Dr. Silber also served as President and Chancellor (1971-2002), Boston University
Address delivered on January 12, 1971, in Cincinnati, Ohio, for the General Session of the American Conference of Academic Deans. ACAD is deeply grateful to Dr. Silber’s family for their kind permission to republish their father’s speech in its entirety.
When asked to speak to such a large, heterogeneous and distinguished group, I was naturally curious to know why I had been selected. I suppose my usefulness is that I have moved within the academic world from shirtsleeves back to shirtsleeves, not in three generations, but in less than three years. I have managed to penetrate the decanal order just long enough to discern many of its lines of force but not long enough to lose my sense of amazement and disbelief.
The clue may rather be the topic of the conference—“Institutional Priorities and Management Objectives.” I was informed that the translation of the topic is this:
To what degree are our educational plans and priorities subject to the pressures encountered in or through the institution’s business management as it goes about selling the institution to sources (alumni, foundations, etc.) that feed the institution’s treasury—or as it faces up to what it sees as desirable ‘economies’ in the program (cutting out ‘frills’) to help balance the budget?
Specifically, we are interested in determining the role of the academic dean in determining whose priorities are heeded, those of the ‘idealist’ or those of the ‘realist.’
There is a clue here because, as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas, I accepted, as part of my responsibility, the task of addressing all constituencies—students, faculty, administration, regents, and the general public—on both the realities and the ideals of liberal education. Faculty and students need to realize the extent of public disaffection and budgetary limitations, while regents and public need to recognize the concerns and aspirations of youthful idealists and the faculty. I have always believed that the university is where the ideal and the actual meet, and that deans should enable the encounter.
Perhaps even more pertinent is the fact that I was invited just after my dismissal. My host may have been guided by Freud’s belief in the importance of the abnormal to understanding the normal. A dean who has personally experienced administrative pathology may have something useful to say about healthy administration.
My task, then, is to speak both to the realities and the ideal of academic administration—that is, to the descriptive and normative roles of the dean to his constituents. My emphasis is on the general, theoretical aspects of the topic. I leave for later discussion specific, tactile questions about how ideals are practically achieved.
The dean’s role cannot be discussed until we know who and what he is. My own philosophic bias is that self-knowledge is the point of departure. A brief phenomenological investigation should assist our efforts to grasp the decanal essence. Decanal jokes, for instance, are highly revealing. You have doubtless heard that “a dean is a mouse growing up to be a rat”—a definition produced by a professional Thersites dedicated to the abuse of administrators at all levels.
There is also the story—probably the work of a college president—about the professor who was called to military duty and took a formal leave of absence. When he returned to the campus after the war, he was told by his department chairman that he had been reported dead and his post had been filled. The professor objected and went to his dean. The dean told him the same thing. (You will appreciate the verisimilitude.) Finally, he went to the president, who said that the facts were, alas, exactly as stated. Trained in earthly soldier lingo, the professor said, “Well, I’m a son of a bitch.” At which point the surprised and elated president exclaimed, “Well why didn’t you say so? We have a vacant deanship.”
The revealing power of these stories becomes more apparent, moreover, when they are supplemented by a description of a typical scene that follows the selection of a new dean: At his first reception, the dean meets a member of the faculty, who grasps the dean’s hand in one (or in post-LBJ days perhaps in both) of his and says, “Congratulations, or should I say, commiserations?” 1 Then a burst of tubercular laughter. The professor exhibits the Jack Horner syndrome; he thinks “what a good,” or at least, “what a witty boy am I.” The dean forces a tired smile—he has heard the remark no less than twenty times this evening—and he wonders if maybe the students’ charge of premature senility among the faculty weren’t true after all. But he’s a dean, so he plays the game. “Thanks,” he says, “I appreciate your good wishes.” The professor now evinces profound compassion: “You’ve got a terribly difficult, if not impossible job.” “Yes,” answers our new dean—who, now serious, speaks from the heart—“but with your help and the help of your colleagues, I’ll do my best to carry on.”
Now savor this conversation from the detached perspective of the phenomenologist, or from the vantage point of a full-grown rat like myself. Observe the new dean: a proven, polished pompous humbug. This man—who has used every last ounce of energy, intelligence, imagination and political skill to get his deanship—acts as though a terrible burden has been thrust upon him against his will. By instant metamorphosis, the academic Machiavelli has become the Suffering Servant.
