Wednesday, January 18, 2006

University President as Movie Star, Part 2

Lest you think my last post was a mere bit of nostalgic pop trivia (which, yes, it was that, too), let me assure you that I have scholarly interests in the Herman B Wells era. Herman B Wells and his peers led universities during the big boom of the post WWII era, the years that saw the advent of the multiversity (a term coined by Clark Kerr, another one of the boom-time administrators), the administratively-heavy institution that made way for today's managed university.

But I can't deny that my primary connection is a personal one.
Or, at the least, a kind of personal one. Being a border-generation kind of person, I was in college when these white-haired "great men" were still alive and lending a kind of old-world glow to the campuses that I attended. At Baylor, it was Abner McCall,

who I saw in a restaurant when I was visiting Waco as a high school student. (Yes, it's true. I thought it was really cool to see the chancellor of Baylor in a restaurant. I was from Weatherford, Texas. Other than the time I saw Mary Martin at the public library, I had never spotted a person in public who I had seen only in a photograph before. It's a small town, Weatherford.)

It's interesting that these men (and I would be curious to know if there were any women presidents during that time--I haven't done enough research to know) were truly iconic (to the point of having statues on campus--in addition to the Herman B Wells statue, there's the strange little Delyte Morris statue at Southern Illinios-Carbondale, where I formerly taught). Both McCall and Wells have a rags-to-riches sort of story chronicled in (auto)biographies.

Obviously, that's a different model of university leadership from the one that we have today, one that mirrors the general shift in career trajectories from one-job to many. But it's peculiarly fascinating to me that these men who were essentially big-time managers are given such adulation. Adulation that tends to cover-over the actual policies they implemented. (For an article that makes a similar point about Kerr's presidency, see Jeff Lustig's "The Mixed Legacy of Clark Kerr: A Personal View.")

So there's more I might explore and say here, but, really, I should be going. Maybe more later.

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