During my period in the university presidency, the National Association of State Universities (NASU) was a very active and useful organization. The members of the group had developed through the years a considerable camaraderie and a confidence in each other that enabled them to exchange important information freely and confidentially. So their meetings were held in high regard by the presidents. The final session of the spring meeting in New York City, the most important each year, was usually in a lighthearted vein and consisted of a dinner at the University Club followed by the valedictory of one of NASU’S members. Since college presidents spend their lives making and listening to speeches, the task of speaking to such a jaded group under any circumstance is not easy. To speak to them after they have had cocktails and an excellent four-or five-course dinner with two wines is a challenge indeed.
Sometime after I announced that I would be stepping out of the Indiana University presidency on July 1, I was asked by the president of the association, Ray Olpin, to be the speaker for the spring meeting on May 7, 1962. Knowing the hazards, I found it difficult to dream up a format, much less the content, for my talk, but, as I related in the speech, I eventually jotted down some notes that served for the occasion. The notes took the form of “Maxims for a Young College President, or How to Succeed without Really Trying,” paraphrasing the title of a popular show on Broadway at that time, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. My remarks were recorded even though they had been conceived, not as a speech, but rather as a bit of entertainment to mark my last dinner with the group. However, the maxims were then published in the Transactions and Proceedings of NASU, discovered by others, and republished from time to time, including a much more sedate version in the prestigious Educational Record of the American Council on Education. Since that time there have been many requests for copies of the transcription, and some of the maxims have been used by others with or without attribution. Because of this continuing interest, I looked at the text to judge whether or not the maxims still held in light of all that has happened since 1962. If so, they might bear repeating. The comments had represented a wholly personal point of view, intended only as a semiserious rule-of-thumb. Seen from my present vantage point, a few of the maxims seem to need additional comments. These follow the text of the transcript.
First let me identify the persons whose names are in the text. Ray Olpin was then president of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and president of NASU. The Charlie referred to was Charles McCurdy, the executive secretary. He was a valued friend and colleague of mine as well as a useful and adroit executive officer of the association.
Lightly Expurgated Transcript of Remarks
Made at the Annual Banquet Meeting of the
National Association of State Universities
by Dr. Herman B Wells, Indiana University
University Club, New York City, May 7, 1962
When Ray Olpin asked me to speak, I thought the whole idea that I should be your speaker tonight was ridiculous. Of course, I know very well that no group ever wants a speech—they only want a speaker. Custom dictates that there must be a speaker at a dinner, but I thought it was strange to draft me.
I finally forgave Ray and Charlie because I sensed how desperate they were. Besides, I know how difficult it is to get a speaker when you don’t pay anything!
Ray asked me to reminisce about my years in the presidency and to tell how to be a president. That’s an absurd assignment, of course. Presidential experience isn’t transferable, and we all carry on these jobs in terms of our own personalities and our own situations. Moreover, I don’t like to look backward—only forward. It is more important for me to look forward now than it has been at any time in the past.
After an administration [President Bryan’s] of thirty-five years’ duration, naturally nearly all the members of the faculty had great ideas about the way the university should be reorganized. As an acting president, I wasn’t responsible for reorganizing the university, so I used an old technique. In a great spirit of democracy I suggested a self-survey and that the survey committee hold hearings in which all members of the faculty would be asked to tell what they’d like to do to the university.
This went on for some months, all were heard, and each reformer gained the general impression that his ideas for reorganization of the university would be approved. Meanwhile, I had not had to make a decision, hence had made no one mad. When the trustees could not agree on anybody else, having become accustomed to me, they turned to me. And that is the way I came to be a university president.
Well, it’s been great fun—whether successful or not, I don’t know. This, time will tell!
A week or so ago I spent the night in Chicago in the other University Club. The bed was hard, the switch engines noisy, and the room too hot to sleep, so I began to make some notes. I would make a note or two and then take an aspirin, make another note or two and take a Seconal. Four Seconals and four aspirins later, these notes were finished, and I went to sleep. You will probably be asleep sooner as I give you the results of that evening’s effort.
I thought I might take for my title something from one of the volumes of a great specialized library at Indiana University, the Kinsey Library of Erotica. The title of a famous volume published in London in 1792 seemed a possibility: Useful Hints to Single Gentlemen Respecting Marriage, Concubinage and Adultery, in Prose and Verse, with Notes Moral, Critical and Explanatory.
That erotic theme, perhaps, is not entirely appropriate. In one respect it is: if you will develop a love affair with your university, her seduction will be easier and more satisfying.
But I have chosen a more conventional title for my remarks tonight: “Maxims for a Young College President, or How to Succeed without Really Trying.”
