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The downside and difficulty of university leadership

Published: March 6, 2014, 2:51 am ET
Contributor

Lately, three things have had the University of Richmond campus community buzzing. The first and most controversial is the article, published a couple of weeks ago in International Business Times, concerning the incendiary remarks by trustee Paul Queally, which we are all familiar with. The second and most unforeseen is the announcement by President Ed Ayers last Friday of his intention to step down at the end of the 2014-15 academic year. The third, which is much more implicit, is the inference drawn by many of us about the supposed connection between these two events. No one can know for certain the influence which the former had upon the latter, if any at all. It certainly does not stop anyone from engaging in this exercise of conjecture.

In this article, I have no real ax to grind with anyone. I merely intend to step into the shoes of the president of our university in order to conceive of how difficult a position President Ayers was placed in after the now infamous article appeared in print. This is not a defense of Ayers’ reaction to Queally’s comments, but rather an attempt to inform others of the difficulties of leadership — broadly, and especially within the university context.

In the wake of the comments by Queally, the university community naturally expects a response from our administration, a response that presumably will not completely satisfy any university constituent. Many people reacted with disgust, and rightfully so. They called for the university to separate itself and move forward without any further influence from Queally. On the other hand, others sought to minimize the situation, chalking it up as just private comments made in jest in a private context and entirely independent of the university. However, an institutional response confirming either pretext probably would not be adequate given the complexity of the circumstances. Ayers may have felt the same way, for in a mass email to the university community, he publicly condemned “statements that subject people to ridicule based on their sexual orientation or gender” as being “antithetical to our values,” yet took no further stance, opting to shift his focus towards the progress the university has made during his tenure regarding diversity and the Richmond Promise.

Both the beauty and the bane of the university governance structure is the short distance between the leadership and its constituents. The upside is that those on all levels, from the board members to the students, have some degree of input in organizational decision-making processes, whether directly or indirectly. Another advantage is that if some party is bypassed in the process, they can voice their discontent and actually be heard.

A downside though, from a leadership perspective, is the lack of overall authoritative influence which a university president actually possesses throughout the entire university system. Richard Morrill, an expert on university governance and president of the University of Richmond from 1988 to 1998, often cites a work titled “Renewing the Academic Presidency,” which says “university presidents operate from one of the most anemic power bases in any of the major institutions in American society.” That means the overall influence which a president possesses in a university setting does not really match the authority that executives in other organizational settings enjoy. And, at the same time, people commonly hold university presidents just as accountable for occurrences over which they have much less control.

So let’s play out the above scenario. If Ayers chose to consider the comments as independent of the University of Richmond, then he would have neglected the sentiments of the majority of his community that does not agree that is the case. But if Ayers decided the opposite, that the University of Richmond must part ways with Queally, then the university community must be ready to face the potential of a significant loss of funding that directly contributes to improvements in academic quality and campus community initiatives. You may think that we are already wealthy enough with our $2 billion endowment, but the reality is that to progress as an institution, we constantly need to advance our financial interests. It is fair to say that the second course of action could produce a definitive step backwards in certain respects, which may not be realized in the short term. It is also fair to say, then, that some middle course here may have been best.

It is easy and natural to have an immediate response to a situation such as the one that our university faces right now. But one challenge of leadership is to step back, assess all options and do what is best for the institution. Doing so sometimes entails failing to please those which you may yearn to please, angering those you may wish not to anger and even possibly stepping down before you ever intended to (not that that was the case here). We are all entitled to our own evaluations of the decision that Ayers made in light of the comments, but we must also recognize that decisions of this nature are not easy by any means.

We don’t make things easy. That’s our right and sometimes that’s our job as members of a university community. Still, we must also respect that we won’t fully agree with every decision made for our school, and we need to consider the possibility that leaders may be doing what is best for the body even if it is not immediately recognizable at that point in time.

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  • Enclavé

    Pretty nice opinion. Keep it to yourself next time.