Advice for the Incoming President

Professor Claire Potter offers up some great advice for incoming President Michael Roth:

1. Be a walk around manager. Sure, being a President is time consuming. But schedule free time in your week that will allow you to drop in on people, take a stroll around the campus, and go have coffee in the new campus center. Show up where and when you are least expected. Go to talks. Come to the History Department Tea, and Pie Day at American Studies. Go over to Interlibrary Loan and order your own books so that you can say hello to hard-working people who will never be asked to meet you in a more private way. Presidents need a sense of who their constituents are before they come asking for something, or protesting something, or are Tangled Up In (some kind of) Blue.

2. Don’t inject the word “excellence” into everything you say and expect that we know what you are talking about, or that it answers any question about a course of action to be taken. What excellence actually represents is – well, nothing. It’s a buzzword, the verbal equivalent of a Rorschach test. And some of the great disagreements in education and scholarly life today have to do with prioritizing some kinds of knowledge over others and calling it “excellence.” Us queer and colored folk, for example, are exhausted by the continual requirement that we exhibit excellence that conventional people can translate into their own, conventional, world view. Look at our diversity as an intellectual institution, figure out where the energy is, and jump on the bandwagon. Find out what Zenith [Wesleyan] does best and do what you can to cultivate what you find. Find out what we don’t do and how it would enhance our life as a thinking community to start doing it.

3. Take a serious look at how large our administration has grown over the last decade, who pays for it, and what justifies it. It is very hard for faculty to understand why we spend every April hiring contingent faculty (fifty or sixty of them across the university) when we seem to add numbers-crunchers, Vice Presidents of This-and-That, and student services workers one after another. If we need all these people, and we don’t need teachers at a university, fine. But someone needs to tell us why. And exactly what our mission is as a liberal arts college if it isn’t having enough faculty to have the time and energy to pay attention to students as individuals.

4. Do what you can to stop the griping about Division III athletics and move on to things that really matter. This is not, whatever William Bowen says, a major problem that the liberal arts college must face. Sports are fun, and exercise is good for young adults. Over fifty-percent of the Zenith student body is involved in varsity athletics of some kind, and most of these kids are actually not recruits. For those that are, athletics is actually one of the few ways that working-class kids can still get into Zenith when they didn’t go to such a great public high school (which is, frankly, most public high schools), and in my experience these kids are just as academically capable as the children of celebrities and the wealthy alumni/ae legacies.

5. Start a campus-wide conversation about how much stress and anxiety students cope with, what we are doing as an institution that enhances that stress, and why, as a community, we talk about it as if it has nothing to do with discourses of “excellence” and our pedagogical practices. We wouldn’t need so many elaborate “student services” if students weren’t made so desperate during the college admissions process, and subsequently more desperate as they claw their way through college.

6. Here’s a good place to start addressing faculty stress: the tenure and promotion process at Zenith is a mess and it is taking far too much of our time for no good purpose. When you get to know us better, put together a committee of people *not* drawn from the people who have served on the T & P committee. This committee should hold public hearings, invite people from other universities and the AAUP to consult, and then put together a set of recommendations for university-wide reform of the personnel process. And while you are at it – reform the T & P committee. Many of them are (to be frank once more) zombies. And if they aren’t zombies before they are elected, they often become zombies as a result of their service. This doesn’t seem like a good outcome, and it means many of us who would actually be thoughtful about tenure and promotion would rather eat glass than serve on that committee.

7. Encourage the faculty to form an AAUP chapter. Give one or two members of the faculty a course relief to get it done. An organized faculty is a faculty that knows how to negotiate, cooperate, and adjudicate. And while you are at it — ask faculty why they don’t go to meetings. Figure out how to change that, and what kind of meeting the faculty would agree to go to. It’s demoralizing that we don’t, and because no one goes, it’s as demoralizing to go to faculty meetings as it is to stay home. Kind of like eating in an empty restaurant (which you look too cool to do.)

8. Let the students chalk on the sidewalk. It just really isn’t that important. And the students whose chalkings were originally banned have graduated anyway. I don’t think the students we have now even know how to chalk.