Today, however, we must be honest in all things, even in deaning. To any young man or woman aspiring to become a dean I must point out that there never was a dean who didn’t want to be one. And there is no greater correlation between wanting to be dean and being good at it than there is between wanting to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States and serving well. We don’t hear so much about academic Carswells simply because administrative appointments don’t require confirmation by faculty or student senates.2
The matter is further complicated by the fact that incompetence is sometimes the mask worn of necessity by many of the most gifted deans. That incompetence is also the refuge and camouflage of really incompetent deans should not blind us to its importance in the success of some truly gifted men. Incompetence as a mask is the practiced deceit of men who deliberately submerge every sign of intelligence, imagination, and moral concern in order to increase harmony and congruent, if pathetically slow, movement toward their administrative goals. In short, the typical dean, whether a success or a failure, competent or incompetent, is a man who suppresses every vital sign in order to survive and/or to realize his administrative objectives. On the death of almost any dean, Dorothy Parker might ask, as she did when they told her that Coolidge was dead, “How can they tell?”3 Hiding one’s light under a bushel may run counter to the teachings of Jesus, but it is both the modus vivendi and the modus operandi of the prudent dean.
Finally, if the dean is to be an educator, he must also be expected to remain a member of the faculty. Most deans or ex-deans (I prefer to call myself a post-dean) believe there is no radical separation of faculty and administration because we know that the administration is recruited almost exclusively from among the faculty and the faculty usually have the strongest single voice in choosing administrators.
But this is naïve and mistaken. The moment the dean accepts his post, he loses his faculty status and his faculty origins are forgotten. A new dean quickly and sadly discovers that within twenty-four hours he acquired a new set of enemies and friends, and he also forfeits the right to speak as a faculty member. No more difficult task faces the new administrator than adjusting to his altered role, while he goes on feeling and thinking of himself as completely unchanged. I cite you, in evidence, the words of a respected colleague commenting on my way of handling a faculty meeting. She wrote:
First and foremost, so much of what you once could say and do when you were Philosophy Professor John Silber you cannot now say and do, simply because you are Dean. ‘I have not changed,’ you say, ‘I know I am the same person,’ you repeat over and over again. Unfortunately, all this is in vain, for, to the faculty, you are no longer the man, John Silber. You are the Dean: The Administration; the Establishment: the Oppressor of Academic Freedom (although you might have been its strongest defender as a staff member, that is all forgotten); the Representative of not enough funds, heavier teaching loads; Hatchet man; Flunky of the President and the Board—in two words, The Enemy. That analytical and logical mind must now be diversified into channels of a public relations expert, a program development solicitor, a loving father to student needs, a Solomon, if you wish.
Everyone loves the underdog. Remember, to your faculty friends you are the authority—The Enemy. There were times in your meeting when friends and other staff members took exception to being identified too closely with administrative-cooperative projects which could be considered proof of the power structure’s attempt to cope with the problem. There was nothing personal in the disassociation. It is just the unconscious desire not to be considered in an alignment with the power structure—that is tantamount to selling out and being seen as a tool of the Establishment.
Her remarks helped me to understand that no matter how much the administrator feels like a faculty member—no matter that he continues to publish, teach, counsel students; no matter that he was named to his administrative post largely because of faculty support—the faculty no longer accepts him as one of their own. A dean must simply accept this fact as a part of his job. The irrationality of faculty attitudes is irrelevant; it is a part of the reality that a dean must face. He is a lucky man if he finds a loyal colleague to alert him to this fact.
There is consolation, of course, in the fact that faculty irrationality works both ways. Although the new dean is immediately stripped of his faculty status at the moment of his administrative appointment, the moment he quits he is welcomed home as the returning prodigal son. And if he is lucky enough to be fired, he is not only welcomed back, but his professional virginity is also restored.
This leads to a metaphysical speculation on the inscrutability of the faculty. Why are so many faculty members instinctively kamikaze? Why do they prefer martyrdom to effective service in a worthy cause? Why do they favor Polycarp over Peter? Why don’t faculty members—at least those in Literature—accept the truth of Holden Caulfield’s remark that it is harder and better to live for a cause than to die for one?4
I believe that the irrationalities of the decanal order all derive from faculty origins of the deans. And faculty irrationalities are only symptomatic of the human condition, a part of our contextual reality, one of the ties that bind the academic community to the general community, and, perhaps, the thread that links the two!
