Is This a New Trend, the New Revolving Door?

Critics of our current political system have frequently complained about the “revolving door” through which former legislators and other government officials pass on their way to K Street—to earning riches as lobbyists. But there are some indications that another revolving door may be opening, to the presidential mansions on university campuses.

Three U.S. presidents served as presidents of universities before serving as the nation’s chief executive. The most commonly known member of this group is probably Woodrow Wilson, who was the president of Princeton University before being elected governor of New Jersey and then president of the United States.  Those with a somewhat more extended knowledge of American history will know that James A. Garfield served as the “principal” of the Eclectic Institute, which later became Hiram College, before he rose through the ranks in the Union army during the Civil War, was elected to the first of seven congressional terms midway through the war, and then defeated an even more well-known Civil War general, Winfield Scott Hancock, by only 7,000 votes of the nearly 9 million cast in the 1880 presidential election. The third member of this group surprised me: I had no idea that Dwight D. Eisenhower had served as the president of Columbia University from 1948 to 1953, when he entered the White House.

A website called The Political Graveyard includes a section that presents a state by state survey of those who have held any sort of political offices and have also served as college or university presidents. For the most part, the lists include individuals who have served in local or state officers or in the U.S. Congress and then were selected to head colleges or universities within their home states. There have been very few instances in which a nationally prominent politician has then become the president of a college or university outside of his or her home state.

In 2001, Donna Shalala, a prominent member of President Clinton’s cabinet, became the president of the University of Miami. But, she was clearly qualified for such a move because she had served as the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin before agreeing to join the Clinton administration.

In June 2012, however, it was announced that Mitch Daniels would become the next president of Purdue University. Several circumstances made this announcement very peculiar. First, Daniels was still the governor of Indiana; his term would not end until January 2013, at which point he would assume Purdue’s presidency. Second, of the ten members of Purdue’s Board of Trustees, eight had been appointed by Daniels and two reappointed by him over his two terms as governor. The conflict of interest seemed very blatant, but a subsequent investigation–by the state government–found no conflict of interest. Third, Daniels had no prior experience whatsoever in academia before assuming the leadership of the 15th largest public university in the United States.

Beyond these salient issues surrounding his appointment, Daniels’ political record was decidedly unfriendly to public education. He signed right-to-work legislation, making Indiana the first state east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon Line to adopt that anti-Labor legislation. Indeed, Daniels had targeted the teachers’ unions in Indiana almost from the start of his governorship, giving administrators much more leeway to decide whom to hire and to fire. He undercut the funding of public education by providing charter schools in Indiana with the highest proportion of public funding in the nation. And, in making budget cuts in response to the Great Recession, Daniels cut funding to school districts—in effect, cutting teaching positions—as deeply as funding to other state departments, with no real provision for restoring those positions when revenues returned to normal.

At the university level, Daniels pushed through legislation allowing Western Governors University to operate in Indiana—making it the first state east of the Mississippi to endorse this university without faculty and without credit hours.

For those of you unfamiliar with Western Governors University, here is a capsule summary taken from one of my earlier posts:

WGU is different from most universities–and from the online for-profits–in a number of fundamental ways. Students pay tuition for six-month terms (currently about $2,900 per semester) regardless of the number of courses that they complete in any given “term.” Upon enrollment, each student is assigned a “mentor,” or academic advisor, who oversees the student’s progress throughout his or her enrollment. Students must accumulate between 120 and 132 “competency units” in order to receive one of the four dozen or so baccalaureate degrees that the university awards. A student takes one “course” at a time, and all of the course modules and supplementary materials have been developed and are provided by corporate “educational providers” such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill. When the student feels that he or she has mastered the material and can demonstrate “competency,” he or she submits a “written work” that is evaluated by a “contracted evaluator” or takes an objective test developed by Pearson or McGraw-Hill and administered at a commercial testing center. In consultation with their mentors, students who believe that their previous education or professional experience has adequately prepared them to do so can either submit written work or take an objective exam to demonstrate competency even before opening a course module. So an individual student’s rate of progress toward a degree is largely if not entirely self-determined. This model is the exact opposite of the common use of cohort groups within specialized degree programs in conventional institutions.

Of course, the major thing missing from the entire WGU model is the faculty.

And up until a decade or two ago, the awarding of credit for professional experience or for demonstrated competency was almost entirely confined to technical programs, which were once almost entirely confined to the associates level but have been increasingly expanded to the baccalaureate level. Those programs have been the mainstays of one of the three models of “Accelerated” or three-year baccalaureate programs, the “Prior Learning” model, which until very recently has been regarded as having dubious merit outside of the technical disciplines.

Whatever one thinks of the model provided by Western Governors University, I think that it is a safe assumption that it has found more support among governors than among the presidents of public universities—never mind the faculty at public universities.

Now comes the announcement that Janet Napolitano is stepping down as the Director of Homeland Security to become the president of the University of California system. Like Daniels, Napolitano has no previous experience whatsoever in higher education as an administrator or even as a faculty member. Although her appointment does not seem to involve the blatant conflicts of interest that surrounded Daniels’ appointment at Purdue, and although her leadership of the immense Department of Homeland Security undoubtedly demonstrates considerable administrative ability, one wonders how she is qualified—how any of her previous professional experience qualifies her–to head one of the largest university systems in the nation.

One is tempted to make jokes about the allocations that are likely to be made to more closely monitor the communications of faculty, staff, and students, to construct security fences along the perimeters of each of the campuses, and to fund drone surveillance of those campuses. But just under the surface of such jokes is the reality that Napolitano’s service at the Department of Homeland Security seems an especially strange fit for higher education, and especially for a system whose faculty and students have been at the forefront of many progressive–and sometimes radically progressive–movements over the last half-century.

This seems to me to part of a growing dichotomy in higher education: even as many faculty positions require increasingly narrow specializations, administrators are increasingly not being required to demonstrate any specialization whatsoever. The argument seems to be, in essence, that good leaders are good leaders, regardless of what they are leading. One is tempted to say that this trend is part of the broader corporatization of higher education, but if it is, it is all too typically another half-assed version of what typically occurs in corporate America. For it is very seldom that the president of a corporation in one economic sector is selected to head a corporation in a very different economic sector.

3 thoughts on “Is This a New Trend, the New Revolving Door?

  1. worth mentioning someone who has gone back and forth – Bob Gates went from Director of Central Intelligence to President of Texas A&M before he came back to government as Secretary of Defense. It is probably also worth noting that while at A&M he did away with legacies because he said it perpetuated a pattern that had been discriminatory towards non-Whites.

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