Presidential Memoirs and Priorities

I am a higher education nerd. When I travel and spot a college campus, I explore it. When people tell me that their children are attending this school or that university, I actually am interested in hearing more their child’s college experience. When given the chance to read a book about a college, I usually do. The very fact that you’re reading this may mean (treat this as a warning) that you could be suffering from the same affliction. There is nothing wrong with it. Colleges and universities are endlessly fascinating and often surprising.

With that explanation and caveat on the table, let me share a few thoughts about a college president’s memoir,  The Rise of Roosevelt University: Presidential Reflections by Theodore L. Gross. Presidential remembrances are rarely page turners. The skills that make for successful college presidents usually include moderation, diplomacy, and discretion. Accordingly, these books are often long on process and short on gossip. However, they can offer insight. Gross’s book does and stands out as something different.

I approached it mostly with curiosity about Roosevelt University, a private institution with a public mission. Roosevelt does not have a research focus or a medical school. Its reputation is about access, educating working men and women. The book, I thought, would focus on the institution’s roots and its rise as a site of democratic learning, where African-Americans, Jews, women and recent immigrants could obtain a quality higher education. That history is part of the book, but it is as much autobiography as institutional history. Gross has been part of several higher educational dramas.Auditorium Theater Roosevelt University

Born in Brooklyn, Gross was raised in a Jewish household that placed a premium on intellectual and academic success. His older brother was a physics prodigy, finishing his PhD by age 21. Gross’s ambition, fueled in part by a sense of inferiority (his words), led him to literature. He studied at the University of Maine as an undergraduate, tried his hand at writing fiction, and was accepted to Columbia University’s English doctoral program after an initial rejection. He then joined the English Department of the City College of New York in 1958.

Free and open to those with strong grades and test scores, CCNY had an international reputation for scholarship and research at the time. It appealed to many smart and ambitious young men and women of the city. It was also difficult for students of color and those who attended weaker high schools to enter. Gross matured as CCNY was feeling greater political pressure to improve access and to define its mission in a changing city. He became department chair when CCNY moved to open access. A protegee of President Robert Marshak, who struggled to keep the institution flourishing amid momentous changes, Gross left the faculty and moved to full-time administration. It was a period when issues of race, gender, politics and higher education swirled throughout all of the City University of New York. Gross was at the center of it until he self-sabotaged his CUNY career with a magazine article in 1976 about the failures of open admission. Writing the article was a conscious choice. Gross struggles in his book to understand exactly why he felt such a sense of obligation to write it.

After leaving CCNY, Gross found a position in the Pennsylvania State University system, followed by a role at SUNY Purchase where he expected to round out his career before retirement. The Roosevelt University presidency was a surprise, he writes, an unsolicited opportunity. Gross explains his decision to accept as the opportunity to be in charge, to sate his unfilled ambition, and to redeem his reputation after CCNY. He started at Roosevelt in 1988 and stepped down from the presidency fourteen full years later.

Gross had a profound effect on Roosevelt University. He led the development of a Schaumburg, Illinois, commuter campus, changed the profile of the university’s programs, and reshaped its organizational structure and leadership. He was in a protracted battle for control of the Auditorium Theater, an architectural masterpiece with a complicated history. The institution grew in size and reputation. Through it all, Gross worked tirelessly to raise money to fund his expensive vision for the institution.

Making the memoirs uncommon is Gross’s focus on himself, his candor, and the way he recounts events, meetings, and colleagues. He mixes the personal with the professional and the institutional. Personal leadership and choice are woven throughout, along with a sense of what is the right way to lead. Gross draws clear lines between those that he thinks have helped his vision and those that have challenged him. He recounts efforts at prying money from donors with less charity than one would expect. A local Chicago newspaper titled its review of Gross’s book “He’ll Never Fund Raise in this Town Again.” The tone can be excessive. One wonders other perspectives on Gross’s tenure. Was he always so outspoken? Was there much conflict? And how did the conflict affect Roosevelt University?

I was intrigued by Gross’s expectations for leaders. He writes that the “conversion of a good university into a great one requires two dominant figures: a president with a vision and a wealthy donor who supports him.” He regularly repeats a concern that he never wanted to be thought of as a “manager.” Gross firmly believes that presidential leadership is about defining a vision and making that into a reality. Presidents should be tenacious, ambitious, and have a willingness to assume great personal risk to achieve a challenging goal. They also live in a world removed from students and the cycles of academic life.

In other words, presidential leadership for Gross is cast in a heroic mold. President’s primary responsibility centers around a vision, a grand scale project that reshapes the institution in a grand manner. A president has to assemble a team to help to execute the vision, but the supporting cast is of lesser importance. Real leadership rests with him (and presidential pronouns throughout the book are male). There is little here about service, stewardship, or commitment to others. It is a curiously lonely conception of how one leads an institution of higher education.

Gross is right, I believe, about the ultimate responsibility of a college president. As Harry S. Truman famously stated, the buck has to stop with the president. Shouldering that burden, however, does not necessarily translate into heroic or solitary leadership. Institutions of higher education are complicated organizations that resist wholly unified action. They demand communication, integration, coöperation, and compromise. When effective, they function collaboratively. Each has an important part to play and each part is unique. The difference is between everyone playing the same tune on different instruments and an orchestra, where instruments play different notes so that the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts.

I also wonder about Gross’s implication of the personal with institutional. One does not become a college president without ambition. Personal drive, however, is not always what institution’s need or want. They often demand service and support – leadership from behind. There is little glamour or ego in helping others, working behind the scenes, and making sure that recognition and rewards are widely distributed. Yet this is at the very heart of the job. Serving others and higher aims is a basic academic value. One does not teach to become a great teacher; one teaches so that students learn. Similarly, one leads an institution of higher education so that faculty, administrators, and students can flourish. I wonder if Gross would credit these sentiments as reflecting true presidential leadership.

There is no one recipe or blueprint for success in a college presidency. What might or might not work at one institution may not at another, or at the same college at a different point in its development. It is a fascinating and complex business, one that keeps all of us thinking.

David Potash

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