As a philosopher, I refuse to be intimidated by irrationality. If academic deans arise from, and may return to, faculty ranks, we must not allow ourselves to be confused by irrationalities of class-distinctions. Look behind the ideologies, and we find that the dean is a faculty member—a professor, a teacher, a scholar—who claims to be called to leadership in the academic community. Surely this is a call, not merely or even primarily to administration in the sense of management, but a call upon educators to educate! I thought of borrowing Nietzsche’s imperative “Educators, Educate!” for this occasion.
Many deans are now tempted to view themselves as mere managers, with no special competence as educators. And a few signal failures in academic administration have led some boards of trustees and politicians to trust the educational enterprise to professional managers rather than educators with administrative talent.
The man on horseback has many appealing qualities in times of uncertainty and stress, and when he wears the mask of the academic manager he is almost irresistible.5 It is my conviction, nevertheless, that deans should be primarily educators, that the management of a college must be directed by an educator, and that management that lacks profound educational understanding and purpose must of necessity fail.
I do not argue that deans must be recruited from the academic ranks; I acknowledge the possibility of a Grandma Moses or a Daniel Chester French of higher education.6 But if a dean of a non-academic background succeeds, it will be because he has the native genius of a folk educator rather than mere managerial skills. And if an academic dean does not lead—if he merely fills the post but does not realize its full educational potential (that is, the normative demands of his office)—he is substantially worse than his managerial counterpart whose ignorance and innocence are extenuating factors.
Before discussing the normative demands made on the academic dean as educator, let me turn very briefly to the question of his doing and undoing. Then we can consider what his doing as educator actually entails.
It is a sad fact, but many deans are undone from the day they take office because of their terror of losing it. Out of fear of being undone, they pursue a course disastrous for their colleges and themselves; they stay in office by doing as little as possible and by trying to camouflage their lack of ideas or educational policies as respect for faculty autonomy. They occasionally may excuse their failure to act or even to propose as their respect for presidential prerogatives and priorities. But no excuse compensates a man for his own wasted life. A dean who would not be undone by his failure to do anything must recognize that longevity may denote the gradual undoing of a dean who does nothing.
A corollary must also be noted: a dean may lose his job, a dean may be undone—precisely because he has done his job exceedingly well. Some reforms, for example, cannot be carried out without making the reformer dispensable. While it is no great honor to be fired from a job, there may be good and sufficient reasons for congratulating the man who has been willing to use the full powers of his office to accomplish worthy goals without compromise or concern for his own future. In short, the doing of his job may lead to a dean’s undoing, and his undoing may be a fair index of just how much he has done. A firing, a failure to be reelected, death, or a variety of other causes may terminate a highly successful career. President Litchfield of Pittsburgh and Secretary Hickle come instantly to mind as men whose removal from office could not obscure their substantial accomplishments.7 Just as longevity in an office is not evidence of success, so brevity in office is no mark of failure. In some cases it may be the price of success.
Several years ago I was interviewed for the presidency of a small college. I met there a disgruntled and aggressive faculty member whom I recognized as much better qualified for the position than myself. By trying to lead the college into needed reforms, but without the power of the presidency and the support of the incumbent, he had failed in his efforts (beyond a remarkable upgrading of his own department) and exhausted the extensive faculty support he had once enjoyed. I passed on my observations to the chairman of the search committee and added the man’s faculty support was certain to reappear if he were made president. An outsider, I pointed out, would take at least two years to do with that man could do immediately. My words carried no weight and a total stranger—who had no enemies precisely because he was a stranger—was brought in. The candidate I had recommended then accepted a much more demanding administrative job elsewhere, where he enjoyed the advantage of anonymity. The point is clear: an administrator may exhaust his usefulness on one campus and be forced to move to another campus where the opposition that inevitably confronts innovators has not yet formed.
To summarize: deans may be undone by doing very well, or by skillfully doing nothing. That is, they may perish brilliantly or survive sans performance. But our account of the undoing of deans is incomplete unless we note that deans may be undone because of their failure to do anything at all—due to their utter incompetence. I must admit that this possibility has very little, if any, practical significance. I cannot think of an instance in which a do-nothing dean or a dean who was absolutely or perhaps graciously incompetent was ever removed from office prior to death or superannuation.
If a dean wants merely to be a dean, his realistic course should be to prosper by doing nothing or as little as possible. On the other hand, an idealistic—that is, not merely prudential—dean who aspires to greatness, must be prepared to risk brief tenure in office as the possible price of innovation in an extremely conservative institution.
I have now identified deans, in sketch phenomenological description, and I have outlined three modes of the undoing deans, including one that is also a mode of accomplishment. I turn now directly to the positive role of the dean as educator—his doings.
