From the archives: Presidency adapts as U. transitions to global enterprise

This article is part of the series Shaping the Presidency

Part one of a three-part series

When Christina Paxson is formally inaugurated as the University’s 19th president Saturday, she will join a long list of individuals who have left their mark on Brown in unique ways. But the office Paxson will officially assume this week is not the same as the one envisioned by the University’s founders in 1764. As the University has grown in size during its almost three-century history, presidents have had to adapt to changing social and economic environments and have faced resulting shifts in their responsibilities.

A job that initially focused on managing the day-to-day aspects of the University has evolved into one that requires balancing diverse constituencies while shaping the University’s broader role within higher education, according to longtime faculty members, administrators and others familiar with the University’s top post. Presidents increasingly have found the need to look beyond College Hill as the University continues to expand and adjust to a more competitive world.
In certain respects, the office has not changed since 1765, when Princeton graduate James Manning, a Baptist minister who helped found the University, became its first president. Then as now, the president reported to the Corporation, managed the overall governance of the University and served as a member of the Corporation’s Board of Fellows.

But the presidency has also undergone major changes since Manning’s days. Paxson, for instance, will not be able to act as independently of the Corporation as the presidents of the mid-20th century, who enjoyed a high level of autonomy. Nor will she have to teach a capstone course in moral philosophy, which was a duty of the first few presidents, according to Jane Lancaster PhD’98, a visiting assistant professor of history who is writing a book about the University’s history to be released for its 250th anniversary in 2014.

Today, while Paxson serves as a first-year adviser to two students, her overall involvement in teaching and the particulars of daily governance will not be as intimate as in Manning’s era. Instead, Paxson faces the duties of an office defined more by its power to shape – and to finance – the University’s future goals.

From Baptist ministers to PhDs

At the outset of the University’s founding, presidents were responsible for every aspect of the University’s administration. In the school’s first years, Manning was the University’s only employee, Lancaster said, adding that even as the student body grew, presidents functioned as teachers for most of the 19th century.
The presidency also came attached with a major prerequisite, Lancaster noted. The charter originally mandated that presidents be Baptist ministers, a requirement stemming from the faith of many of the University’s founders. “It wasn’t just the administration” that presidents were charged with handling, said Artemis Joukowsky ’55 P’87, a former chancellor from 1997-98 – “it was the promulgation of Baptist beliefs.”

As a result of the Baptist requirement, presidents tangled with the Corporation from the very beginning. Over time, religion became a wedge dividing clerical presidents and secular students, most of whom were not Baptists, according to Lancaster. As Brown moved into the 20thcentury and sought to become a national university rather than a small liberal arts college, the need to pivot away from hiring ministers became clear. In 1926, in a sharp break with tradition, William Faunce, president from 1899-1929, persuaded the Corporation to remove the charter’s Baptist requirement.

The Corporation subsequently turned to hiring trained academics who could lead Brown’s transformation into a national research university. Instead of selecting Baptist ministers, presidential search committees pursued candidates with strong academic credentials. Since 1937, every president except Gordon Gee, who served as president from 1998-2000, has held a PhD. “You want a scholar,” Joukowsky said. “You want a well-educated person.”

Faunce’s fight to end the religious requirement was not the first instance of a president’s push-and-pull with the Corporation, nor would it be the last. Elisha Benjamin Andrews 1870, who served as president from 1889-98, played a key role in expanding the size of the student body and creating the Women’s College, which later became Pembroke College. But as a liberal who publicly voiced his political views, he angered the conservative, pro-business Corporation members.
The Corporation denounced Andrews for his outspokenness, and he submitted his resignation under pressure from board members. But the episode sparked a faculty and student movement at Brown for academics’ freedom of speech, and the Corporation subsequently asked Andrews to withdraw his resignation – a major turning point in the University’s balance of power, according to Lancaster. The Corporation’s submission to the campus’ requests demonstrated that presidents could draw on their personal popularity with faculty and students to be effective, she said.

After Andrews won his fight with the Corporation, presidents enjoyed largely free reign over the University’s governance for much of the first half of the 20th century, according to Lancaster, who called this “the era of benign dictatorship.”

‘Benevolent dictators’

With an influx of federal funding for research and the University’s continued expansion, presidents in the mid-20th century exercised greater authority over a modernizing agenda, implementing curriculum changes, extensive building projects and higher education reforms.

