Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Leadership Crisis: The Role of American Higher Education

“The American century was created by American leadership, which is scarcer than credit just about now” (David Brooks, “Revolt of the Nihilists,” When neoconservative thinkers—who previously proclaimed the virtues of the “American century” that introduced our current leadership vacuum—are decrying the lack of good leaders in American culture today, you know something momentous is happening. The frankness with which gurus of the right are now willing to admit our leadership problem is refreshing—as is the attempt of some of these thinkers to investigate the root causes of the morass in which our culture finds itself.

As Richard Cohen’s recent “Topical Depression” in the Washington Post notes, it was, indeed, a culture of a specific sort that got us into this mess, and the mess in turn will have profound new cultural consequences, if we do not find ways to address its cultural roots effectively ( Cohen notes (as I have also done on this blog, following the lead of Naomi Klein in her ground-breaking book Shock Doctrine) that a distinct possibility of a period of economic depression which is not adequately addressed is outright fascism. In hard times, people look for scapegoats; it has happened before, and it can happen again. Unscrupulous anti-leaders who know how to manipulate disdain for stigmatized others often seize power in such periods, with the active complicity of terrified citizens looking for any salvific promise of a way out, no matter how ugly the promise and the price it entails in the suffering of others.

I certainly welcome the proposal to examine our culture for clues to the decline of leadership. I’m baffled, however, that those same neoconservative spokespersons now lamenting our dearth of leaders and calling for analysis of the roots of this phenomenon haven’t been pointing there all along. Had they been doing so, perhaps we wouldn’t find ourselves where we are now.

I also have to say that, unfortunately, some of the cherished tenets of those same neoconservative talking heads are, in my view, precisely what led to our current state. To my mind, chief among these is the mystical belief in atomic individualism that pervades our understanding of economic life (and, as a result, our culture in general).

I blogged about this recently, noting that our economic system depends on the faith-based assumption that, if we allow the market to run its course without restraint, a “hidden hand” somehow intervenes to smooth out the wrinkles, to distribute the goods generated by the free market in a way that approximates rough justice ( In what follows, I’d like to probe the leadership implications of our counterfactual, totally mystical faith in free markets. What does our belief in economic individualism and the hidden hand translate into, when it comes to our expectations about those who lead us?

In the first place, it’s clear that our socioeconomic philosophy of atomic individualism glorifies the strong individual at the top. This is the kind of leader we want, in a culture of unbridled economic individualism: strong; decisive; willing to step on toes to get things done; willing to put the bottom line of higher profits above every other value including fidelity to friends or humane treatment of co-workers and subordinates. In other words, we want a victor who has risen through the ranks (so we choose to believe) by will power and determination, someone who has earned the right to be at the top.

In the counterfactual philosophy of economic individualism that frames our entire cultural outlook, those at the top have battled their way there, and therefore deserve all the perks they receive at the top of the economic scale. They exemplify for us what the system is, at its best: one that thrives on combat and willingness to sacrifice anything and anyone to further our own self-interest; one that rewards stern self-interest with incentives to more self-interest. Since those who rule us are generating more for everyone, they are entitled to more for themselves, we like to tell ourselves.

These are the kind of leaders we have long emulated in American culture. They are the sort we emulate even more after the Reagan revolution. They are, as well—and this crucial point must not be overlooked—the same “leaders” who have marched us right into economic calamity. Certainly they have benefited themselves. They have not, however, benefited the rest of us—as the mystical belief in the hidden hand promises, if we let them and the market have their way.

A corollary of our entirely counterfactual belief in the virtue of the strong individual at the top is the assumption that the best structures of leadership, those most in tune with self-interested human nature, are hierarchical. On the face of it, this is a strange assumption for us to make, since the philosophy of atomic individualism is anti-hierarchical. Its governing metaphor is, after all, the clash of atoms to produce something greater and more glorious than any individual atom can make by itself.