In stressing the faculty origin of deans, I am not suggesting that faculty members are noted for educational vision or competence. One may be a leading scholar and a brilliant teacher and yet never give a moment’s thought to the educational process itself and the proper function of educational institutions. But these concerns are essential to the competent dean, and selection committees should be concerned to examine the educational philosophy of those it considers.
I am not, however, suggesting that deanships should be turned over to professional educators or educationists. A school of education may produce a splendid educator just as a theological seminary may turn out a saint. But there is no program of instruction that can guarantee the production of an educator. The test is of the man, not of his credentials. The test may take the form of questions. We may ask the candidate what he has to teach his constituency—faculty, students, administrators, trustees and the general public. If he has nothing to teach them, then why pretend to be an educator? If he has, his views should be examined.
A dean who is doing a good job must have the imagination to put himself in the place of all his constituents as he considers the activities and the goals of his college. If he puts himself in his students’ place, he will tend to be impatient with the complacent indifference of so many departments and professors toward the confusion and incoherence of the educational programs of the college. He may acknowledge that there is a problem of relevance, but he will have to analyze the situation on his own campus before he knows the nature of that problem. Relevance varies from campus to campus: although it has a common core—the search for meaningful existence in a chaotic, post-Christian civilization—its features vary according to the students’ educational and social background, and to the quality of the institution, its faculty and the value it sets on oral or written publication.
The thoughtful dean will understand, as most of you do, that the problem we face today in higher education is not a problem for which students or faculty members, administrators or parents, either individually or collectively, are to blame. We face a complex problem arising out of a complex set of circumstances that demand solution but over which none of us has had adequate control.
Part of our problem stems from the burgeoning demands made on professors and the increase in the number of non-educational services they are asked to perform—demands not merely or even especially to teach, but to consult with industry, government, and private research institutes.
Part of our problem stems from society’s decision to prolong adolescence without providing an avenue of self-expression for students who are denied “a piece of the action” until they are in their middle twenties or early thirties. (It is interesting to note that when John Kennedy became president he was older by ten years than Alexander the Great at the time of his death. Kennedy was also substantially older than many of our founding fathers at the time of their greatest service to our republic. John Quincy Adams, for instance, was admitted to the bar at 23; at 27 he was appointed Ambassador to the Netherlands. At 26 George Washington was a colonel; at 37 he sent protests to the king. Alexander Hamilton at 20 was lieutenant colonel and secretary to George Washington; at 25 he represented New York in Congress, and a 32 he was named Secretary of the Treasury. Jefferson began the practice of law at 24 and wrote the Declaration of Independence at 33. Is it any wonder then that students and young professors are impatient?)
Our age is not distinguished for the attention it is giving the young. It is distinguished rather by its willingness to be led by older men and by its insistence that young men and women bide their time. The problem is made more acute by modern medicine, which has prevented death from opening opportunities for the younger generation at the time when their energies, aptitudes, and ambitions call for expression and responsible action.
Our problem is further compounded by the fact that the universities and colleges, along with the high schools and elementary schools, are now expected to provide instruction that was once offered by the church or the family. If our colleges and universities are loath to give instruction in citizenship and in the obligations of parenthood, we are almost certain to face a society of intemperate citizens prone to anarchy, and parents negligent of their role in the family and the nurture of their children. Depersonalization extends now to the family itself. Parents are increasingly prone, when income permits, to leave their children with groups in kindergarten; when income does not permit, they leave them unattended on the streets. I mention, of course, only a few of the more obvious sources of confusion and discontent.
Beyond lie the profound estrangements and tensions that come from incompatibilities between the operative ideals in our society and a secondary set of tensions that derive from the gulf between governmental and individual ideals and practices—for instance, the dissatisfaction so many of our students feel with the war in Vietnam. The resentment felt by Negro students over discrimination on campus and off campus is another. These concerns are shared by many of their elders, too. It is a time of profound crisis, and a period in which simple answers are patently false and sound answers difficult to come by.
In such a time men and women, young and old, are prone to abandon reason in favor of antirational, simplistic programs that satisfy the hunger for certainty even as they defy our powers of comprehension. A wave of anti-intellectualism is rising to break before us. The student Left has inadvertently recruited the student Right, and extreme campus movements are provoking right-wing opposition throughout the country. Relevant irrationality is, and has been, far more attractive to young minds than irrelevant rationality. And if students are more serious than in years past, their irrationality is more seriously dangerous.
