An Enduring Place
Transitions of leadership offer an opportunity to explore what a University is all about. By Thomas H. Jackson
In this issue, you will learn a bit—and, I hope, share the excitement we feel—about my successor, Joel Seligman, dean of the law school at Washington University in St. Louis, who has been selected as the University’s 10th president.
It was an inspired choice. Dean Seligman is a person of wise values and a deep understanding of the uniqueness of American higher education. He resonates with our University’s aspirations; he has the vision, skills, and enthusiasm to lead this great institution forward.
For those who haven’t witnessed one firsthand, let me note that the selection of a president is extremely rigorous and involves a significant amount of “transitional” time. (The transition actually began when I announced in March of 2004 that I would be stepping down, and it will end when Dean Seligman officially takes office on July 1.) So I thought it would be appropriate to ruminate about the significance of presidential transitions in universities.
Higher educational institutions are among humanity’s most enduring institutions. This University, founded in 1850, remains a relatively young institution by national (not to mention international) standards. Remarkable, too, is the fact that in the University’s 155 years, it has had only nine Presidents—and thus, we are now in the middle of our ninth “transition.”
The amount of care and attention that any university gives to the transition is interesting in itself. After all, universities (as noted) are exceedingly durable. Moreover, most of the work that goes on in a university is conducted by its faculty, working with students, staff, and others, in concert with the university’s key missions. Rochester is the founding home of positive political science and the place where morphine was first synthesized (to pick two intellectual advances out of innumerable possible examples!), not because a president set either one as a goal, or decreed that it should be so, but because extraordinary faculty had the ideas, colleagues, tools, and academic freedom to make these advances.
Certainly, a president is not irrelevant to this organic process. The values of a president are almost sure to be reflected in the qualities of the academic leaders he or she picks. As another example, a president performs an important role in expressing to the external world (starting with trustees) the values that make universities such special places, along with the requirements for keeping them so. And, every day, there is a nonstop river of decisions that must be made on issues important to University strategy and priorities.
Such roles, inherent in the office, are a starting point for understanding the importance of choosing a new leader with all due care. But they only begin to explain the importance of the transition.
As, or more, important is the way in which the selection process serves as a critically important time for the University’s key constituencies. Trustees, as a matter of authority, will make the final selection, but in reality few presidents succeed without the trust and respect of other University constituencies, starting with the faculty. Thus, the selection of a new president is an occasion for trustees to work closely with faculty, as well as with others within the University community. The process serves as an opportunity for those key groups to build bonds and understand each other in ways that are often difficult to accomplish on a day-to-day basis.
It is also a perfect opportunity for those constituencies to take stock of how the institution is doing, and the challenges and opportunities to be faced in coming years. While that process of examination is always occurring, during a presidential search it is an intensive, collective undertaking by considerable numbers of trustees, faculty, staff, and students—with the current president somewhat on the sidelines (and appropriately so). This exercise is extremely useful; it is a time for the University community to come to consensus on profoundly important issues.
In this search, as was the case 11 years ago, University community members worked together splendidly to re-articulate the University’s aspirations and to examine its strategies for reaching them. (The search committees’ “white paper”—found at www.rochester.edu/presidentialsearch/white.pdf—is well worth reading.)
That is what makes the presidential selection process so important—and positive—for the institution. The results at Rochester are the best affirmation of the skill with which the University went about its business of transition.
Welcome, Joel Seligman!