Admiral William McRaven, who is retiring as Chancellor of the University of Texas system, asserted that “Leading a university or health institution is ‘the toughest job in the nation.'”
McRaven was for many years a SEAL leader, with his career culminating in planning and overseeing the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.
I’d suggest that, if leading a university (and for this post, I’ll be focusing on that part of the admiral’s statement rather than the healthcare part) is harder that leading major special-forces operations against determined enemies…then something is very wrong.
Mind you, I’m not saying he’s incorrect. Indeed, I’d go further: except for certain niche institutions, the job of university president or chancellor may now not just be difficult, but impossible. Impossible, that is, if you look at success in terms of generating reasonable positive educational results within a reasonably positive culture, not just keeping one’s job.
And this situation is largely the result of the poor performance of several generations of previous university administrators. There has been overselling of what universities are offering..increasingly including graduate studies…as the only key to success in American societies. There has been encouragement of students to sign up for very large loans, without the kind of disclosure of risks that would be required for any other kind of large investment; coupled with the first point, this has resulted in many people being on campus who shouldn’t be there at all and/or aren’t taking their education very seriously. There has been in many cases a lack of attention to the mission of teaching. There has been a lack of respect for civil liberties of both students and professors, a tolerance of intimidation tactics by students, professors, and outside parties, and an encouragement of organizations and ‘fields of study’ that are by their very nature hostile to the notion of an academic community. And there has been little pushback against intrusive regulation from government, as long as funding is at stake.
True, not all university administrators have conducted themselves in the manner described above, but enough have that American higher education as a whole has become increasingly toxic. And when a culture has become sufficiently toxic, it is very difficult for even the best leader to implement meaningful change.