The college must therefore assume responsibilities it has traditionally avoided. Instead of striving to be impersonally objective, it must strive to be objectively personal. And it must innovate while looking out for fatal historical antecedents for proposed “innovations.”
In this crisis the dean—as educator—should take the lead in curricular revision. He should encourage his faculty to provide the essential ingredients of a coherent worldview whose creation is the work of each student. And he should encourage each student to find coherence and meaning for himself. A dean may rewrite the catalogue to focus the attention of the student on the aims of education and his own creative role in achieving it. As dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas, I commissioned and edited a short essay on this subject by Professor Neil Megaw, an outstanding educator and chairman of the Department of English at Texas. (His essay, entitled “To the Student,” appears at the beginning of the Arts and Sciences Catalogue for 1969-71.)
The issue of relevance is not really of recent origin. Robert Hutchins, one of the very few educators ever to have reached the presidency of a major university, saw that the core of the problem was the search for meaning.89 Full of hubris, Hutchins attempted to direct the professionalized and disconnected activities of the Chicago faculty into a coherent pattern of coordinated ideals and objectives. If his efforts were not entirely successful, they were at least heroic.
Granted that no synthesis can or should be imposed on the faculty or students of a college, the program of the college should, nevertheless, make sense. There should be some guiding thread of humanistic philosophy. At the very least, the college might concern itself with the unfolding of individuals, with developing graduates who are not tempted to suicide, whether chronic or acute: who, though possessing a tragic sense, will confront life with passion, revealing joy and delight at the prospect of human existence and the courage to cope with its inevitable vicissitudes.
The purpose of the college was well expressed in Megaw’s essay:
The College of Arts and Sciences offers certain basic courses for students taking preprofessional training in other colleges and schools of the University. It has a few preprofessional programs of its own. And it prepares many students for graduate studies in the various disciplines. These functions, however, grow out of its central purpose: To create an environment in which each student can advance toward his or her individual version of a liberal education.
What is a liberal education? Precisely because such an education liberates the individual, setting free the distinctive powers of this particular man or that particular woman, it is notoriously hard to define in general terms. It obviously means more than knowledge. At the very least, it sharpens the student’s perceptions of his world and of himself, and both broadens and disciplines his understanding. At its very best, a liberal education is the way of life of a whole human being, toward which college provides only a beginning…In four years, finally, the student can hope to achieve a measure of that intellectual independence and creativity that is his ultimate goal: The individual mind defining its freedom in significant action.
The dean can likewise exercise leadership by supporting student insistence on improved teaching at both graduate and undergraduate levels. On this issue the dean may need to educate the faculty. When the faculty argues that the quality of teaching cannot be judged objectively, the dean might ask, “How is it then that the objective assessment of written publications is possible?” The only reason articles and books are more accurately judged than teaching is because senior colleagues will sometimes bother to read the books and articles, but rarely bother to visit a colleague’s classes. The assessment of publications would also be thought subjective if no one bothered to read them (and, in point of fact, they are only rarely read, usually only scanned or counted.)
If a faculty member objects to having his teaching evaluated by faculty and students because this “violates the character of the student-faculty relationship,” he simply misunderstands his classroom responsibilities. The dean can explain that the classroom is not a place where a mystery religion holds its secret rites. The classroom is public. What the student and the professor discuss in a conference hour in the professor’s office is perhaps privileged, but a classroom is not. Teaching is a public activity, much like what a lawyer does in a courtroom; if a lawyer objected to observation by his client or others, he would promptly put himself out of business. Classroom visitation, it is sometimes argued, violates the dignity of the teaching profession. The best response to that argument is one once made by Professor Francis Hart of the University of Virginia: “What a curious concept of dignity, to be ashamed of being caught at one’s work!”9
The dean might also reject the false antithesis between teaching and research, while accepting in a true sense the doctrine of “publish or perish.” I am convinced that publication, based on sound research, occurs either through the spoken or the written word. Both are necessary, and, if based on sound knowledge, both are worthy of respect and support. Just as I shall not respect publications I am not permitted to read or to have read and assessed by others, neither do I respect teaching unless it can be witnessed and evaluated. I firmly believe that our professors and teaching assistants will improve their teaching efforts when they discover the teaching will be examined and evaluated, and that effective teaching will be not only respected but rewarded.
In order to improve teaching we must be prepared to honor good teachers. We must become skeptical of the prevalent habit of honoring the man who concentrates on research and writing to the neglect of his students, while at the same time he despises the colleague who neglects his writing but devotes himself to research and teaching.