In reality, cultures of atomic individualism always generate hierarchies for two reasons. I’ve noted the first: to prevent our asking embarrassing questions about the inequity of how they allocate the world’s goods, these cultures require role models for the rest of us, as a reminder of who we might become if we leave behind our sluggish ways or our scruples about stepping on the rights of others to ascend to the top.

But the culture of atomic individualism also needs a hierarchical framework because implicit in this philosophy is the recognition that in unbridled individualism, in the clash of self-interested atoms, is the potential for not only the ebullient creativity we’re told to expect in the free market, but for its opposite as well: for anarchy and decline. We imagine that we want, and need, strong leaders to nanny the system, to keep it in top-notch order (while refraining from stifling its individualistic impulses) as it spews out benefits for the hard-working individualist and punishes the indolent who fall to the bottom.

As much that I have written on this blog suggests, I’m especially fascinated by the way in which these seminal cultural assumptions have translated into models of leadership in the two worlds with which I am most familiar in my professional life, the church and the academy. To say that the models I have just described have made strong inroads into both institutions would be an understatement.

Universities today are every bit as captive to the ethic of ruthless individualism as the culture at large is. They have invested just as heavily as our economic sector has in the myth of the strong leader at the top and the need for hierarchy.

Why else do we tolerate obscenely lavish pay for those at the top of the hierarchical pyramid of academic life? Do we truly believe that those who have made it to the top are more virtuous than those who haven’t—that they deserve the top dollar because of their pre-eminent intelligence, leadership skills, strong work ethic, or attention to values? Is it not clear that, in the academy as in the economic sphere, those most likely to rise are often those most willing to step on others—to pay the price of ruthlessness required of leaders in our economic system—to get to the top? Does it take a great deal of moral acumen to observe that those who move up the governance ladder in colleges or universities are often, as with our economic leaders, those most willing to cut moral corners to do the one thing most valued in our culture—to generate profits?

Please understand that I am not speaking of any particular college or university in what I say here. I have seen these patterns at a number of universities in which I have worked, as well as in other academic institutions. I have also noted that those who resist the ruthlessness of the free market model of academic administration pay a high price. Along with colleagues, I have long suspected that the early death of an academic vice-president of one institution at which I worked had much to do with the pressure she received from the top to do things that violated her conscience. And that made her sick, sick unto death . . . .

All of the universities in which I have had full-time positions have been church-affiliated. Unlike public universities, these schools are not required to divulge salary scales. Even while working in these schools, however, I risked going on record several times about my preference for open disclosure of salaries in all colleges/universities, church-affiliated as well as public ones.

I suspect that if ill-paid but hard-working faculty, as well as the public at large, knew precisely the total compensation of many presidents and other top leaders of private institutions of higher learning, they would be appalled. By “total compensation,” I am referring, of course, to the monetary value of the many perks that most top executives of academic institutions receive in addition to their lavish salaries—things like housing compensation, getaway houses or condos, drivers, cars, gourmet meals, plump expense accounts, and so forth.

I also have the impression—though this is not based on rigorous research—that not a few church-owned universities have followed the trend of the political and economic sector in recent decades, and have actually increased the salaries of those at the top while holding those of faculty and staff frozen, or advancing these in a grudging way that does not keep pace with increases in the cost of living. Since quite a few church-owned universities find it hard to be competitive with state schools, church-sponsored institutions often invent highly attractive compensation packages to lure top administrators from other schools—without disclosing this information to faculty who wonder why their salaries do not rise each year.

Why do we tolerate such gross injustice? Why do faculty tolerate their exploitation by an economic system that grossly undercuts collegiality and core values of university life? I can only assume that we do so because we fail to examine our blind faith in the right of the market to reward the strong, ruthless individual at the top more than it rewards us. Despite our own impression that no one works harder than we do—that we do the grunt work on which the whole edifice of the university stands—we are compelled to believe, in our culture at large as well as in our economic life, that the person at top receiving the lavish rewards works harder than anyone else.