By many accounts, the president who defined this period of rapid expansion was Henry Wriston, who ran the University from 1937-55.
“Wriston was good because he was both an administrator and an intellectual,” Lancaster said, adding that he led sweeping curriculum changes by urging professors to offer courses forcing students to think critically rather than just “regurgitate” information.
Wriston presided over the University at a time of transition, as the student body grew in size and as federal government money poured into the University to fund scientific research projects during World War II and the Cold War. In response to unprecedented growth, Wriston pioneered far-reaching changes, including the establishment of small-size seminar courses that emphasized discussion.

The presidency retained its heightened power under Wriston’s successor, Barnaby Keeney, who occupied the position from 1955-66. “He was considered something of an autocrat,” said Thomas Banchoff, a professor of mathematics who has been at the University since 1967. “He really ran the show.”

Keeney was instrumental in enlarging the campus to accommodate more students, and under his tenure the University purchased the land on which many athletic fields and buildings sit today. During his 10-year term, he was a highly effective fundraiser, doubling the University’s endowment and tripling the budget. According to George Borts, a professor of economics who came to Brown in 1950, Keeney also supported proposals to expand the biology department and establish a medical school. “It took a lot of nerve and a lot of energy to get that done,” Borts said.

But while Wriston and Keeney – dubbed “benevolent dictators” by Lancaster – exercised robust presidential power in defining the University’s expansion and creating fundraising initiatives, both still remained involved in the University’s day-to-day activities, including running faculty meetings and interviewing prospective hires.

“When I came in 1950, the president knew people better,” Borts said.

As the University expanded in size over the second half of the century, administrators began to take on more and more of the president’s former responsibilities.

Transition and turmoil

The student body’s growth and a slowly burgeoning bureaucracy  both constituted external pressures that lessened the president’s ability to fully participate in daily University governance. In the face of these pressures, more of the president’s responsibilities shifted to the provost, the dean of the college and the vice president for student life,Joukowsky said.

New pressure from students mobilizing for greater racial diversity further diverted the president’s focus from normal administrative matters. The late 1960s were ridden with student protests on issues such as the low admission level of minority students. In 1968, a group of black students walked off campus to promote increased recruitment of black students, who at the time constituted only  .03 percent of the student body.

Many presidents “were slow to figure out what to do with student protests,” said Luther Spoehr, senior lecturer in the education department. But, he added, the administration was ultimately receptive to students’ concerns. “There were ears that were willing to hear,” he said. A year later, the University admitted 127 black applicants into a class of 1,151 new students.

Ray Heffner, who served as president from 1966-69, and his successor Donald Hornig, president from 1970-76, faced a host of crises, including fights over the New Curriculum and tensions over the integration of non-white and female students into the University, according to Banchoff. “We always had a crisis every week,” Banchoff said.

In addition to social movements and the ensuing policy changes that demanded presidents’ attention, academic reform also characterized this transitional period with the implementation of the New Curriculum in 1969. The elimination of core requirements and introduction of the Satisfactory/No Credit grade option proved too drastic forHeffner, president at the time. He resigned the day after the faculty voted to adopt the changes, concluding what The Herald in 1987 called a “stormy presidency much affected by student protest.”

By many accounts, Heffner and Hornig both struggled with this array of pressures and changes. Arnold Weinstein, professor of comparative literature who came to Brown in 1968, said that in a time of weak presidential leadership, faculty members gained greater control over University governance. “The faculty felt more empowered (then) than they do today,” Weinstein said. “Even if a president was weak, I think it led to some interesting developments at Brown.”

A sharp contrast from the autocratic presidents only decades earlier, the presidency as shaped by the tumultuous times of the ’60s and ’70s had almost completely shifted away from day-to-day governance, instead focusing on larger-picture policies as demanded by campus protest.

Financing a global university

Simultaneously, a larger student body, combined with wartime economic pressures, forced presidents to prioritize fundraising over most other initiatives. After several years of student rallies, presidents faced a growing need for funding to support efforts to diversify the student body and increase financial aid.
The unprecedented growth spurred the rise of an academic bureaucracy, with new deans and administrators managing specialized areas of University governance. “It’s become a large, corporate enterprise,” Borts said, noting today’s vastly increased number of new posts to aid the president in running day-to-day operations.
“The president has taken on the role of being the principal fundraiser,” Joukowsky said of the current position.

