Higher Ground: Ethics and Leadership in the Modern University

Higher Ground: Ethics and Leadership in the Modern University

by Nannerl O. Keohane, Fred Chappell

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Nannerl O. Keohane is one of the most widely respected leaders in higher education. A political theorist who served as President of Wellesley College and Duke University, she has firsthand knowledge of the challenges facing modern universities: rising costs, the temptations of “corporatization,” consumerist students, nomadic faculty members, and a bewildering wave of new technologies. Her views on these issues and on the role and future of higher education are captured in Higher Ground, a collection of speeches and essays that she wrote over a twenty-year period.

Keohane regards colleges and universities as intergenerational partnerships in learning and discovery, whose compelling purposes include not only teaching and research but also service to society. Their mission is to equip students with a moral education, not simply preparation for a career or professional school.

But the modern era has presented universities and their leadership with unprecedented new challenges. Keohane worries about access to education in a world of rising costs and increasing economic inequality, and about threats to academic freedom and expressions of opinion on campus. She considers diversity as a key educational tool in our increasingly pluralistic campuses, ponders the impact of information technologies on the university’s core mission, and explores the challenges facing universities as they become more “global” institutions, serving far-flung constituencies while at the same time contributing to the cities and towns that are their institutional homes.

Reflecting on the role of contemporary university leaders, Keohane asserts that while they have many problems to grapple with, they will find creative ways of dealing with them, just as their predecessors have done.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822387770
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 04/25/2006
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 859 KB

About the Author

Nannerl O. Keohane was President of Duke University from 1993 to 2004 and of Wellesley College from 1981 to 1993; she was Professor of Political Science at both institutions. She has taught at Stanford University, Swarthmore College, and the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to numerous honorary degrees, her honors include the 2003 Marshall Medal. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and a member of the Harvard Corporation. Keohane is currently Laurance S. Rockefeller Distinguished Visiting Professor of Public Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University.

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Higher Ground

Ethics and Leadership in the Modern University


All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3786-7

Chapter One

Collaboration and Leadership


Create, communicate, collaborate. These are directives I applaud, virtues I admire, strategies that are promising in many ways. But are they compatible with whatever it is that Clark Kerr (see his recent book, Presidents Make a Difference: Strengthening Leadership in Colleges and Universities) and others are telling us we ought to do more of-not just college presidents, but all people who have administrative responsibilities with the opportunity for leadership, setting goals, telling other people what to do?

The current advice from many of the best-respected authorities in our field, including Kerr, is that we should be bolder, more effective as leaders, and should support those presidents, deans, directors, and others who are attempting to exercise leadership in the academy. If you believe that this advice is good and timely, as I do, where does that leave you on the subject of the conference? Can one be a leader, and a collaborator as well? Or are the two fundamentally opposed to one another?

Common wisdom on this kind of issue holds that collaboration and leadership are not easily compatible. To lead means to beout front, to push forward. It means having others behind following you; it means being visible because you are giving orders and setting the pace. To collaborate means to labor with others, to cooperate, to work as part of a team. Instead of being out front by yourself, collaboration means blending yourself into a group to move more effectively together. The two might almost be taken to be opposites, in fact.


My main purpose is to argue that collaboration and leadership are not opposites, but essentially related; that good leadership requires a kind of collaboration, and that creative collaborative work is the best route towards bold and effective leadership. But I do not wish to reach that conclusion too soon. As a student of political theory and political ideas, I do not think it is an obvious conclusion, and there are some good arguments against it that have to be dealt with along the way. And as an educator in a position of leadership, I do not underestimate the obstacles to achieving the goals that I propose to sketch out for you.

First, therefore, I want to say something more systematic about leadership-how we might define it, what it looks like, what it requires. In doing so, I'll try to indicate why leadership may seem at odds with collaboration, given what we conventionally expect leaders to be like, and to do. And finally, I'll sketch out another way of interpreting leadership which I find more promising, one which is fully compatible with creative, communicative collaboration.


In discussing leadership today, I am thinking of the kinds of responsibilities and pieces of authority that many of us exercise as part of our day-to-day work. Although most of my examples will be taken from studies of college presidencies, since these are just now in vogue and easily available, what I have to say is certainly not limited to the office of the president. Deans, directors of admission or financial aid, heads of offices, and staffs of any kind in an educational institution-indeed anyone with the responsibility to state purposes and set goals for a school or college in any setting or portion of its work-can be a leader in the sense I have in mind.

It is also important to be clear that in talking about leaders, I'm talking about real human individuals doing things. We sometimes appear to have other meanings in mind. For instance, we sometimes speak of "institutional leadership," by saying that a college or a country is a "leader in its field." But I have always found that when you look closely, this assertion is really a statement about people doing things.

