Claudine Gay, now former president of Harvard University, went from relatively unknown to the public to disliked by much of the public in a very short time. The trouble began with anti-Israel and anti-Semitic language and events on many university campuses. Claudine Gay was one of the presidents called in by Congress to speak to current events on campus. For many people, particularly in the center and on the right, her comments left much to be desired. This led to increasing scrutiny of Gay and a campaign against her. Past plagiarism was discovered. Soon she had protesters outside her home and now she has resigned as president of Harvard. That might be the end of the outrage, except we’ve learned that she will still be a professor and paid around $900,000 a year. I am personally begging you: do not use up your ire on Claudine Gay.
There are plenty of university president scandals, many hiding in plain sight. Consider the situation at West Virginia University, where President E. Gordon Gee has overseen a $45 million dollar shortfall. He initially received a contract extension, despite overbuilding, spending over $2 million dollars on private jets for personal travel, and taking a base salary of $800,000. Yet he has hoodwinked much of the public into believing that the sweeping cuts of programs and faculty he has now initiated are about “right-sizing” the university and getting rid of outdated majors. After considerable pushback, he recently agreed to step down… in 2025. Is this the first time he has left a school in shambles or spent excessively on himself with university funds? No. At Ohio State, he spent $7.7 million to travel and entertain. Look into his track record at other universities and you will be continuously dismayed. WVU is a public university and Gee’s actions have caused great harm to thousands of students.
Here is a personal example. I love Emory University and I had a great experience there and have almost only good things to say about it. But I will never forget that when I was there the then-president signed off on firing 10% of the library staff, while declining to take even a 1% personal pay cut. Reader: he was making over a million dollars a year. The grad students could not find people to share our outrage, certainly the public didn’t mind much.
The corporate model came to campus a long time ago. Like a CEO, a university president is often paid multiple times what a regular employee receives. If you think it is unusual for a president to stay on the payroll after getting let go, think again. And like CEOs, presidents can make lateral moves for a long time, even when their deficiencies are a matter of public record. Ohio State kicked Gee to the curb and WVU took him home anyway. The administrators below a president are not always all prizes, either. Universities have picked up many of the bad habits of corporate America, along with their penchant for VPs.
We should be interrogating the effects of the corporate model on higher ed everywhere. Let’s not let our continual societal obsession with the Ivy League blind us. Scrutiny would be much better directed first to public, then to private universities. Let’s not use up our attention on campuses with little connection to us. If Harvard has a problem, that’s their problem. If your state university has a problem, that’s actually your problem. And if we don’t want politics running a place like Harvard, let’s not let it run our state system.
Many people are probably hoping that forcing Harvard to get rid of their president will somehow reshape what happens in the classroom. If so, that is a false hope. Think of your boss. If someone roundly criticized him or her in the media, would you be devastated? Maybe. Maybe not. Have you ever believed that the CEO of your company is overcompensated? At many universities—certainly not all—there is open hostility between the administration and faculty. For a variety of reasons, a college president is also not often taken as seriously as an “academic” by their peers. The feelings can be even stronger about middle management. Removing an administrator will not set anyone straight who sits lower in the organizational chart.
Even with students, it is not easy to be a beloved university president. However many things they get right, they can be reviled for reasons nearly disconnected from themselves. Among students, a president is considered responsible for every wrong thing that happens on campus. How many petitions do you think go to college presidents from their own student body any given year? You might be surprised. Presidents are constantly dealing with unhappy customers.
The reason changing a president cannot accomplish as much as you might think is connected to a reason that universities can mean so much to so many people: university presidents are not the university. An academic institution is always bigger than the individual who leads it. People kept enrolling at Liberty when it became public knowledge that Jerry Falwell Jr. was in a weird relationship with his wife and a Miami pool boy. Why? Presidents come and go. They are good, great, mediocre, and sometimes awful. You don’t pick a university for its president. What you hope to gain from a university is much bigger than one person’s influence.
People in leadership positions are always fair game, but our public criticism of colleges and universities will be more accurate and effective if we better understand the nature of the institutions. Administrators do matter in higher education, but they don’t define their institutions. Nor should thousands of graduates be defined by a handful of words from one individual in leadership. And, I’m going to beg you once more: if you think plagiarism is a problem, please emphasize to your own children that you hope they get the academic punishment it deserves if they are guilty of it.