Justice Felix Frankfurter once reminisced eloquently on this matter in defending Professor James Barr Ames. “He was a wonderful teacher, and original mind,” said Frankfurter, “and he illustrated, to a degree unexcelled by anyone I ever knew anything about, the conception by Socrates of a teacher, that of a midwife. Ames was the midwife of minds.” When Ames died, Frankfurter praised him to his roommate, Morris Cohen, who was later to distinguish himself in philosophy. Cohen thought the phrase exaggerated and said, “After all, what is the deposit Ames left behind him? He hardly wrote anything.” Frankfurter replied, and I enthusiastically endorse his views,
What he left behind him is that which Pericles says in his funeral oration is the most important thing. His deposit is in the minds of men. He excited and touched more first-class minds in the profession of the law, I suppose, than any man who ever had pupils. Dean Ames would rather spend hours with a student than write a legal essay that would immortalize him.10
It is easy to mistake the permanence of the printed page for importance, and the transience of the spoken word for trivia. But the dean can, with all the power of his office, guard against that mistake.
It is time also to call into question the inverted pyramid of costs in higher education. Why should the faculty constantly claim that graduate education is intrinsically more expensive than undergraduate education? There is an obvious truth in the assertion where graduate study requires complex and expensive equipment. But why should more be spent on graduate students in English, history, or philosophy, for example, than on undergraduates in those same fields? Where does the student face the greatest needs? Clearly at the freshman level. It is there that he needs tutors who will read his fledgling efforts with care and concern, tutors who will give him detailed criticism of style and method. In a quite irrational way, freshmen are too often abandoned to inexperienced teaching assistants, often as badly prepared as the freshmen they teach. Or freshmen are forced to sit in large classes. They almost never converse personally with their instructors; their papers are graded in the most mechanical and least educative manner. Education at the freshman level is less expensive primarily because it is of an inferior quality. If academic resources were spent more rationally at the freshman and sophomore levels, we might occasionally produce graduate students capable of teaching themselves through individual work—and this would, in turn, substantially reduce the cost of graduate education.
Faculty members must be summoned to honest self-assessment by students and courageous deans. For instance, let us prick the inflated bubble of the seminar: ill prepared graduate students spend most of their time boring one another and wasting everybody’s time because the professor refuses to come to class fully prepared to teach—to guarantee an hour of intensive instruction for all participants. Too many faculty members mask their refusal to spend time on teaching with the rationalization of concern for student preparation. (Students can also tell you that they rarely meet a professor who does not look at his watch at least five times within every fifteen-minute visit in his office. The professors have a way of looking at their watches that lets the student know that he should go away.)
The teaching load of many professors consists solely of teaching one or two small “seminars” each week—seminars for which they rarely prepare, at which they rarely do more than audit, or at most comment briefly in an atmosphere of relaxed cordiality (or hostility, as the case may be). What many professors call their seminars would have been called “keeping open house” by Professor Whitehead, a great teacher of an earlier generation. When I was at Yale as a graduate student, Paul Weiss carried on Whitehead’s traditional open house.11 But to Weiss’s credit, he never tried to include the social evening of philosophical conversation as a part of his regular teaching load, even though it was more educational than most graduate seminars.
Just as we insist on honesty in the deans, deans should insist on honesty in their faculty. Honesty must also be demanded of the student. The average student is no less a humbug than the average dean or the average faculty member. He, especially, deserves an education. If he insists on the right of revolution, he deserves to know its corollary: that the revolutionary had better win. If he insists on urinating in the president’s desk, he will have to learn that this is not the high water mark of civilization.12 And if, from concern for the tragic events at Kent State, he proposes merely a holiday for himself, we must point out his conflict of interest.13
The courageous dean may even have to educate his president. If the president refuses to act as an educator in times of unrest, if he believes, for instance, that the dignity of this office precludes his direct involvement with students, the courageous dean may have to remind him that very little dignity remains in an office after it has been invaded by students and used as a public pissoir.14 Instead of worrying about dignity, administrators—presidents and deans—should represent their office in the most effective way by infusing, whenever possible, educational content into public confrontations.
Finally, let me suggest the role of the dean in addressing trustees or the general public. To this audience he might, among other things, convey something of the magic and confusion of youth, the fragility of the academic life, the excitement of a community ruled by persuasion rather than by force. And, perhaps, if he has the vision, something of the substance and agony of the times.