Suppose, for example, we say that an institution is taking a leadership position on some crucial issue like financial aid or athletic standards. This turns out, in my experience, to mean that some particular person in the institution, or more often several people, are taking stands and speaking for the college as they do so. We can also say that a college or a school is "a leader in its field" if it is doing really well, attracting students, winning prizes, retaining strong faculty, or whatever else. What we really mean by this expression is that the school or college is outdistancing the competition, doing better than the others. And again, this winning outcome usually turns out to depend on some human actions taken by the people in the institution, who do things that put their school or college right out front.

Since, when we think about it, we usually ascribe leadership to human beings, and think about individuals as leaders, it is easy to assume that whatever defines leadership is some kind of quality that an individual either has or lacks: some indescribable but potent personal charisma that makes people follow someone, that gives an air of authority. You either have it or you don't: it helps to be tall, middle-aged, white, and male, perhaps, but it's mainly a matter of personal style and presence that makes people want to follow you, and this is what makes a leader.

At Swarthmore, one of our colleagues was a distinguished professor of history named James Field. I well recall an incident when there had been a good deal of discussion about students sprawling about on the carpets of the brand-new library instead of sitting properly at the desks where they belonged. This example may seem unreal to you, since of course carpets are a perfectly comfortable and familiar place to read these days, and nobody would dream of asking students to do anything else. But in those days, in the mid-sixties, it seemed worthy of remark, and Jim Field managed to get some of the students to stop sprawling on the carpet and return to their desks. Another professor, watching this, said with some amazement that he had tried to accomplish this goal for months without success. Jim Field turned to him, his military demeanor and hauteur evident on his countenance, and said simply, "You don't have the bouquet."

Whatever that indefinable bouquet may be, we often think of leadership as a personal attribute that some people have, and others simply lack. Yet, although a compelling personality and an attractive or attention-getting style may help someone make his or her mark as a leader, we all know people who are effective leaders in a low-key way, and other people who have all the dash and smash and turn out not to be worth following. The essential things about leadership, in my judgment, turn out to have more to do with what you do and how you do it, rather than the way you look or impress or attract people.


If we try to draw up a list of what it is that leaders do, it is easy to see why leadership may seem to fit ill with collaboration. When we describe the job of a leader, we often stress the personal responsibility, the individual focus and weight, or even the loneliness of the job.

To support this point, let me turn to one of the great reservoirs of evidence on modern mores and practices, the cartoon pages of the New Yorker. Jokes in this journal will doubtless be a gold mine for future historians of our society, if they can understand some of the finer and more transient points of humor that are very much bound to the current scene. Among the most prominent kinds of New Yorker jokes are people at cocktail parties, discussing or exemplifying the latest fad, and people in shabby rooms inhabited by mangy cats and apoplectic-looking dogs, discussing some major point of metaphysics. There are also a lot of jokes about leadership as well-about kings or chairmen of the board. Apparently the audience of the magazine includes a lot of leaders, as well as denizens of cocktail parties, if not of shabby rooms.

Two recent cartoons can serve as examples: a king on a balcony musing, "Perhaps I should go among the people and discover what they are thinking and concerned about. On second thought, what the hell!" and a king in a throne room, pacing, "Forget the self-doubts, and reign!"

These two cartoons illustrate beautifully the sense that leadership is a lonely occupation, a highly individual practice. It is fascinating that the old-fashioned king is still so often chosen as a symbol of authority in a world where monarchs are very rare, and those that exist have in fact less power than most other people-but the fact that kings are still our symbols of authority confirms the sense that leadership is lonely, monarchical, set apart. The symbols of service are the crown and scepter, the leader is upon a throne, set apart by dress and status, and expected to perform more or less inscrutably.

Much of the meaning of this lonely, symbolic individuality of the leader is incorporated in the meaning of the word decide, a central word for leadership. The word itself has semantic roots that mean to cut, to cut off-and this has at least a double meaning here. In deciding where to cut the issue, you cut off some people and cut others in.

Choosing among alternatives, coming down on one side or another of a problem, is essential here. By the time something comes to a leader's desk as a problem, there are arguments-usually good arguments-on both sides. By endorsing alternative X, you exclude and fail to satisfy those who support alternative Y. You'll probably fail to satisfy either contingent altogether, and the process of decision will thus inevitably make people unhappy with the leader. So deciding how to cut the issue, how to divide the goodies, cuts you off to some extent from all those involved in the question.

This is one of the reasons we are so often told that you can't be a good leader and expect everybody to like you. Another New Yorker cartoon shows a mob outside a palace window with pitchforks and hoes, and the queen drawing back the curtain and saying to the king: "It's the multitude, and they are not singing 'For he's a jolly good fellow!' "

In addition to the process of decision, which has its components of estrangement and loneliness, leaders also do other things that tend to cut them off. They exercise authority-they tell other people what to do, offering rewards and sanctions, figuring out how to motivate, coerce, or cajole other people to get things done. Being in authority means keeping your distance from those who are supposed to obey you, keeping some aura of mystery or higher status to lend credibility to your words, so that people will have irrational as well as rational motives for doing what they say.