And now, I give you these tongue-in-cheek rules for success, recognizing that many of you have others much better. These are not maxims in the sense of being any final word. I hope you will realize they are not presented in any such pompous frame of reference, but only as way of saying a few things that may be of interest. There is little consistency in my advice, and thus is illustrated the first principle of administration—consistency is a greatly overrated virtue.
BOARD AND GENERAL ADMINISTRATIVE RELATIONSHIPS
My first maxim is, Be lucky.
Remind yourself daily that general administration must always be the servant, never the master, of the academic community. It is not an end unto itself and exists only to further the academic enterprise. It follows, therefore, that generally the least administration possible is the best.
Inherit or recruit talented administrative colleagues who can excel you in performance, including your assistant and your vice presidents. Especially, find a financial vice president who believes it is his job to spend money wisely rather than to hoard it.
Find a public-relations counselor in whom you have confidence for your close associate who has the ability and courage to tell you when you are wrong—and that’s difficult, as many of you know. It has been especially difficult in my case, because in my entire adult life I have had only one job lasting for two years that would be classified as routine work. I have been in administrative work all my life and, of course, I have great confidence in my own judgment. I fortunately was able to find a great public-relations counselor who told me frequently, nearly every day, how wrong I was.
The central administration should always be a source of inspiration and expedition, rather than a bottleneck practiced in the art of saying “No.” The central administration should be a place to see how it can be done rather than why it cannot be done.
Another very important maxim for a young president is to pick a state with a good, rich economy, few schools, and relatively low taxes. I don’t have to explain this rule.
Make board service an exciting intellectual experience for the board members and, above all else, a delightful social experience for their wives. The members deserve this and more for the essential service they perform.
Make sure you have board members who believe in quality and who are willing to pay for it. If you have board members who do not have this belief, you have failed in your first task as a teacher—the task of teaching your board members what they need to know. Never let you or your trustees get into the stance of being employers. It not only destroys faculty morale but also allows the faculty to shift impossible responsibilities to the administration.
Save time for student contacts of all types. You will learn more from them than they will from you. From these contacts your sense of mission will be repeatedly refreshed and renewed.
Honor the freshmen and sophomores no less than the graduate students. They pay the bills! They support the expensive academic tastes of the graduate faculty. I think of these lowly undergraduates in biblical terms: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet, I tell you King Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these!” How on earth could we run a graduate school without the freshmen and sophomores?
In matters of student discipline, remember that the sap runs in the spring, and be not filled with envy by recalling your own undergraduate days.
It is the ambition of each student editor to reform the university, so thank God that their terms are short and that when the next one comes he will have a different program.
GENERAL POLICIES, INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL
Avoid proliferation, either internal or external. In our sessions today we talked a good deal about this subject. It is the greatest curse of American higher education and an insurmountable barrier to the achievement of excellence unless resources are astronomical. On the other hand, lack of proliferation is not ipso facto a guarantee of public willingness to pay the price of greatness.
My predecessor had an effective way of dealing with this issue. Each time the legislature would create a new institution, he would call on the governor to ask for a veto. His standard argument was this (in those days we were an agricultural state): “What happens when you put too many grains of corn in a single hill?”
The governor would reply, “Why, of course, you get stunted, spindly stalks and a poor yield.”
Dr. Bryan would reply, “That’s precisely what happens when you plant too many institutions in the soil of the state—more than the state can afford.” He was always successful in getting the bill vetoed.
All over America we are trying to correct the errors of overproliferation of high schools no longer necessary because of improved transportation. It seems strange that we are about to repeat the same mistake in higher education and with less cause than was once true in the high schools.
Next to proliferation, uniformity is the greatest enemy of distinction—uniformity of treatment of departments, of individuals, and of subject matters. They are not all of equal quality, and to try to treat them all precisely alike is a great mistake.
Recruitment is the most important of all presidential responsibilities; only second-and third-rate men are expensive. Recruitment, promotion, and retention of top men should be the first objective of every president.
Be frank with the faculty on salaries and other financial matters. Without facts the faculty will accept rumors as truth.
Create a climate of competitive productivity in teaching and research in both quality and quantity; men need to be stimulated to produce as much as they are capable of and to carry their share of the load.
Roger Keyes’ famous story about the Oxford don was called to my mind by some of the statements today that we are teaching less and less. Some of you have heard Roger tell the story of the old Oxford don, asked one night at high table about his teaching load. He said, “Oh, yes, I am still teaching: I lecture once a year, some years!”