Let me conclude by reading a passage from Nietzsche’s brief essay, “Schopenhauer as Educator.”15 Nietzsche’s portrait of the ideal teacher should excite the imagination and emulation of deans who are truly educators. In this ideal they may find their role as the teachers of those who teach and those who learn.
How can a man come to know himself? He is a dark and veiled thing; and if the hare has seven skins a man could skin himself seventy times seven and still not say, ‘This now is yourself, this is no longer husk.’ Besides, it is an agonizing, dangerous enterprise to dig down into yourself and to descend forcibly by the shortest route down the shaft of your own being. A man may easily do himself such damage that no doctor can cure him. And besides, why should it be necessary, since everything bears witness to our being—our friendships and hatreds, our looks and our handshake, our memory and the things we forget, our books and the strokes of our pen? But there is a way of performing this crucial inquiry. Let the young soul look back upon its life and ask: What up to now have you truly loved? What has raised up your soul? What ruled it, and at the same time made it happy? Line up these objects of reverence before you and perhaps by what they are, and by the sequence, they will yield to you a law, a basic law, of your proper self. Compare these objects, see how one completes, enlarges, exceeds and transfigures the others, how they form a ladder upon which you have so far climbed up toward yourself. For your own true nature does not lie hidden deep within you, but immeasurably high above you, or at least above that with you customarily take to be your self.
Your true teachers, the men who formed you and educated you, revealed to you what is the true original sense and basic stuff of your nature, something absolutely uneducable and unformable but certainly something difficult of access, fettered, paralyzed; your teachers can be nothing but your liberators. And that is the secret of all education and culture; it does not give artificial limbs, wax noses or corrective lenses—rather, that which can give those gifts is merely a caricature of education. Education, on the contrary, is liberation, the clearing of all weeds, rubble, and vermin that might harm the delicate shoots, a radiance of light and warmth, a loving falling rustle of rain by night; it is imitation and adoration of nature, where nature is motherly and mercifully minded.
When a dean understands that “education is liberation,” he finds himself and his role in the academic community as one who clears away “all weeds, rubble, and vermin that might harm the delicate shoots.” He removes the obstacles to personal fulfillment that hinder both students and faculty from fulfilling themselves; he helps create a context in which the real individual, the civilized citizen, the effectively loving parent, may emerge. This is a context moreover, which, when made vivid by an effective dean, can engage the imagination and support of parents, trustees, and taxpayers.
For a dean who fulfills his role as educator, there is no major undoing. His work, however brief, persists and endures and enlarges human life.
The explanatory notes below were prepared by Andrew Adams in 2020 and are not part of Silber’s speech as published in ACAD’s Proceedings in January 1971. Silber reprinted “The Dean as Educator: His Doing and Undoing” in his collection of speeches and essays entitled Straight Shooting: What’s Wrong with America and How to Fix It (Harper and Row, 1989). Passages from 1971 that were revised in 1989 reflect his awareness of a different format, time, and audience.
1. President Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973) was known for his vigorous handshakes. In a syndicated column published on May 1, 1965, entitled “The Spring Convention Season,” financial reporter Jesse Bogue observed: “…for social activities which are attendant on most conventions, it is suggested to take golf clubs; brush up on your new jokes; and freshen up your greeting technique. Perhaps bearing in mind the ‘President Johnson handshake’ with the left hand grasping the other man’s right elbow.” back
2. G. Harold Carswell (1919-1992) was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Richard Nixon in January 1970. Judge Carswell’s records on civil rights and women’s rights were troubling and his nomination was rejected by the Senate. Perhaps expressing his true opinion of Carswell without stating his name, Silber edited this passage in Straight Shooting to read: “…there is no greater correlation between wanting to be a dean and being qualified to be one than between wanting and being qualified to serve on the Supreme Court. We do not hear so much about academic mediocrities simply because administrative appointments don’t require confirmation by faculty or student senates” (p. 119). back
3. This quote was first attributed to American writer and social commentator Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) in 1936, three years after President Coolidge’s death. back
