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FITSForum: A College Presidency Should Be A Democracy In Practice

“President Caslen should not wear the academic robes of USC …”

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by DR. CATHERINE WATT || I’ve worked in higher education for 25 years, and I love colleges, their students, their faculty, and yes, their traditions.  South Carolina Governors have recently used higher education presidencies as a political power play and party favor.  The messiness of higher education governance reflects democratic practices; protecting traditional hiring practices is vital to a flourishing higher education system.

It’s easy to poke fun at some higher ed traditions.  Faculty members raise very difficult questions and fail to conform.  Decisions that affect students last for decades.  It can take three years to start a new major or open a new site.  Why do we still have tenure?  Who gets a job for life?  So yes, our traditions can be confusing to those outside the internal machine.  Oh, and tuition increases – that’s another letter entirely.

To understand why President Robert Caslen and other higher ed political appointments are so bad, let me tell you why college traditions are so good. Presidential search committees have representation from across campus, led by faculty members, but also with the Board, administrators, and students participating.  it is through academic shared governance that the president is selected, and all voices can be heard.  Like our democracy, it’s a long process.  We debate what’s most important and see which voices win sway. 

Both practices have the goal of getting us the best candidate, as well as getting the institution (or country) to come together behind the final choice.  It can be, at its best, a reflective, strengthening process. USC had choices of good, traditional candidates who each brought their leadership vision to the process.  Instead, the Governor and his staff hammered in a man who fit their politics.  Governor Haley did the same, while also tossing favors to her own preferred schools.  Few people like any candidate brought in as the choice of a small but powerful minority, and higher education definitely does not respond well.

A college presidency must not be a political reward, or a cultural hit job.  Not only should the job last more than a political term, the position must go to an educator because that IS the job.  It is a difficult 24/7 job, not just raising money or glad-handing politicians.  I could not tell you the political leanings of past SC college presidents – from Jim Holderman to Jim Barker to Harris Pastides to Ray Greenberg.  They represented an institution, not a party.  And they did it very well because the Governor was not his sponsor. All of them balanced our history, culture, and politics in their leadership.

We must get back to what served our schools well for more than 200 years.  President Caslen should not wear the academic robes of USC.  I’m sure he regrets his speech and whatever happened.  But like our democracy, we must recognize that what can make a process messy and difficult often means that we arrive at the best candidate for the job.  As a two-time Carolina grad, I’ll be there to help.  It’s time for us to turn the page and return to what’s best for our schools, not the Governor’s office.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Dr. Catherine Watt currently serves as the Director of Compliance for Tri-County Technical College and as a City Council member for the City of Clemson.  Her career has included working in institutional research, online education, and state policy.  She is a passionate supporter of better governance, greater affordability, and increased innovation for our colleges and universities.

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