.
As of late last month, UGA had identified 60 applicants for the soon-to-be-vacant post, according to the student newspaper, The Red and Black. Among the many characteristics UGA seeks in its new president is a “strategic visionary who has the highest integrity.”
UGA’s list of attributes is long, and at times somewhat vague; it is also seeking a president who is “a savvy, practical person who can lead everyone.” It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly who should fill the multifaceted roles of fundraising from alumni, administrating faculty and staff and engaging with students. Each university in America has a slightly different idea of what its ideal president would look like.
Former Princeton University president Harold Shapiro characterized the ideal president as both a manager and an entrepreneur in a 2003 interview with the University of California – Berkeley’s Institute of International Studies.
“Your entrepreneurial function is to help the faculty and others who are concerned with exploring areas and new ways of doing things, taking risks,” he said. “It’s very important to take risks. Successful people don’t often take risks once they’re very successful, because they have so much to lose. But maintaining leadership requires risk-taking.“
In 2009, Time magazine listed its judgment of the “10 Best College Presidents.” Many of the presidents it highlighted embodied the innovative spirit Shapiro mentioned.
For instance, there was Ronald Liebowitz, the Middlebury College president who led the school to becoming the greenest campus in the country and toward becoming an environmental model nationwide.
Then there was Tulane University’s Scott Cowen, who fought ivory tower syndrome in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans by integrating four years of public service into the university curriculum.
Also on the list was John Sexton, the New York University president who started a satellite campus in Abu Dhabi and who gave a seminar on religion and the U.S. Supreme Court to students in the Middle East.
This entrepreneur model of the university president (UGA even refers to its president as the institution’s “CEO”) is a more recent development, given 21st-century concerns of creating a more globally competitive workforce in an era of across-the-board cuts in state budgets. Yet it is only the most recent incarnation of a role that has changed with every passing age.
Early college presidents in the New World often played the role of disciplinarian, counselor or teacher. They were often clergymen who preached on Sundays and were responsible for the spiritual well-being of their student flock.
As knowledge became more specialized after the Industrial Revolution, presidents more often left the teaching and preaching to others, instead focusing on recruiting students and managing staff.
In the 1960s, radical campus politics turned the student body into a powerful interest group with whom presidents were often compelled to negotiate. Some college presidents adapted by becoming “Buddy Presidents,” leaders who aggressively tried to identify with students so as to prevent student insurrection.
An 2011 op-ed in the student-run Cornell Daily Sun upbraided the model of the Buddy President for catering to student tastes and not “holding student tastes accountable to a greater ethical purpose.” The student columnist ticked off his examples of these presidents who tried a little too hard to fight ivory tower syndrome in perhaps the wrong way. “One notable example is George Washington University President Steven Knapp, who has created a Facebook page for himself, attended student parties and joined in a snowball fight against Georgetown. Another, University of Richmond President Edward Ayers, deejayed at his own inauguration.”
As today’s presidents grapple with the rise of online classes, the array of roles presidents play is dizzying. The University of Virginia made headlines this summer during the failed ouster of its president Teresa Sullivan, partly over her alleged reluctance to embrace online teaching and to offer a compelling “strategic vision” for the school. The New York Times Magazine summed up Sullivan’s dilemma as indicative of unclear expectations: “Was she supposed to be implementing the many plans the university had devised over the years, or coming up with new ones?”
UGA’s Student Government Association president, Will Burgess, serves as the student representative on the Presidential Search Committee.
“In general, the president shapes institutional policy for any university,” he told USA TODAY College via email. “This could be everything from research agendas to faculty hiring initiatives to athletics. He or she is also the face of the institution. The position has certainly changed over the last few decades into more of a public and political figure than before, especially at public colleges and universities. But ultimately, it is still rooted in academia and serving students.”
Yet the most important attribute a president can bring might simply be the ability to recognize the talents of others. UGA’s President Adams was far more focused on the strategic vision of those he hired than on his own innovative capacity.
“No one knows better than I that none of these were personal accomplishments, but were the accomplishments of a strong and dedicated team,” Adams told UGA News Service. “I consider putting that team together and the quality of the people we have brought to this place to be my single greatest accomplishment.”
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