4. Silber changed this passage in Straight Shooting to: “This leads to metaphysical speculation on the inscrutability of the faculty. Why do so many faculty members prefer their colleagues’ martyrdom to service to a worthy cause? Why do they favor Polycarp over Peter? Why don’t faculty members—at least those in the English department—accept the truth of Holden Caulfield’s remark in Catcher in the Rye that it is harder and better to live for a cause than to die for one?” (p. 122). Polycarp and Peter were both venerated servants of and martyrs to the early Christian church. The binary choice between the two is not clear. In the revised version, quoted above, Silber is perhaps asking why a faculty member would watch a colleague lose their position rather than joining in a “worthy cause.” Holden Caulfield is the main character in The Catcher in the Rye by American novelist J. D. Salinger (1919-2010). back
5. “The man on horseback” is perhaps a reference to the Lone Ranger, a popular radio and then television show from the 1930s to ‘50s about life in the wild west in which the masked hero rides in to save the day. back
6. References painter Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860-1961) and sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931). While Moses was self-taught, French had some formal education which perhaps explains why Silber omitted the reference to him in Straight Shooting. back
7. Edward H. Litchfield (1914-1968) was Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh from 1956 to 1965. Rather than being removed from office, Litchfield resigned amid a financial crisis at the institution. Walter Hickel (1919-2010) was Secretary of the Interior under President Nixon for less than two years. He was fired for writing a letter after the shooting at Kent State that was critical of Nixon’s policies in Vietnam. Silber omitted the references to both Litchfield and Hickel in Straight Shooting. back
8. Robert Hutchins (1899-1977), was a noted American educator and administrator. He was president of the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1945 and chancellor from 1945 to 1951. His philosophy of higher education was detailed in the book Unseasonable Truths: The Life of Robert Maynard Hutchins by Harry S. Ashmore (Little Brown and Company, 1989). back
9. The source of this quote isn’t clear. Richard I. Miller’s Evaluating Faculty Performance (Jossey-Bass, 1972), notes that Silber first used it in his speech at the 23rd meeting of the American Association for Higher Education in Chicago in 1968 (p. 134). The quote may originate from a 1968 edition of the journal of the American Society for Engineering Education, Educational Research and Methods Division. A GoogleBooks search indicated this source but a copy could not be found before the publication deadline for the ACAD newsletter. back
10. For the source of the quotations in this section of the speech see Felix Frankfurter: Reminiscences Recorded in Talks with Dr. Harlan B. Phillips (New York: Renynal, 1960): p. 20. back
11. “For at least thirteen years beginning midway in the 1920’s and lasting into the 1930’s, one heard of ‘evenings at the Whiteheads,’ one night a week of open house to students, although anyone was welcome.” See Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead as Recorded by Lucien Price (Boston: David R. Godine, 1954): pp. 8-9. Philosopher Paul Weiss (1901-2002) taught at Yale from 1946 to 1969. back
12. For a description of the events at Columbia University in the spring of 1968 see “The Disturbance at Columbia University” (pp. 79-90) in The New Left. Memorandum prepared for the Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws of the Committee on the Judiciary (October 9, 1968) which notes:
The tactics used by the students were hardly those designed to attract the support of either the faculty, the community, or the majority of fellow students. In the office of President Kirk, some students urinated in a wastebasket, others broke into his stock of liquor and cigars, rifled his personal papers and photographs, stole documents, files, and books that they deemed important. (p. 79) back
13. A story published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Sunday, May 10, 1970, entitled “Struggles Test Roles in Colleges” noted: “Tuesday [May 5] Several thousand University of Texas demonstrators stage an unplanned and nonsanctioned march, meeting local police at the State Capital in a melee marked by tear gas and nightsticks. Militants declare a ‘strike’ at UT Austin demanding suspension of classes at the University of more than 36,000 enrollment.” As only “several thousand” out of 36,000 joined the protest, Silber suggests the other students were on “holiday.” His condemnation in Straight Shooting is more targeted and notes the timing of the protests with regard to the academic calendar:
…if, out of professed concern for the tragic events at Kent State, they propose the cancellation of final exams and graduation, they must ask themselves whether this can alter the situation with which they are concerned, or whether they are merely campaigning, out of pure self-interest, for release from their academic duties. (p. 134) back
14. This is a reference to Grayson Kirk (1903-1997), president of Columbia University during the student protests in 1968. In Straight Shooting, Silber omitted the phrase “and used as a public pissoir.” back
15. Scholar and translator William Arrowsmith (1924-1992) taught at Texas at the same time as Silber. While he credits Arrowsmith as the translator, the source of this excerpt isn’t included in either the 1971 ACAD speech or in Straight Shooting, suggesting that Silber had an unpublished copy of his colleague’s work. The translation wasn’t printed until one year after Straight Shooting in Arrowsmith’s Unmodern Observations (Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen), Yale University Press (1990). back