While financing the University has always been the president’s concern, the necessity of fundraising became more visible at a time of budgetary constraints, as federal research funds to the University were sharply cut. “The presidents who were here at the end of the Vietnam War had a very difficult time,” Borts said.
So much was the financial strain in 1974 that Hornig announced a plan that would cut Brown’s budget by 15 percent over three years and get rid of 75 faculty positions. The result was “the greatest furor in Brown’s recent history and climaxed in (spring of ’75) with a four-day student strike,” The Herald reported in 1975.
At this time of budgetary turmoil, Howard Swearer assumed the presidency in 1977 and earned respect for his attempt to get the University back on track. “Swearer was very successful in mending a lot of the broken fences that had happened in the early ’70s,” Lancaster said, citing Swearer’s work to build a network of wealthy donors to grow the endowment and his push to “internationalize” the University by establishing the Watson Institute for International Studies.

Faculty members praised Swearer for stabilizing Brown and balancing constituencies including students, faculty and alums. “He was attuned to what was happening at other universities in the country,” Banchoff said. Weinstein agreed, calling Swearer the first successful president he had seen at the University.

“He was largely occupied with fundraising and financial matters. That is what a president is supposed to do,” Edward Beiser, former professor of political science, told The Herald in 1987. “Swearer made it possible for the next president to pay more attention to the details of education.”

In his report to the Corporation before he resigned in 1987, Swearer emphasized the need for Brown to “stay the course” and keep its distinctive curriculum despite “external critics during this period of neo-conservative reaction.”

Leading with charisma

As the University increasingly looked beyond the Van Wickle gates, charisma became a valued quality in presidential candidates for the role of “fundraiser-in-chief.” In their efforts to garner donations from the wealthy, presidents needed to be skilled networkers.

The enhancement of the University’s global reputation continued to gain emphasis under Swearer’s successor,Vartan Gregorian. After serving as the head of the New York Public Library, Gregorian came to Brown with an aptitude for public speaking and a vast network of wealthy contacts he tapped into as the University’s president. With his powerful persona, Gregorian became “known all over the world,” said Stephen Robert ’62 P’91, who served as chancellor from 1998 to 2007.
Strongly opinionated and outspoken on a national level, Gregorian was “a force among the Ivy League presidents just because of the strength of his personality,” Banchoff said. And at a time when fundraising had become paramount, Gregorian succeeded in growing the University’s endowment.

In keeping with the tendency of presidential search committees to react in a counter-push to previous administrations, Gregorian’s charisma was a marked departure from Swearer, according to Lancaster. “He was eloquent in a way that Howard Swearer was not,” Weinstein said, adding that Gregorian aimed to make Brown one of the “biggest intellectual powerhouses on the East Coast.”

While Gregorian’s successor, Gordon Gee, continued the shift to aggressive fundraising, his term was too short to make a major imprint. Gee, who served as president from 1998 to 2000, came to Providence with a law degree and a background running large state universities. An unusual choice given his lack of experience with liberal arts colleges, Gee ended his term on a sour note when, after just two years on College Hill, he accepted a higher-paying offer to serve as chancellor of Vanderbilt University, Banchoff said.

The importance of long-term connections has increased as the University’s expansion has accelerated. “One thing that successful presidents need to do is make alliances with powerful people,” Lancaster said. An understanding of the University’s resources and constituencies is key to making substantial change, Joukowsky said, and few better recognized this importance than the most recent president Ruth Simmons.

Among Simmons’ many accomplishments were an increase in the size of the faculty by 20 percent and the establishment of need-blind admissions. But while her ambitious agenda, officially entitled the Plan for Academic Enrichment, was a defining characteristic of her presidency, her colleagues often cite her personality first as one of the biggest influences on her success.

“She’s been extraordinarily successful with the undergraduates in the warmth and affection they feel for her,” Weinstein said, adding that her eloquence and warmth make her “a difficult act to follow.” Simmons’ charm also allowed her to establish relationships across different interest groups of alums, faculty and students. A president has to “be able to connect the dots” between these groups, Joukowsky said.

Finding a vision

From 1764 to 2012, the University has undergone a series of developments and expansions that continue to change and shape the role of the president today. University Hall’s chief executive no longer serves as a Baptist minister focusing on overseeing day-to-day events, but rather as the head of a globalized financial operation. Gregorian’s charisma and Simmons’ long-term strategic planning allowed them to thrive in this new, networking-heavy era of the Brunonian presidency.

And while each president has a unique approach, those who were most effective shared a sense of innovation in shaping the University’s trajectory. As a successful president of Brown, “you need to be able to develop a vision for Brown’s future,” Robert said, and “find a way to implement that vision.”

The success of this vision is specific to Brown. The rest of this series will examine the influences of approaches taken by comparable universities’ presidents to advance their own institutions’ missions, as well as explore the University’s most recent presidential transitions to offer context to Paxson’s initial months as the institution’s19th president.

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