NO CRYSTAL BALL
n my first year as president of Stanford, students, reporters, alumni frequently asked me what my "vision" was, my "plan," my "agenda" for the university. The question always made me very uncomfortable. It was certainly a fair one to put to a newcomer, but it was nearly impossible to answer. The frequency with which I was asked about my vision may have been due to the fact that, shortly after September 1992, when I began to serve, the United States elected a new president. The country gave free rein to the usual clichés about presidential vision, the first hundred days, presidential constituencies, the honeymoon, and the like. Since I had in common the title of president, I seemed to find it difficult to get people to pause and consider that a university president's responsibilities and political agendas have very little in common.
In some sense I had tried to answer the question in my inaugural address--a speech that I had prepared with much attention to its every word. Of course, I did not put forward a plan (how could I have done so coming to Stanford from the outside?), but I spelled out what I thought the commitments of a university were, the principles that would guide me. I did so in the form of reflections on the meaning of Stanford's motto.
My emphasis on Die Luft der Freiheit weht did not follow from the fact that I was able to pronounce the words. No, it seemed to me then, as it still seems to me, that David Starr Jordan chose a motto that serves as a shorthand for bedrock principles. These I attempted to put forward, realizing that they were unfit to serve as programmatic sound bites.
Why is it next to impossible to talk about a "vision" for the university? A university is primarily concerned with the pursuit of truth. As Robert Musil, the great writer, once put it, "The truth is not a crystal that can be slipped into one's pocket, but an endless current into which one falls headlong." A university president possesses neither the truth as a crystal nor a crystal ball.
"Vision" is obviously indispensable. At a university, however, it is mostly a composite, made up of the multiple pursuits of the many faculty and students as they interact with one another in teaching, learning, and research--having fallen headlong into the endless current that is the pursuit of truth. The true university works from the bottom up, not from the top down. The main responsibility of a university's leaders is to create and maintain the conditions that make university work possible. These conditions do not include tightly formulated programs.
Wally Sterling, who was at the helm when Stanford became one of the country's best universities, responded to student representatives who had asked about his "educational philosophy," "My philosophy...is not to develop a philosophy of education, but instead to try to find the best possible faculty; then to upgrade the breadth and variety of students, and provide needed physical plant; and then sit back and see what results." On the whole I find this view very congenial, though not quite complete.
Universities can become too set, too complacent, too smug in their ways. It is the responsibility of presidents, provosts, deans continuously to question the manner in which things are being done at a university. The notion that university administrators should only implement what university faculty, from time to time, may get around to ordaining is not really a recipe for coping with the inevitable need for change.
On March 18, 1992, at the press conference at which my appointment was announced, I observed:
The excellence of Stanford will be our goal. My [former Chicago] colleague George Stigler, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics, once opened a book review with the sentence, "I just read a mediocre book about excellence." And I think there's a real danger to use the term excellence too easily. I have always preferred...the plural. Even as excellent an institution as Stanford can develop weaknesses, can be mediocre in some areas. We have to work hard...to maintain and achieve as many excellences as are at all possible in these times.
The "we" in this statement recognizes that it is the faculty, students, staff, top leadership, trustees, alumni, parents, and local, national, and worldwide friends whose active engagement has made Stanford a continuously renewed intellectual and moral effort. At a true university those who participate in its life must draw together and jointly reinvent the university every day. To put it differently and to exaggerate only slightly, even after one hundred years, the days of a university are always first days. The work of the university is work that cannot be done unless it is continuously reconsidered and supported afresh and jointly by faculty, students, staff, and--last but not least--by alumni and friends.
While the university is truly a joint effort of a wide range of participants, it is important to remind ourselves that the most crucial decisions--the selection of students, essential features of the curriculum, the initiation of faculty appointments, and the choice of research projects--in the contemporary university are mostly under the control of the faculty, because that is where subject-matter expertise lies. Few businesses have as many highly differentiated "product lines" as do universities. The almost unlimited multiplicity of actual or possible endeavors is one reason why university decision making needs to be so decentralized. In the end the faculty hold most of the cards. This is the way it should be, because this is the way it needs to be.
The dilemma lies in the difficulty of establishing accountability for the commissions and omissions of highly diffuse jurisdictions. When responsibilities are as widely scattered as they are in universities--among individuals, departments, committees, deans--the danger is always that no one is responsible, because everyone is, and everyone can hide behind the designation "the faculty" or "the administration." The default position is to hold the president accountable. That is fine as long as one grasps the limits of presidential power in a university.
The public frequently misunderstands the nature of university governance (as do, incidentally, many members of the faculty) and ignores the most basic aspects of academic freedom. One of the thousands of letters I received over the last five years came from the American Legion Auxiliary in Nebraska in response to a faculty member's views concerning World War II, as expressed on television: "It is my understanding that you serve as President of Stamford [sic] University. I presume your position grants you the power to control the conduct of professors teaching in your prestigious school." I do not wish it were so. However, it is also the case that I do not think of myself as a potted plant.
I cannot agree with those members of a university faculty who seem to resent it when presidents, provosts, or deans remind them that they are their colleagues, that they have special responsibilities, and that they, too, have views on curricular and scholarly issues. If presidents express such views in anything other than a mealy-mouthed way and, God forbid, do something about implementing them, in some quarters they will readily be accused of being autocratic.
And, both inside and outside the university, people are only too ready to jump to conclusions about the university, its direction, and its leadership on the basis of little, or even no, information and knowledge. Al Bowker, the former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, once said to his president, David Saxon: "David, if I believe half the things I am told about you, I think you ought to be institutionalized. Remember that, will you, about me?"
In the end, all of us play necessary roles, for universities are built by many and they are built to last. My colleagues Jim Collins and Jerry Porras recently published a book about "successful habits of visionary companies" that they entitled Built to Last. They reminded us that charismatic or visionary leaders pass away and great ideas become obsolete, while "visionary companies" prosper over long periods of time. Great universities are exactly that, visionary institutions, built, stone after stone, to last.
Indeed, universities have been extraordinarily durable as institutions and in terms of the functions they have performed in Western societies. Clark Kerr has counted that of seventy-five institutions founded before 1520, "which are [still] doing much the same things, in much the same ways and under the same names," about sixty are universities. This puts some universities in such company as the Roman Catholic Church, the Bank of Siena, and the Royal Mint. They are not there because of charismatic leaders.
Of course, I am not suggesting that there is no need for leadership at universities. Rather, it is the "charismatic" part that is ephemeral, if it is based on visions that reflect the buzzwords of contemporary politics or business. The university's vision is not a crystal to be slipped into one's pocket. Also, the pace of leadership needs to be cognizant of the fact that universities, as a former Stanford trustee from Texas once said to me, are like Brahman bulls: you cannot drive them, you must drift them.
I believe Stanford gets it just right with a wonderful custom: In the Faculty Senate, those administrators, including the president, who are ex officio members of the Senate sit alphabetically interspersed with the elected senators. This captures symbolically that university governance ultimately is self-governance. I have assumed in the past, and will assume in the future, that if I do not any longer have the confidence of the faculty, I shall resign. The Board of Trustees can dismiss the president, the faculty can bring about his resignation.
To maintain standards, to make people serious, writer Susan Sontag said during a Stanford visit, was the "ethical task of the novelist." It is inescapably also the task of the university president. Given the many directions in which university presidents are pulled and the many, often mindless expectations they are asked to meet, it is easy to fail the task. Such failure is costlier for the university than the lack of a handily packaged, up-to-date vision.