College President Positions Getting Riskier
> 1/11/2007 10:23:49 AM

The position of university president in the US, once seen as a safe bastion of authority and esteem, has emerged from several recent shake-ups across the country as less of a sure thing. While salaries and bonuses for high-ranked administrators continue to rise, the will of students and faculty has become a considerable factor in forcing administrative realignment, and unpopular presidents should, now more than ever, behave more cautiously if they look to keep their jobs and approval ratings.

The most public ouster of a president occurred at America's best-recognized institution, Harvard University. Though Lawrence Summers officially resigned, the final straw in his case was probably his disputably controversial assertion that women were less likely to hold top positions in the sciences because of entrenched social roles and biases as well as some (possible) form of inherent genetic differences between the sexes; some argue that the focus on this particular speech was misplaced and that his opinions were not accurately surmised by his critics.

School groups and senates can routinely deliver votes on "lack of confidence measures" which purport to represent opinion within the university in the hopes of persuading, or at least garnering the attention of, their higher-ups. Though these votes are more symbolic than functional, they can precipitate larger changes and the ultimate reshuffling of leadership if enough voices rise in protest. Pace University has been at the center of one such conflict, with students and faculty turning against current president David Caputo on a variety of issues including approved increases in tuition, reductions in faculty size, and the arrest of several students protesting publicly without a license. Caputo currently retains the title and promises cooperation but is still largely unpopular.

One could argue that a large part of the Summers and Caputo conflicts stems from disagreement within the student body on the issue of the president's political affiliations. Another recent high-profile ouster was political in a different way: the newly-appointed president of Gaulladet University, the nation's premier higher-ed institution for the deaf, did not assume the post after almost universal protest from the school's students over the fact that the she did not grow up using sign language but was encouraged to learn standard speech. By alleging that the appointee was not sufficiently immersed in deaf culture and gathering for public demonstrations, the students directly influenced the University's ultimate decision to rescind their decision and support an alternate choice for president.

Criticism of powerful, highly paid administrators, particularly presidents, is natural in any organization. And a spirited opposition to (and subsequent resignation of) those in positions of power at American universities is hardly new. But these recent conflicts seem to grant additional weight to the concept of dissatisfied students and faculty forcing fundamental changes in the makeup of the schools where they work and study. In some ways this practice, when performed in a peaceful and non-discriminatory way, is an example of institutional democracy in action. But it has the potential to spill over into misbehavior and damage the reputations of the individuals and schools involved. Here's hoping that those who organize for reform can proceed in a respectful manner while consolidating their concerns and voicing them to those with the power to enact the changes they propose.

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