The best prototype of this model of authority is the Wizard of Oz, who discovered that people were much more likely to obey his sensible suggestions for their welfare if he cloaked himself with mystery, blue smoke and mirrors, sounds of thunder, and rushing wind. When he was unmasked as just an ordinary salesman far from home, his authority totally disappeared, even though his ideas remained very sensible. Leaders are often exhorted to retain an aura of mystery, perhaps not quite as exaggerated as the Wizard, but definitely borrowing some leaves from the same book, with ceremonial attire, perks, and status symbols, and an air of dignified reserve.

Now there is no doubt that leadership can sometimes be a lonely occupation. Nor is there any doubt that an office such as that of a president, chairman, or director confers some aura of authority that helps enable ordinary human beings to induce other human beings to help get things done. I am not, in other words, denying that there is an essential core of truth in these familiar points. I do think, however, that the loneliness and distance, the reserve and mystery, can easily be overemphasized, and that if models of leadership overemphasize these things they tend to cut off their practitioners quite artificially from other sources of strength as well as other models of leadership.


As my example of a model of leadership that overstresses separation and artificial mystery, let me take the one set forward in a book that I have found fascinating and instructive, although occasionally perverse: James L. Fisher's recent book Power of the Presidency. Fisher is writing specifically about college presidencies, from his own experience in the job, and the book is of special interest to those of us who share that role-but also, I would imagine, to anyone else who is attempting to figure out how a college president does what he (or sometimes she) is doing.

In Fisher's view, it is very important to a successful presidency to cultivate an aura of genial reserve, to keep your distance from the common folk, and to keep people guessing about what you are really like and what you really want to accomplish. Reveal your emotions and your strategies only to your spouse and most trusted assistant, he advises; for everyone else, keep up a façade that keeps them guessing. If you don't personally have charisma, cultivate it, learn how to have it; avoid situations where you might be unmasked, such as question-and-answer sessions after a speech, where you might slip up and say something foolish or unprepared. Attend lots of social functions in connection with your job, but come late and leave early so they'll want more of your company and prize it for its rarity. Make the most of the trappings of office-the cap, gown, chain and medal, mace carried by an underling.

The model of the presidency that Fisher has in mind is best captured by his favorite image: St. Simeon the Stylite. In case your hagiography needs brushing up, let me remind you that St. Simeon was an early Christian ascetic who showed his devotion to his principles by climbing up to a platform placed sixty feet atop a pole, and staying there for twenty years, preaching to the multitudes who gathered curiously or reverently below.

Fisher advises college presidents to think of themselves as on a platform, like Simeon; to sit gracefully and almost carelessly, accessible to those who come to petition or watch, but never to get down off the platform and mingle with the crowds.

Now whatever else one might try to do or be atop a pole like St. Simeon's, it would clearly make collaboration very difficult. You can't easily form coalitions, cooperate, and work side by side if you are sitting sixty feet up in the air, either literally or allegorically. If Fisher is right about what it takes to be a successful leader, at least in this particular presidential role, then collaboration appears to be pretty effectively ruled out.

Fisher's book is full of good advice for using power, and his perceptions of the opportunities and pitfalls facing a college president are often shrewd. In one chapter especially, however, he uses some quotations to support part of his theory of leadership that made me pause. He cites such well-known sages as Machiavelli: "All men are motivated by self-interest: man should play his friends as pawns on a chessboard, one against the other"-or Eric Hoffer: "Our sense of power is more vivid when we break a man's spirit than when we win his heart"-or Henry Kissinger: "Power is the great aphrodisiac"-or Albert Camus: "We can't do without dominating others or being served.... Even the man on the bottom rung still has his wife or his children; if he's a bachelor, his dog. The essential thing, in sum, is being able to get angry without the other person being able to answer back."

I would ask you, by the way, to pause on the heavily masculine flavor of all those pithy axioms; and at the end of my speech I will have a few things to say generally about this point.

Fisher is in good company with his Machiavelli cum St. Simeon model of leadership: distant, ruthless, self-interested, strategically cunning, cold, and isolated. For a lot of people, such a model will ring true even if it is slightly shocking, just as Machiavelli's The Prince affected its readers 450 years ago.


Excerpted from Higher Ground by NANNERL O. KEOHANE Copyright © 2006 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

Part I. Articles and Speeches

Collaboration and Leadership: Are They in Conflict? 37

The University in the Twenty-first Century 52

The Mission of the Research University 59

Pro Bono Publico: Institutional Leadership and the Public Good 84

Moral Education in the Modern University 98

More Power to the President? 112

The American Campus: From Colonial Seminary to Global Multidiversity 120

ACE Address: The Atwell Lecture 140

The Liberal Arts and the Role of Élite Higher Education 157

"You Say You Want a Revolution?" Well . . . 178

When Should a College President Use the Bully Pulpit? 187

Are We There Yet? 192

Part II. Duke University Addresses

Opening Convocation Address 209

Inaugural Address 218

The University of the Future 229

Address to the Faculty 241

Threats to Academic Freedom 250

Founders' Day Address 253

Notes 263

Index 277

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