Provide for the esoteric, exotic, and impractical in the curriculum; the practical and pedestrian will take care of itself. If it does not, you have not lost much anyway; so I think the impractical things are the most practical and important in the long run.
Academic amenities are not a luxury but an essential part of the atmosphere that promotes morale, institutional pride, and loyalty.
Make no small plans for your institution; the small plans are very difficult to achieve.
When you build, build for a long time. Build for a thousand years—do not build structures that will be cast away by tomorrow’s fashion. Tradition has a role to play in our institutions, and traditions grow in part around physical symbols.
Academic freedom is not only essential for morale, teaching, and research; it is a priceless public-relations asset. The Kinsey incident at Indiana, I suppose, is one of the most famous incidents in the history of American academic freedom. I think we gained far more in our public-relations stance by protecting Kinsey and his study than we lost by reason of the unusual nature of the material with which he was working.
Another maxim that has nothing to do with erotica, but nevertheless is important: Help build the private institutions in your state; they, in turn, will help you to build. Anyway, as a state university, you can afford to be generous.
Don’t let competitors make academic policy for your institution. Don’t let worry about events on other campuses distract you from the policies on your own.
Rejoice in the other institution’s success. Your turn will come next. The other fellow’s victories help us all by establishing a higher general standard for university education.
THE PERSONAL ROLE OF THE PRESIDENT
The president needs to be motivated by three D’s—Dedication, Drive, and Determination.
Professional longevity is essential. You can’t win any institutional battles out of office.
Be yourself while you are in office because, if you try to be anything else, you won’t fool anybody but yourself.
It is not what you do that counts; it is what you help others to do that makes progress.
Don’t resist your job. Go to meet it rather than stand aside from it. If you don’t like to be president, resign; many others would like a crack at it.
Never be guilty of using eloquence to avoid the painstaking labor of the job. All of us have seen men who “got by” in that fashion. Instead, work like hell because the job deserves it, needs it, and is worth it. Universities have been injured more by lazy presidents than by incompetent or dictatorial ones.
Always be available to faculty and students for discussion of individual, personal problems because the deans, department heads, and others who are supposed to assume this responsibility rarely have time to do so.
Attend as many informal social gatherings as possible on your campus. They are a great place to interpret policy, gather information, and express interest in individual plans and aspirations. Moreover, if things get a little rough when you are trying to defend policy, you can always move on and meet the next guest, which you cannot do if you talk it out in your office.
If you read a little from time to time outside your professional field, it won’t hurt you; you may get an idea, and the time you spend in reading will keep you from taking some action that would probably be unwise anyway.
Be a good educational citizen—locally, nationally, and internationally. Somebody has to do the group work. By doing your share you will gain inspiration and ideas for your local job. You will likewise gain because the campus will not be bored with having you around all the time.
Educate your board and your colleagues about your responsibilities for group work nationally and internationally. They understand if you give time to the local Community Chest drive, but they seem to forget that other chores—educational civic chores that are national and international—have just as great a call upon the time of the president as the chores in his local community or state.
Be born with the physical charm of a Greek athlete, the cunning of Machiavelli, the wisdom of Solomon, the courage of a lion, if possible; but in any case be born with the stomach of a goat.
Strive to avoid the deadly occupational disease of omniscience and omnipotence. Only the physician, surrounded by nurses and frightened families of ill patients, is as tempted as is a president to be omniscient and omnipotent.
ON LEGISLATIVE, ALUMNI, AND PUBLIC RELATIONS
The first rule of public relations is never get into a contest with a skunk! If you do, you will never smell the same again. Most academic people have a fanatical urge to try to convince the bigot and put the world right. As president you must restrain your natural desire to convince bigots, remembering it takes two to make an argument. You leave your adversary impotent if you won’t give him an opponent.
Don’t shirk your obligation to attend funerals. Your presence will be appreciated. Rarely do you have to make a speech. And in Indiana the “Establishment” transacts an enormous amount of business in connection with important funerals.
The faculty and students are the most effective public-relations representatives of a university. When they believe in their institution, they will tell the world of their enthusiasm. Elaborately contrived public-relations departments that do not command faculty respect are in the long run self-defeating. A university cannot be “sold” by the Madison Avenue techniques used to sell cosmetics or automobiles. Those who believe otherwise do not understand the nature of the academic community and its product.
Pick a top man for alumni secretary who commands the respect and loyalty of the alumni and make him one of your inner circle. Alumni are the great, unexplored resource of American higher education in general and in state universities especially. Only a few institutions have involved them in a meaningful way.
The Harvard alumni visiting committees are illustrations of alumni being seriously and honestly involved in institutional affairs. Only when we treat the alumni in this way can we expect them to behave responsibly and be interested in things other than athletics.
