On May 23, 2023 Jennifer Rubin wrote a pointed opinion piece in the Washington Post in part advocating for a change in leadership at CNN (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/05/23/cnn-chief-christiane-amanpour/). She had heard a critique by Christiane Amanpour of CNN’s Trump Townhall the week before during Amanpour’s commencement address for the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kL-QCzVN9bA). This critique was especially powerful because Amanpour is a CNN journalist. Her critique was based on the principles of good journalism—not an argument that offensive or ill -informed comments should not be heard. Journalism is not just reporting words and events , but also investigation of the accuracy of the words which holds speakers accountable for what they say. Amanpour points out that this is not likely to happen in a venue where there are no guard rails for the main speaker and the audience is filled with ardent champions of that speaker.

Rubin concludes that “CNN—and all news outlets—should be run by a player-turned-coach, someone who played the ‘game’ at a high level and understands truth is the objective of journalism, first and foremost.”

The importance of this knowledge of the mission of a business enterprise that serves a larger civic purpose is true not just for journalism. Institutions of higher education deserve the same kind of leaders. Higher education in the United States is in a truly sorry state these days. Clearly the enterprise is being challenged by demographics (both the decline in those interested in attending college and the racial/ethnic/cultural specifics of those who are interested in attending), deep skepticism about the value of the investment of time and money to attain a degree, perceptions of political and social narrowness in academe, and a resistance by some campus stakeholders to change anything: curriculum, financial models, or governance (some of which date from the 16th century).

I would submit, however, that the real problem for higher education lies not in these challenges but in the leadership of the institutions. There is much in the press about problems stemming from the political nature of the appointment process and partisan attitudes of board members. Surely the misconception by board members that their allegiance is to the appointing or electing authority (whether that be a governor, an electorate, a faculty senate or an alumni board) rather than to the institution has had destructive impact on American higher education.

Damaging as the actions based on these misconceptions can be, I do not believe that is where most of the fault lies. I believe the fault lies in the administrative leadership of the institutions—the presidents and chancellors. It’s not just that those currently in the positions of executive leadership don’t come from higher education; it’s that they do not adhere to the most basic responsibility invested in their roles—to nurture and protect the mission of the enterprise which they lead. I can hear my colleagues responding to my criticism: “But you do not know how hot the political rhetoric is these days. You do not know how quickly a political leader can decide to attack your campus, reduce your budget, threaten your institutional autonomy. You do not know how quick the faculty is to begin the process for a vote of no confidence. You do not know how intrusive the board can be.” The landscape for higher education has in fact changed a lot in the five years that have passed since I sat in the executive seat of an institution of higher education, stemming partially from the pandemic and the growing mean spiritedness of partisan positions. But we as leaders need to own part of the reason why there have been such changes. We have been entirely too passive and silent. I remember saying when I sat in the seat (and acting on it in a couple of situations), you should never accept a job that is more important than your principles.

Even though I no longer hold a position of executive leadership on a university campus, I still feel a responsibility to speak out on issues that have an impact on the enterprise. That is a belief held by many of my colleagues. I am honored to have joined hundreds of my colleagues, former presidents and chancellors, in signing the Champions of Higher Education initiative ( Champions of Higher Education) a partnership with PEN America, “to fight political interference and government overreach on campus.” I only hope that our advocacy will help change the climate, encouraging boards to recognize that they should speak up and out about the infringement on the core principles of higher education, that they should recognize that their most important job is to appoint and support courageous and principled advocates for higher education not just as a business but as an enterprise that is central to democracy. More importantly, these appointed advocates while working with the board, do not work for the board; they work for the institution. Sometimes they have to guide the board, disagree with the board, and accept the consequences. I also hope that the PEN initiative will help those who are fortunate enough to be appointed to these positions recognize that along with the great joys of these jobs, there are tremendous responsibilities and difficult but essential fights.

We seem to have accepted that sometimes a vote of no confidence by a recalcitrant faculty is not necessarily a mark of failure by the president or chancellor. Equally important, we need to accept that a fight with a board which has lost the understanding of its fiduciary duties to the institution and to higher education or a fight with a governor who believes partisan politics should determine governance and curriculum is not a failure of that president, but in fact a badge of honor.

And for those who say I could not possibly understand the culture of today when I was sitting in the seat–perhaps. But I will point out, The College of New Jersey IS in New Jersey and let’s be real—politics in New Jersey has always been a blood sport.