10.01.2008 0

Help wanted: University president to schmooze

  • On: 10/14/2008 10:00:48
  • In: Government Transparency
  • By Dr. James “Jim” Kadlecek

    “The university has lost its way, and everybody knew it except the Board of Regents, the alumni, the faculty and 90 percent of the students” – James Michener, The Drifters

    Another New Mexico State University president moves on.

    In the dozen years I’ve lived in Las Cruces, I believe there have been at least four university presidents at NMSU. Apparently, this short tenure of university presidents is not unusual. I checked with my alma mater, the University of Colorado, and found that in the past 35 years there have been eight presidents, with each president’s tenure averaging a bit more than four years. The longest any stayed was six years. 

    So what, you say? Does it matter much? What does a university president really do, anyway? We know they receive big salaries and lots of perks — house, car, expense account, deferred compensation, etc. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the median salary of public-university presidents in 2005 was $360,000, with a number of the presidents being paid in excess of a half-million dollars.

     A 2007 study, The American College President, indicates that the average term of service has increased from 6.3 years in the mid 1980s to 8.5 years currently. No one seems to be sure exactly why. Perhaps it is the increases in compensation, which puts university presidents in the same league with corporate execs (and even football and basketball coaches, I say with a healthy dose of sarcasm). The study also reports that increasingly presidents who have executive-level backgrounds are being picked, and they are expected to spend most of their time and efforts on “external constituencies, including donors and state legislatures,” and less on “direct oversight of academics.”

    There may have been a time when such a job required someone who has long experience as an educator, or someone who had all the appropriate academic credentials — doctor of this or that, a lengthy list of publications in scholarly journals, etc. Those things may still be on the list, but the bottom line today is shorter and simpler: it’s politics and money.

    That’s what we now expect a president to be doing. Schmoozing the donors and alumni and lobbying the legislators. That’s the job. If you harbored the mistaken assumption that a president is somehow the manager of the university bureaucracy, forget that. A university president I once worked with told me over a couple cocktails that universities can’t be “managed,” that they are “money-eating monsters,” and trying to lead faculty and staff is like “herding cats.”

    Reform is needed

    My own observation, after working with three schools and spending time examining the budgets and operations of various other colleges and universities, is that we badly need to take a critical look at how our public universities are operated and how tax and tuition funds are being expended. These institutions are structured and operated in ways that are contrary to models of organizational efficiency. 

    To put it another way, any business that was operated like most colleges are would likely go bankrupt in a short period of time. By and large, universities do not apply accepted standards of efficient operation; rather, they simply ask legislatures for more money or they raise tuition on students. The focus tends to be external on expanding revenue, rather than internal to improve efficiency.

    It is past time that a critical review of university structure and management be conducted. It would be nice if we delivered educational services in ways that are convenient for the customers, (sometimes called “students”). It would be nice if we had truly useful techniques for evaluation of colleges and universities, and not the oft-mentioned accreditations that are seldom real measures of effectiveness.

    It would be nice if performance and efficiency were inculcated into university operations. If we did such a review, then perhaps our search for university leadership would lead us in a different direction.

    But the reality is that things are unlikely to change. NMSU’s regents will conduct yet another expensive, national search and find another politico-fund raiser who will last three or four years, then leave for greener pastures (money green, that is). In the meantime, students, faculty and community will not be any better off than before. 

    Of course, should the football team have a winning season, well then, the alumni will be happy and be able to delude themselves into believing that the quality of the school has truly improved.

    Kadlecek has lived in Doña Ana County since 1996, served in the Colorado Legislature and holds a doctorate in public administration. He’s the author of the book “Capitol Rape.” His column runs on the first and third Tuesdays of each month and other times that he gets fired up about something.

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