Being a university president is no way for an adult to make a living.
—A. Bartlett Giamatti, former president of Yale
By any measure, being the 14th president of the University of Utah will not be an easy job.
Rewarding perhaps, even pleasurable at times, but certainly not easy.
Still, more than 100 people applied for the position—and, on April 29, just as this issue was going to press, Michael K. Young from George Washington University Law School was selected. Which made me wonder: what exactly can President Young expect? What challenges does a U of U president face?
So I asked someone who would know: David Gardner.
Widely considered an expert in higher education issues, Gardner, the 10th president of the U, from 1973 to 1983, went on to become president of the nine-campus University of California system from 1983 to 1993. A professor of higher education at both the U of U and UC’s Berkeley campus, Gardner also chaired the U.S. Department of Education’s Commission on Excellence in Education from 1981 to 1983. He is presently serving as chair of the board of trustees of the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles.
Some things about being a university president never change, Gardner says. Three things, to be exact: one, the president is the only person within a university who has responsibility for the entire institution, so he or she has to focus on leadership; two, the president represents the university on governance issues, working in Utah with both trustees and regents; and three, the president must be a manager, organizing the central administration, and an academic leader.
Overall, Gardner emphasizes, “The president always has to keep in mind that the essence of a university is the faculty and students, not the regents, not the administration, not the legislature. The president’s overriding responsibility is to make sure the faculty and students can get their work done.” Unlike CEOs in the private sector, Gardner says, “As president you’re a colleague with the faculty members, and they expect you to behave that way.”
Of course, being a president today is different than it was decades ago. As Gardner points out, legislative support is declining, societal demographics — especially in terms of race and age — are changing, and the general level of public regard and support for public universities has dropped.
In Utah, a university president faces unique challenges, Gardner adds. “There are large families in Utah on average, and they have ambitions for their children, and education is part of that,” he explains. “So a higher proportion of Utah’s students go on to college, and of those who go on to college, Utah ranks very near the top in terms of the percentage who complete college. And even though taxes are moderate in Utah, the cost of educating these large families exceeds the ability of the state to pay for quality education.”
The result, Gardner says, is that “the president will face a higher education system that predictably will yield from the legislature a smaller share in the foreseeable future—and at the very time institutions are expected to grow more. The president will have to work with the commissioner and the other presidents on strategic solutions, to find ways and means of reducing the cost per student without reducing the quality. This can’t be done session by session of the legislature.A longer-term approach is needed.”
Given the need for a president to understand such complexities, Gardner says, “The term of service should be eight to 10 years. If a president stays long enough to know the state, the University, the governing system for higher education, and to develop constituent relationships, then the faculty will come to have confidence in the president and the students and staff will feel a measure of increased stability.”
Of his own 10 years at the U, Gardner says, “I enjoyed it immensely; and I appreciated my faculty colleagues, and students, staff, and regents. The people of the state were very supportive—and we had the money to do the things that needed to be done to ensure student access and offer a fine education to our students.”
Let’s hope that one day President Young will say the same. In the meantime, stay tuned for a profile of the new president in Continuum’s fall issue.