The importance of athletic success is a figment of the imagination of sports writers and sophomoric alumni. A member of the National Academy has more public-relations value than a championship team does, and, from a straight public-relations standpoint, I will trade two championships for a Nobel Laureate.
Pride and prestige are more powerful legislative arguments than poverty is in securing funds.
For the most part, legislators are dedicated public servants. As statesmen, of course, they like the role of founding fathers, so unfortunately they would rather found an institution than pay for its upkeep.
You must always remember that the ability of legislators to absorb entertainment is completely without limit. You can exhaust yourself on their behalf and they are still ready to go.
Don’t be afraid of the future of your institution; don’t be afraid of the future of higher education. If you need a little encouragement at any time, read the 1921 and 1922 proceedings of this association following World War I. You can read there that it will be impossible to accommodate the increasing numbers of students; that standards will be lowered by the rising tide of students; that universities are too large, et cetera. However, the bulge of the era was accommodated, standards are higher, and our institutions much stronger today than forty years ago.
So, we should not become too excited by our own propaganda about the need for additional funds to provide for more students. I remember reading in the Proceedings of this association a report of a 1921 survey committee of the University of Minnesota predicting enrollment for that institution in 1945–46 of 36,000 students, a figure certainly not realized. Predictions can be tricky. We have been meeting these problems of growth for a long time, and I don’t see any reason to doubt that we can do so in the future.
Make the fecundity of the human race serve rather than defeat you. Look upon it as an asset giving you an opportunity to grow in curriculum and program. After all, you wouldn’t know how to administer your institution unless it were growing.
Quit when you are ahead. Try to incite some irate taxpayer to take a gun in hand and make you a martyr; remember history’s treatment of Lincoln. But, if you aren’t shot, you can always resign when you’re ahead.
The last maxim is, as is the first, Be lucky!
I wish to conclude with some sentences written at the turn of the century by my predecessor, a very wise man who understood the significance and destiny of the state university:
What the people need and demand is that their children shall have a chance—as good a chance as any other children in the world—to make the most of themselves, to rise in any and every occupation, including those occupations which require the most thorough training. What the people want is open paths from every corner of the state, through the schools, to the highest and best things which men can achieve. To make such paths, to make them open to the poorest and lead to the highest, is the mission of democracy.
And so, we can all be thankful that the good Lord has given us the opportunity to help make these paths, to keep them open, and to spend our lives in a job that is great fun and is very important.
To you men who are beginners as presidents, I express the hope that you will have as much fun as I have had in the job!
Having been out of the presidency for seventeen years, I do not have, of course, the intimate knowledge of the working of the office that I had at the time these maxims were written. (I did spend a few months as interim president in 1968 at the beginning of the student troubles on our campus.) Since leaving the office, however, I have been closely associated with higher education in one form or another both in my institution and in other organizations. Looking back over these maxims, I see none that I would now eliminate but a few that I would reemphasize.
First, I wish to repeat the warning concerning proliferation. The proliferation of institutions, of which I warned on that May evening in 1962, has become a reality. The number of postsecondary educational institutions has grown astronomically; they have grown not only in number but also in variety. The latter seems to me to be desirable, for it enables the interests of a great range of high school graduates and adults to be served. Unfortunately some universities and collegiate institutions in search of new students from the dwindling supply have been tempted to try to be all things to all people. There is great danger in the dilution of resources by too rapid expansion of curriculum to meet the needs of various segments such as minority groups, business, labor, and the like. Many of their needs can be met by traditional disciplines, when administrators are made aware of the need and given a little time. The special requirements in nearly all areas can be encompassed within the framework of standard courses at much less cost than by creating separate departments and sections to deal with newly perceived neglect and newly found subject matter. Useful though novel instructional areas may be to particular segments, such activity on the part of a traditional institution tends to blur in the public mind the true functions of a university. It seems to me that the maintenance of high standards of scholarship and research are necessary, not only to fulfill the university mission, but also to distinguish clearly for the public a university from the welter of other types of postsecondary schools. In all probability coordination and cooperation among universities in curricular matters will become ever more important if money is not to be wasted. In fact, should the predicted decline in the number of available students occur, it will be necessary for institutions to be consolidated physically just as high schools had to be consolidated a decade or more ago.