9. Make retirement a realistic possibility for faculty who are in their sixties and seventies. Provide incentives that signify how much you value past service and that simplify the lives of senior faculty in ways that enhance their last decade of service and enhance the quality of our community. Get faculty over the age of 67 out of the personnel process and out of governance (except in cases of extraordinary administrative competence), and provide resources for cultivating their teaching and scholarly lives. Very senior members of the faculty who are more concerned about who the next hire is going to be than how they are going to get their last book or two done before they die are not the people you want messing in decisions that affect what Zenith will be twenty years from now. These decisions belong to the younger generations who will live with them and have their careers shaped by them.

10. Zenith has lost much of its uniqueness in its quest for “excellence:” for those of us who have been here a while, sometimes you feel like you could wake up and be anywhere (except Williams. Never Williams.) Remember why you loved it here in the 1970’s, and see if you can’t bring some of that back. A good start would be to withdraw from the U.S. News and World Report College Rankings system.

26 thoughts on “Advice for the Incoming President

  1. Drew

    this is really good, very thought provoking. I agree with pretty much everything here.

  2. Drew

    this is really good, very thought provoking. I agree with pretty much everything here.

  3. Anonymous

    I think part of their ranking includes endowment, or some sort of alumni giving rank…which is pretty ridiculous I think. How about we just leave THAT part of the list.

  4. Anonymous

    I think part of their ranking includes endowment, or some sort of alumni giving rank…which is pretty ridiculous I think. How about we just leave THAT part of the list.

  5. Anonymous

    Why is being ranked among the U.S. News and World Report Colleges considered a negative? Recognition doesn’t mean selling out… it provokes interest in the school and establishes Wesleyan as one of the top liberal arts schools academically and otherwise… why is that a bad thing? Students know they work hard here but its nice to know that more objective judges recgonize that fact as well. It’s redundant having to always validate the quality of your university so why eliminate one of the few devices that implies that automatically.

  6. Anonymous

    Why is being ranked among the U.S. News and World Report Colleges considered a negative? Recognition doesn’t mean selling out… it provokes interest in the school and establishes Wesleyan as one of the top liberal arts schools academically and otherwise… why is that a bad thing? Students know they work hard here but its nice to know that more objective judges recgonize that fact as well. It’s redundant having to always validate the quality of your university so why eliminate one of the few devices that implies that automatically.

  7. Anonymous

    Claire you’re one of the best prof out there.i feel you i really do feel youyou actually care….something not many can say

  8. Anonymous

    Claire you’re one of the best prof out there.
    i feel you
    i really do feel you
    you actually care….something not many can say

  9. Anonymous

    removing ourselves from us news would mean wes would become even more obscure than it is now. i’m from nj, and i wouldve never known about it had i not seen the rankings. i didnt come here for the rankings (although obviously they did somewhat influence me), but without them, i wouldve never heard of wesleyan.

  10. Anonymous

    removing ourselves from us news would mean wes would become even more obscure than it is now. i’m from nj, and i wouldve never known about it had i not seen the rankings. i didnt come here for the rankings (although obviously they did somewhat influence me), but without them, i wouldve never heard of wesleyan.

  11. Claire

    Wow. It’s weird to see professors complaining about how professors are treated in the way that students often complain about our treatment.Also, I completely agree.

  12. Claire

    Wow. It’s weird to see professors complaining about how professors are treated in the way that students often complain about our treatment.

    Also, I completely agree.

  13. Anonymous

    I agree that removing us from the US world and news rankings would be good. It would stop us from throwing away our diversity and using schemes like the 19 person class just for rankings. It would also send a message out to other universities encouraging them to remove themselves from the ranking.

  14. Anonymous

    I agree that removing us from the US world and news rankings would be good. It would stop us from throwing away our diversity and using schemes like the 19 person class just for rankings. It would also send a message out to other universities encouraging them to remove themselves from the ranking.

  15. Justin

    Much as I like the weirdness, I also like being able to say we’re among the best of the U.S. News and World Report rankings.::Sigh::

  16. Justin

    Much as I like the weirdness, I also like being able to say we’re among the best of the U.S. News and World Report rankings.

    ::Sigh::

  17. Anonymous

    blog used to be anonymous, so she needed a pseudonym for the school. Now it’s unanonymous, but she kept the pseudonym

  18. Anonymous

    blog used to be anonymous, so she needed a pseudonym for the school. Now it’s unanonymous, but she kept the pseudonym

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