The Editor's Page

We heard from a friend at the State University of New York at Buffalo that the university’s former academic vice president had survived in good spirits the somewhat harrowing process of being sought out, but not chosen, for a major university presidency, so we wrote to the man, wondering whether he might put the experience on paper. He was already at work, we discovered, on a book on the crisis in American universities, under the auspices of the Twentieth Century Fund. The remarkable account of the intensive if abortive love affair between Dr. Warren G. Bennis and Northwestern University, beginning on page 39, is an offshoot of his work on the book, in collaboration with Pat Ward Biederman. We present it as a drama that is being enacted and re-enacted at the moment in university and college communities around the nation.

Dr. Bennis is an internationally recognized scholar on human behavior, has served on President Nixon’s White House Task Force on Science Policy, and is presently a trustee of Antioch and Pitzer Colleges. Here is his epilogue:

“Shortly after finishing this article, I asked an old and trusted family friend to look it over and give me his reactions. What he told me tended to confirm so many of my own concerns about publishing this material (taken out of the context of the book I am writing) that I think it might be useful to consider these problems openly, hoping to clarify, not necessarily answer them.

“He first raised the question of ‘objectivity.’ Having undergone a university’s screening process (and then rejection), how could I maintain a neutral stance? It’s a fair question (one that I’m perhaps least qualified to answer). I did try to report faithfully and accurately the facts as I saw them. Another author might, however, without any willful intent to distort, come up with a different selection of details, a different architecture, and hence different emphases. But as one who has spent his whole career trying to understand the human processes of interaction, power, ambition, and leadership in large, complex bureaucracies, I have tried to be an ‘observing participant’ throughout all of my experiences, including this one. Like Camus: ‘my greatest wish: to remain lucid in ecstasy.’ And I have had external verification of my lucidity during the Northwestern experience. Michael Place, a student member of the Northwestern search committee and president of the student government there last year, read over this material before publication and is preparing an appendix for my book written from his perspective. His account mirrors the story I tell here, modified only by the addition of some rather terrifying details.

“The second concern my friend voiced was ‘uniqueness.’ As a trustee of Princeton, he said, it most certainly could not happen there. Well, it might not happen at Princeton, I said, but the Northwestern story, studded as it is with idiosyncrasies, is more typical than one might like to think. All twenty or so presidential selections that I’ve personally researched had important similarities to Northwestern’s process. In almost every case personal and political motives (very human impulses) insinuated themselves into the choice—in spite of the trappings of objectivity. Universities aren’t unique in this. It is observable wherever personnel selection takes place, from the naming of a church warden to the filling of a top-level managerial post. Northwestern is not all that unique.

“My friend’s final point was most troubling. ‘Warren, you can’t publish this,’ he said. ‘Not if you ever want to be a university president. You just don’t “kiss and tell.” No search committee will ever want to speak to you after this is published. If you are going to publish, get the presidency first.’ I appreciated his genuine concern for my career, but I think that silence is only safe in the short run. The improvement of our institutions may well depend on candor. Given the stakes, one can hardly opt for personal caution, even if the consequence is, as my friend quipped, ‘publish and perish.’ ”