Is this the Golden Age of Historian Administrators?

Recently, we read an essay in the Nation on the role of university presidents as civic leaders that lamented the way in which the office had become, according to the author, more timid than in the past. “Was there truly a ‘golden age’ of engaged college and university presidents who ‘sculpted’ society?” asked the author, citing James B. Conant, Robert Hutchins, Kingman Brewster, and Clark Kerr as examples. But we wondered, how would these “golden age” presidents fare in today’s higher education environment?

Drew Gilpin Faust, historian and president of Harvard University

With all the controversy in the news lately around what a university president should and shouldn’t be doing, there seems to be little consensus on what that position actually entails. Are university presidents academic leaders or risk managers or fundraisers? Should they be involved in shaping an institution’s character, or advocating for higher education in the public sphere? Should they be embracing new ideas and technologies, or defending the historic strengths and traditions or an institution? And if they must do all of these things, how might a president balance these often-competing needs? Given this dizzying job description, what kind of professional background might be best suited for executing this increasingly complex role?

All of this got us thinking about how historians have fared as leaders in higher education, and this led us to do a little (highly unscientific, and largely anecdotal) research into the current administrative landscape, with some fairly interesting results. There are currently a very respectable number of historians occupying the position of president at universities, including Drew Gilpin Faust (Harvard Univ.), Nathan Hatch (Wake Forest Univ.), Jeffery von Arx (Fairfield Univ.), Charles Middleton (Roosevelt Univ.), Dale Knobel (Denison Univ.), Edward Ayers (Univ. of Richmond), and Brian W. Casey (DePauw Univ.).

Where historians have made a significant impact is in the positions of provost and dean. The provost, sometimes called the chief academic officer at a university, is the figure responsible for all academic planning, and the person to whom all academic units report. It is in this role that historians are most represented. Well over a dozen provosts, deputy provosts, or vice provosts are historians, including those at Tulane, Columbia, Brown, George Mason, Graduate Center CUNY, and Texas State, among others, and deanships are equally well-staffed with historians.

In fairness, many of the qualities that might make historians effective administrators and leaders are those shared by other disciplines. Anthony Grafton (Princeton Univ.) notes that it’s “vital to have presidents who write and talk like scholars and human beings, rather than in boilerplate, whatever issues they address.”  A good president is “a leader who speaks up for academic values, in any setting, with the eloquence that comes from a personal commitment.”

Our informal survey only included universities so we don’t have a full picture of historians’ impact in shaping all higher education institutions, but the picture that emerges situates historians squarely in the forefront of shaping academic programs.

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  1. John McNeill

    If indeed historians are numerically well represented in the upper echelons of academic admin, it could be they enjoy a mild advantage because few have learned to write and speak in the jargons that are required in so many other fields. That is, they can make themselves intelligible to all audiences more readily than some.

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