I want to come at the Gene Nichol story from a perspective suggested by Professor Bergin—the institutional one. As we all know academic leadership is an unusual gig. We operate in a web of relationships involving multiple, passionate, articulate, organized and often conflicting constituencies. The University President leads and responds to a Board (and in a state institution—governors and legislators), generations of alumni, faculty, staff, students, and the community. And universities more so than other institutions have a culture of shared governance and broad consultation. A president wanting to make profound institutional change thus faces a challenging landscape. Process and appearance match in importance substance. So some thoughts on the process of being a change agent in the academic context.
1) Pick your spots, sequence your agenda. Maybe you start a faculty diversity agenda first, a student diversity agenda second, and leave the cross in the chapel issue to your fifth year. Understand that symbolic actions my trash your efforts in more central initiatives.
2) Appoint a committee, but not any committee. Make it committee of worthies and a committee that you can manage and knows your predilections. There is no better lead to an administrative memorandum announcing a major initiative than “On the recommendation of my distinguished committee on X I am doing Y”
3) Recognize that you are not the institution. Sometimes it is better to have another spokesperson take the lead on controversial matters. How about having the dean of the law school lead the institutional response to a first amendment issue rather than you as president? Or how about having the University general counsel make the first statement on the right of student groups to invite controversial groups to campus? Then you can come in and be part of a great robust, educational conversation.
4) Anticipate vulnerabilities. For example talk about the potential effect of change on the dreaded U.S. News rankings. Remind people that you care about the rankings, but that your institution knows that making sensible academic decisions is the first priority, and that rankings follow from mindfully following those priorities.