Vision and Elite Institutions

Many of the forces that make for quality in higher education are isomorphic:  impactful faculty scholarship and research, bigger libraries, better prepared students, more opportunities for academic and student support. Many of them simply boil down to more institutional money. It is a challenge to be different and to be better. That question is at the very heart of Mark William Roche’s new book, Realizing the Distinctive University: Vision and Values, Strategy and Culture.

Roche is a professor of German and philosophy at Notre Dame University, where he served as dean of the College of Arts and Letters for eleven years. Roche also held leadership roles at the Ohio State University. Despite his administrative responsibilities, Roche thinks like a faculty member. His head and heart are in scholarship and teaching. His perspective is valuable, for institutional excellence always demands excellence in the faculty.

Much of the book is about deaning – being an effective dean, explained through a mixture of higher education literature and personal experience. Roche owns up to his gaffes and is rightly proud of his successes. He is conscious about the shifts he made in style, communication and behavior, from faculty member to administrator. Literally, Roche writes that he made himself an extrovert. He notes that the stronger the institution’s faculty, the less intrusive the administration. Nevertheless, he is quite clear that leadership is essential to developing an academic vision and helping an institution of higher learning change and grow. It is about priorities and choices.

After setting out the broad landscape and challenges, Roche outlines the processes necessary to develop a strategic plan and vision. He argues that a vision can serve as the motivation to drive the many participants in a university – and especially the faculty – towards intellectual excellence. Working at the University of Notre Dame resonated with him, not only for its pursuit of academic and intellectual values, but also its Catholicism. Faith was a key factor in his leadership and in the development of the institution.

Realizing the Distinctive University contains much wisdom, and most of it is for those that work in well-funded, ambitious and élite universities – or those that care about them and want to advance their status. Roche writes about the broader higher education field, but his first-hand experience – and his interest – is in the research institution and leading faculty. Other issues just do not seem to stick with him.

Roche is not a disruptive thinker. Neither radical nor troubled about current debates, he does not expect any massive changes in higher education in the near future (at least at his institutions). Technology and the economy will force changes, to be sure, but they have done so in the past. Roche’s discipline is Germany and he contrasts the US system with the development of German’s higher education, but he does not situate his thinking – or his arguments – on the global stage. He acknowledges the international dimensions of thinking in a discipline, but he does not think through the special opportunities and obligations of a world-class research university. Roche is an incrementalist, a good administrator keen on building greatness.

Roche’s book is not self-congratulatory or smug; it is focused on a particular kind of research university and a particular kind of problem and opportunity. What it does, it does well. Stated plainly, Realizing the Distinctive University is best suited for those who are already several floors up in the ivory tower.

David Potash

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