Review: Big Man on Campus – A University President Speaks Out on Higher Education

5 Star, Education (Universities)
Amazon Page

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg

5.0 out of 5 stars 2008 Sequel to 2006 Reflections,August 27, 2011

Dr. Trachtenberg is a very active but post-presidential presence at George Washington University and in global educational circles. I first read Reflections on Higher Education. Completely different from that first book, which was a well-edited compilation of non-replicative speeches and articles, this book follows his departure from the long-held position as President of George Washington University, and provides seventeen chapters. Uses “Inside the Book” feature to see those in detail.

Along with these two books I recommend at a minimum four others I have also reviewed:

The Uses of the University: Fifth Edition (Godkin Lectures on the Essentials of Free Government and the)
Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education
The World Is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education (Wiley Desktop Editions)

and also a number of books that have the common theme of reinventing education, such as

21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Students Learn (Leading Edge)
Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America (Technology, Education–Connections (Tec)) (Technology, Education-Connections, the Tec Series)
Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning
The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out (Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series)

It is in this magnificent context that I absorb this book, still relevant, especially to those who would strive to create a Smart Nation (see my book by that title) and a “national” university that can bootstrap us back into global to local relevance.

Here are my summary notes:

+ Largest payroll in Washington, D.C. after federal and local governments.

+ The author is devoted to the role of the university as a means of creating educated informed citizens, and in 2008, was already concerned over the financial ruin likely to befall the country as a result of the elective wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

+ $30,000 a year per student seems expensive but it costs money to maintain a complex institution that teaches, heals, and does research [this book was written before the explosion in free online learning and

+ Average tenure of a university professor at the time was eight years, getting shorter with more mis-steps, scrutiny, and resignations (in both sense of the word–resigning from the job and resigning in the face of challenges too great for any one man to bear)

+ Fund-raising and money issues consume presidents but should not be allowed to do so–both need to be the responsibility of all stakeholders in common

+ The “standard” of what constitutes a liberal education has been shredded beyond recognition–students are arriving ignorant from high school and despite the best efforts, often leaving college ignorant still

+ Spent eleven years as President of the University of Hartford, started as President of George Washington University at the age of 50

+ The knives thrown in the president's direction are many, and one cannot rely on normal checks and balances to prevail–from protesting students to scandals on campus to faculty rebellion toward any change…

+ A persistent recurring theme is both the complexity of the balancing acts that must be undertaken by the president, and the nearly incomprehensible universe of “stakeholders” (including many who appoint themselves without necessarily having equity).

+ Litigation is a sword over every president's head, not necessarily because the university merits being sued, but because a class of lawyers and plaintiffs exist that see every mis-step as an opportunity to seek financial gain

+ Eight tenets for survival and success–I cringe as I realize how often I break some of them

…01 You shouldn't make everybody mad at you at the same time
…02 Your message should be uplisting rather than blatantly critical
…03 You should avoid introducing more than one idea at a time
…04 Try to build a community constituency
…05 Improving the overall image of a place is important
…06 Maintaining perspective can be difficult
…07 Every faculty needs a few crackpots
…08 Computers can perpetuate myths and complicate communication

+ A university presidency is a holistic calling in every possible sense of the word–a multidimensional multidomain challenge unlike any other [to which I would add, more so than the Presidency of the United States because that position has been captured by special interests and undermined by a vast bureaucracy that has lost its intelligence and integrity–a university president has the luxury of being focused on stewardship [less the commercialization that Derek Bok has written about]

+ There is a tangible, plapable, continuous magic about encountering graduates of the university *everywhere*

+ He dispels myths about GWU (buy the book)

+ History matters. History really matters. The evidence that our young are not learning history is most distressing. I am in huge agreement with this point, and recommend the books below in support of this vital observation by the author.

The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past
The Lessons of History

+ The entire section on faculty is priceless–buy the book–and I observe that the author makes it clear that while tenure has its downside, every faculty needs–and can count on having–a few crackpots [to which I would add, and the same for the Administration]

+ Tenure, combined with an end to mandatory retirement, has created deep challenges for university presidents who wish to breathe life into old programs gone stale

+ Lectures are an out-moded and ineffective means of instructing larger groups. I regret I am so limited by Amazon (ten links), there is an entire literature now on flipping the learning tortilla so the notes are online and the face time is interactive.

+ My over-all take-away is that the two major challenges for the future for any university president lie in the education of their own faculty on new sources and methods; and the creation of completely new ways of reducing costs and increasing learning while achieving a balanced budget.

+ The greatest failures of university presidents may well be when they fail to see an opportunity or see an opportunity and fail to exploit it. This is particularly important with respect to real estate and “grand strategy” moves that may not be appreciated by others for a decade or more.

+ Athletics is a constituency, a media magnet, and a disaster waiting to happen (on and off the field)

The book concludes with a number of insightful combinations of actual letters dealt with by the president along with contextual comments, and a reflective conclusion whose most important line is that universities are partners in the future of a nation.

Vote and/or Comment on Review

Financial Liberty at Risk-728x90