What I was attempting to say about athletics in the section “On Legislative, Alumni, and Public Relations” might be clear if the maxim read, “The public-relations importance of athletic success is a figment of the imagination of sports writers and sophomoric alumni.” I did not mean to denigrate the importance of the athletic program in university life. It is a delightful feature of the academic scene and we all feel better when we can win. A university should attempt to be first-rate in anything it engages to do. The importance of the athletic program—by that I mean not only the great spectator sports but also the sports with lesser participation as well as the whole intramural program—for the physical well-being and life of the students and faculty should likewise be noted. In fact, I should like to see my institution have more intercollegiate programs, rather than fewer, enabling more people to compete or participate. Also, additional programs would undoubtedly attract some students not now participating; for example, there are possibly students who should like to have the experience of being a member of a rowing team while they are in college, a sport that could be developed here.
That athletic victories are essential to the attraction of major private gifts is a figment of the imagination also. Winning teams do stimulate the flow of alumni contributions for athletic scholarships, which, of course, is desirable, but, so far as major gifts are concerned, rarely if ever in my experience have donors been motivated by athletic success or lack of success, by whether the university had winning teams or not. It is to be remembered that the University of Chicago, Harvard University, the University of Michigan, the University of California at Berkeley, and similar institutions are distinguished universities with great private endowments and large, private annual gifts. Although some of those institutions are occasionally successful in athletic competition, they attract gifts because of the quality of their faculties and programs. Of course, there is great pressure on athletic departments to produce winning teams because winning teams do increase the revenue from tickets. I regret, as I am sure does everyone in the athletic world, especially coaches and athletic directors, the fact that the spectator sports have to bear such a large proportion of the cost of the whole athletic program. Someday I hope that a way will be found to finance a first-rate program without such great box-office pressure.
Athletics perhaps should not be singled out in regard to misconceptions about public relations. Some enthusiastic fraternity and sorority members feel that Greek-letter organizations are essential to the public-relations image of the university. I would not deny that a good Greek-letter system is a desirable feature of university life and that it undoubtedly attracts certain students who would not otherwise come, but the same could be said of a good housing system or of any of the proper student facilities and amenities. Increased self-government and programs sponsored by the Indiana University Student Association, the Student Foundation and the Student Union activities, musical events—all have helped to create a campus ambience that is attractive undoubtedly to certain students and that is a useful and happy part of life in a university community. But to assign to them overweening importance, namely, that being first in any or all of these is a sine qua non of distinction, is to further the fantasies of the boosters in each of these areas.
There is much wailing now over the cost of bureaucratic proliferation at state and national levels. I am convinced that this proliferation has gone much too far and represents a cost beyond any good purpose it achieves. But I know no way to solve the problem other than to preach the gospel of the efficiency of freedom, to urge institutions to practice rigid self-discipline internally, and wherever possible to promote efficiency through regional coordination. Universities can serve as an example in this regard by avoiding bureaucratization of their own institutions if at all possible. There has been a tendency recently for administrators, sometimes even at the urging of a faculty committee, to solve each problem by the creation of a new office complete with a supporting staff. Few problems need to be solved by the addition of a new office and staff. Given a little patience and time, most problems can be solved with existing machinery. But once the machinery has been added, it generally continues to encumber the organization after its need for existence has disappeared, the while attempting to find ways and means to justify its continuance.
Certainly the events of the 1960s and the mood of the 1970s underline my maxims that called for the president of the university to save time for contact with students, all types of contact, and likewise to allot time for both social and formal contacts with faculty members, individually and in groups. Just now this seems to be a more frequently voiced need on the part of the university community than I have known it to be before in my lifetime. There is simply no substitute for availability and visibility on the part of the president in his institutional relationships. Unfortunately, the sunshine laws and similar legislation and the insistence of the media on being a part of every formal session make it much more difficult to discuss policies and issues with either students or faculty members in confidence and have a meaningful two-way exchange. This situation seems to me, therefore, to underline the necessity of person-to-person and small, informal contacts to an even greater extent than was once the case. There was a time when we could discuss the most difficult questions off the record in faculty meetings and those attending would respect the confidence. They left the meetings feeling that they had had a part in arriving at solutions to difficult problems, as in fact they had.
My maxim about attending funerals was not intended to be flippant. The longer I live the more I realize that the officers of the university, including the president, have a real obligation to attend major occasions in the families of well-known and loyal alumni such as weddings, golden wedding anniversaries, and the like, as well as funerals. For a loyal alumnus there simply is no substitute for the presence of a president or a president’s representative on these important—sometimes trying, sometimes happy—occasions. A loyal alumnus has the right to expect this kind of consideration, friendship, and courtesy to be extended by his institution whenever possible.
The maxims may need more amplification or modification, but in looking over them again I find them about as valid as they were at the time I gave them, half in jest, as a statement of the experience of a quarter of a century in the important office of the president.