And that person often is skilled at giving this impression . . . though this spin-doctor technique is likely to be tested in coming days, if the economic downturn results in dismissal of faculty while top administrators (and their lavish compensation) remain in place, particularly in institutions prone to bread-and-circus behavior that fritters away funds in splashy impression-management stunts, when those funds would be better used to compensate faculty.

The higher education trends I am sketching here deserve attention not just because they help to explain the increasingly top-heavy (and grossly unjust) over-compensation of university presidents and other key administrators, when university faculty and staff are underpaid. These trends also deserve attention because they go a long ways towards explaining how it is that we have ended up with so few leaders in our culture.

It is universities that claim to produce leaders, after all. Is it not? Is this not the claim to fame of universities in our society, the reason the academy routinely uses to justify the tax dollars and other benefits we make available to higher education? If we are now experiencing a dearth of leadership in American culture (and we clearly are), then higher education is clearly a central part of the problem. It is not doing its job.

And it is not doing so because it cannot do so, insofar as it continues to buy into the counterfactual mystical assumptions of free-market atomic individualism, and all that they entail in the area of university leadership. Those now being rewarded with top dollars in American higher education—those most skilled at manipulating numbers and images—do not deserve the rewards they are reaping, if higher education is about modeling good leadership and teaching students the values required for good leadership.

The most lamentable effect of the capitulation of the academy to market values and market ways of looking at the world is the definitive undercutting of the academy’s central claims about its social significance. Higher education is built on the central tenet of collegiality: the belief that educators who collaborate in the pursuit of truth can mold a new generation of leaders who value collaboration and the shared pursuit of truth. If the academy does not live this core value—and it clearly does not do so, to the extent that it rewards “leadership” that militates against this value—then the academy is unable to fulfill its most fundamental task, within the American social contract.

The bankruptcy of the claim of many institutions of higher learning to cherish collegiality, to facilitate the collaborative pursuit of truth, is not lost on students. It is precisely this bankruptcy, which is starkly evident in how the university structures itself, in whom it chooses to promote and reward, that results in the failure of many universities to teach leadership skills to students.

Students have eyes to see. They can see that it is not collaboration, but soulless individualism that is actually rewarded and compensated in the university setting. They can see that the “strong” leader at the top is often the ruthless leader who proudly professes that she/he trusts no one, and who does not encourage collaboration at all, but who remains perched on the top of the heap because she/he expertly pits team members against each other.

In summary, the way in which many university leaders today actually lead puts the lie to the claim of universities to be teaching leadership skills. Leaders who bring out the best in those they lead; leaders who nurture the talents of others; leaders who build strong teams bonded by a shared concern for the mission of their institution; leaders who catalyze and channel the creative energies of colleagues: these individuals are rare anywhere. But they are also increasingly and shockingly rare in the very place that most trumpets the value of such leaders to our society: in the academy. In fact, such skilled leaders, rare as they are, are likely not only to be weeded out in any selection of potential leaders in the market-driven culture of higher education today, but actually to be hounded out of the academy by leaders who want to move their university in a more overtly market-driven direction.

If American culture is experiencing a leadership drought today, there is no way around looking critically at those institutions that have most loudly proclaimed themselves to be the breeding ground of values-oriented leaders for the culture at large: the churches and higher education. The failure of both institutions to produce leaders for postmodern American culture is strongly apparent. The unwillingness of both institutions—both ostensibly dedicated to the pursuit of alternate ways of imagining the world and alternate ways of doing business—to create viable alternatives to the ethos of atomic individualism that so powerfully imbues our culture has had ugly consequences for the culture at large.

When we so desperately need leaders to move us out of economic morass, and when church and academy can only emulate the patterns that have produced this morass, where are we to turn? The sad clownish leaders of too many contemporary churches and too many universities today don’t seem to me to have the answer to that question.

It looks to me as if the answer lies in ourselves, and not in the institutions we have trusted to produce our leaders. We will have to work hard to reinvent those institutions, because they have helped get us into this mess rather than creating the alternative imaginations from which real leadership always springs. That is, we will have to do that if we really do wish to get out of the mess.