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Five 20th-Century College Presidents book jacket View Table of Contents and Introductory Material
ISBN978-1-61163-035-0

Five 20th-Century College Presidents

From Butler to Bok (Plus Summers)

by Jeffrey O'Connell, Thomas E. O'Connell

2012 $28.00 158 pp paper

Tags: History

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This book is composed of five chapters on long serving American college presidents whose overlapping tenures largely spanned the 20th century (plus a coda). It is written for all those, specialists and generalists alike, interested in the leadership of American higher education, especially elite institutions. Each president (except in the coda) is discussed extensively on his comparative roles as Leader, Manager, Energizer, Envoy, and Intellectual.

Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia (1900-45) admittedly did much to make modern Columbia but in such a high handed self-aggrandizing manner as to make moderns flinch. Robert Hutchins of Yale (1930-51) was a boy wonder, dean of the Yale Law school at 27, and president of the University of Chicago three years later. Handsome, brilliant, dashing, he embodied the charismatic leader of a quintessentially cerebral institution. James Bryant Conant of Harvard (1933-55) did much to remake Harvard into a post-Brahmin worldly institution, redolent of a meritocractic German university, but also tolerated prejudices in the selection of students and faculty, undermining his meritocractic aims. John Sloan Dickey of Dartmouth (1946-71) strove to adapt his highly prestigious but mainly undergraduate college to its Ivy League research university counterparts. At the same time, he strove to retain a unique undergraduate ethos. Ultimately, he was undone by the uprisings of the 1960s. By way of contrast, Derek Bok of Harvard (1971-1991, 2006) not only thrived in the tumult of the 60s but proceeded to turn back the clock to a long presidential tenure in a time of much shorter ones. Although Bok had some problems and disappointments during his 20 years in office, his success was confirmed when welcomed back as an interim president after the sudden resignation of a successor. Which leads to a coda: It was that successor, Lawrence Summers (2003-06), with his replication of the self-centered, uncivil lack of collegiality of Nicholas Murray Butler, that led to Summers's downfall after only three years in office – which likely tells us much about college presidencies in the 21st century. 

“The Brothers O’Connell have given us a series of illuminating essays about five college presidencies in the 20th century. The authors identify five roles which remain constant, but the nature of which has changed with shared faculty governance, accountability to a diversity of constituencies, and the growth of the research mission. Even so the authors remind us of the enduring qualities inherent in effective academic leadership in all times. In a small volume, we learn much from the O’Connells.” — Willard L. Boyd, Professor of Law and President Emeritus, University of Iowa


“The O’Connell brothers have finally answered a persistent and perplexing question that plagues contemporary higher education: “What’s happened to the erstwhile giants among university leaders?” Happily, this book provides fascinating (and often inspiring) vignettes of a singular group of figures of yore. The specific selection of these presidents is neither random nor coincidental; the authors’ choices reflect the basic values that often inspired their efforts to make a genuine difference on their campuses and far beyond. Granted they were not uniformly successful, we as grateful readers have been richly rewarded for this trove of presidential perspectives.” — Robert M. O’Neil, former President, University of Wisconsin and University of Virginia

“Jeffrey and Thomas O’Connell investigate the impacts of five notable private university presidents — four at Ivy League institutions and the fifth at the University of Chicago. They also give attention to the downfall of Larry Summers at Harvard. Practitioners and analysts of academic management will be impressed with the authors’ insights. Though the book focuses on private institutions, the analysis is quite applicable to leading public universities, which have long competed with excellent private colleges and universities. Financial pressures on public university leaders have multiplied as state funding has been reduced, so they now face raising funds from alumni along with other problems of their private competitors. But a public university leader must also cope with other complex political
problems that are largely absent in the private sector. One wishes for a sequel by these excellent authors that focuses on the public domain.” — The late Ira Michael Heyman, formerly Chancellor Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley and Secretary Emeritus, Smithsonian Institution

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