The Seduction of a College President

In the world of higher education, generating dollars in support of research, salaries, educational initiatives and, of course, bricks and mortar is essential. Jennifer Raab (President of Hunter College) is, without question, a profoundly successful generator and that provides faculty the security they need and students the opportunities that could not be possible were it not for her efforts. The average college or university president lasts less than four years. One of the primary reasons is that they do not know how to do what Ms. Raab does so well. Her record at Hunter is, indeed, remarkable.

After twelve years, the sewer is backing up, and Ms. Raab’s limited skills in her other critical leadership role, that of managing others, are beginning to show (or smell). It does not take much intelligence to identify symptoms of a broken management system.

For starters, the revolving door of faculty, staff and other administrators, while not exceeding the $ figure achieved by her fundraising, takes expensive toll on resources, and productivity in terms of morale and performance.

Each time a mid-level university administrator leaves the cost to the system can be $50,000 to $100,000 in replacement fees. Small change you say. Good universities, and Hunter is one, normally find turnover minimal, since people arrive and wish to stay in an environment that provides intellectual stimulation and the opportunity to be a part of something positive.

If raising money is the only standard against which to measure a president’s performance, Ms. Raab excels. But, there is something deeply troubling about a leader who is unable or unwilling to name even a single “criticism of how she leads.” She is either unconscious, in a self protected bubble surrounded by those afraid to tell her about her impact, or arrogant and unwilling to even recognized the need to look at her effect as leader.

I have worked for fifteen years exploring a premise that most leaders will acknowledge:

The older you are, the more power and influence you have, the less those around your will tell you the truth.

In all those years, sharing the implications of this notion among leaders in higher education, business and politics, I have only received knowing nods from those listening. What I call “Seduction of the Leader”, is alive and well in most organizations.

It is for the leaders to overcome the reality of seduction, to develop ways of protecting those who, as in this instance, live in a climate of fear, and have a lot to say but no security to do so.

So, who are those around Ms. Raab who will tell her of her excesses? What does she do to measure her own effectiveness as both leader and manager? How does she model the use of feedback to allow course corrections in her own leadership or that of those around her?

It is not about her being a woman leader that is to be questioned. It is true of male and female leaders who create a climate where truth and candor go underground and fear trumps trust.

Her statement, “I have a vision and I have always been very, very determined …I am very tenacious” is, I’m sure, one of her greatest assets. It may also be one of her biggest weaknesses. Will her ideas be challenged by others as smart (or smarter) but, perhaps, less certain, less tenacious than she? Can she hear them? Will she seek them out or only those compliant to her strengths?

When Matthew Goldstein, the former Chancellor, was pressed about the case being built against Ms. Raab he said, “but her metrics are very good.” I ask, however, are their metrics about her behavior, about her style, about her impact on staff, managers and others? Did the Chancellor take part in the seduction of  her as a leader by being unwilling to look beyond the metrics he provided?

Without much training or experience in higher education when she entered the Hunter system, there may still be things she can learn that could help her presidency. As an educator, regardless of her degrees, you would want someone open to possibilities and who would be encouraging of others to share their ideas for the betterment of The University. That a minority of her constituents find Hunter to reflect a climate of fear, is something that needs to be addressed. It would logically start with Ms. Raab.

 

Hitting the Air Waves

Video

Radio Interview

I was recently interviewed about “Seduction of the Leader” and, for your listening pleasure, I’ve provided a link below:

Democracy and Deception

In theory, those who work in foreign countries in service of the United States are accountable to the American people, through their elected surrogates – The United States Congress. While there is always room and understanding of some secrecy in a world of ongoing intrigue and spying, there are limits to permissible lying and deception of the American people. Yet, increasingly, in the name of terrorism, or national security, not telling the truth nor educating those they represent is seen as business as usual by The Congress or the organizations that lead interference for them such as the NSA, the CIA and other agencies involved in international intrigue. The result is that those given the responsibility to keep us safe can, through their actions, actually place our nationals in harms way and jeopardize our credibility in the eyes of our allies as well as others who would do us harm.

According to Conor Friedersdorf reporting in TheAtlantic (What Complicity in Iraq’s Chemical-Weapons Use Says About America – Conor Friedersdorf – The Atlantic and The Attack in Benghazi: Worth Investigating After All – Conor Friedersdorf – The Atlantica sleeping American public in 2012 was led to believe that The United States was not directly supporting the Syrian rebels. When the deadly and tragic assault on the American compound in Benghazi, Libya and the murder of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans, was reported, it was defended as a tragic affair for which the US government bore no responsibility. Stories were bandied about, but no credible plot by extremists was aired. Yet, later, it was discovered that this supposed “diplomatic outpost” was, in fact, a CIA operation with dozens of CIA operatives present on the night of the attack. The theory is that the US had been secretly funneling weapons from Libya to the Syrian rebels long before such restrictions had been lifted. Fearing strong political repercussions of such a secret operation, it was reported that lie detectors were being used to insure that the CIA operatives would not leak the truth of the situation to the press. In the meantime, Secretary of State Clinton and other members of the diplomatic corps created a smoke screen surrounding the entire affair.  

Think how many people knew the truth and how it was repressed – how the lies and deception built on a base of fear and intimidation became the distorted rule of law in this corrupted piece of American real estate.

Funny, Marine style.

I should add this to my list of lessons learned as a Marine. But, I’ll put it in the humor chapter of “Seduction of the Leader”.

Marine Tact and Navy Sensitivity:

Years ago, a young Navy Pilot was severely injured while ejecting from his A-4 Skyhawk due to engine failure during a catapult shot from the aircraft carrier, but due to the heroics of rescue helicopter and the ship’s hospital staff, the only permanent injury was the loss of one ear.

Since he was now physically impaired he did not remain on flight status but eventually became an Admiral. However, during his career, he was always sensitive about his appearance.

One day, the Admiral was interviewing two Navy Master Chiefs and a Marine Sergeant Major for his personal staff.

The first Master Chief was a Surface Navy-type, and it was a great interview. At the end of the interview, the Admiral asked him, “Do you notice anything different about me?” The Master Chief answered, “Why, yes, Admiral. I couldn’t help but notice that you’re missing your starboard ear, and I don’t know whether this impacts your hearing on that side.The Admiral got very angry at this lack of tact, and threw him out of his office.

The next candidate, an Aviation Master Chief, when asked this same question, answered, “Well, yes, Sir. You seem to be short one ear.” The Admiral threw him out, as well.

The third interview was with the Marine Sergeant Major. He was articulate, extremely sharp, and seemed to know more than the two Master Chiefs put together. The Admiral wanted this guy, but went ahead with the same question. “Do you notice anything different about me?”

To his surprise, the Sergeant Major said, “Yes, Sir. You wear contact lenses.”

The Admiral was impressed, and thought to himself, ‘What an incredibly tactful Marine’. “And how would you know that?” the Admiral asked.

The Sergeant Major replied: “Sir, it’s pretty hard to wear glasses with only one fuckin’ ear, sir!”