Opinion: Who would want to be a university president these days? Not me

A retired University of Georgia professor says the job of college president is losing its luster in these trying times. Clockwise from top left are Jere Morehead, University of Georgia; M. Brian Blake, Georgia State; Brooks Keel, Augusta University; and Ángel Cabrera, Georgia Tech. (AJC file)

Credit: AJC file

Credit: AJC file

A retired University of Georgia professor says the job of college president is losing its luster in these trying times. Clockwise from top left are Jere Morehead, University of Georgia; M. Brian Blake, Georgia State; Brooks Keel, Augusta University; and Ángel Cabrera, Georgia Tech. (AJC file)

After careful consideration of the matter, I have decided to eliminate one possibility from my career bucket list. I have assessed the national situation and have concluded I now no longer aspire to be a university president.

Being a university president looks pretty good from the outside. You get to preside over joyful events like graduation. You get to hang out with important, powerful people like politicians and regents. You get to mingle with wealthy donors. You get to host parties with the rich and famous in your luxury box at the football stadium. If you are at the University of Georgia, you’ll be far from the highest-paid person on campus because, after all, you’re no Kirby Smart.

But still, at around $1 million a year, you’re doing pretty well.

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

Recently, however, the job has lost a little bit of magic. Campuses have become the sites for protests over a war conducted across an ocean and a sea over matters well beyond the purview of a U.S. university. Following the demonstrations and the search for blameworthy individuals, openings for Ivy League presidencies have become as common as postings for new greeters at the department store. University presidents are being called to Congress for grilling by politicians who have no affiliation with their universities or clear understanding of how universities work. But they sure like getting on TV and preening for their base.

University presidents now have to manage situations in which there is no clear solution. Clear the protesters? You’re biased and against free speech. Let the protesters protest? Then you’re caving in to the demands of petulant young people exercising identity politics. Call the cops? Then you’re a supporter of police brutality, and by the way, why not bundle a “Stop Cop City” protest with the “Free Palestine” demonstration? Don’t call the cops? Then you are allowing for the desecration of your campus by whiny snowflakes. Satisfy the students? Then you alienate alums and donors. Satisfy the donors? Then you don’t care about students.

How about if you side with the pro-Israel protesters? Then you are a settler-colonist and racist and should be fired. And if you side with the pro-Palestine protesters? Then you are antisemitic and support the Hamas invasion. What if you declared you are neutral with regard to the conflict? Then you are a spineless weakling with no conscience or vision.

What if you were to follow the city law and not the campus law in addressing the campus demonstrations? You’d be a mindless bureaucrat without the courage to do what’s right. And if you followed the campus law but not the city law? You’d be a petty tyrant operating outside the law.

What if you proposed new campus rules limiting the kinds of speech on campus? Then you would be a dictatorial suppressor of free speech. What if you embraced free speech in all forms and content? Then you would be encouraging hate speech and discrimination.

What if a faculty member posted on social media an inflammatory identity-politics rant that brings attention to your campus’s roiled atmosphere, and you discipline and censure the professor? You are then shutting down the cherished value of academic freedom and imposing a gestapo rule on your faculty. What if you do nothing? Then you are contributing to the hostilities by allowing extremist views to issue from your faculty.

What if people from outside the university joined the protesters and became disruptive, and you intervened to have them removed and arrested? Then you are taking sides against students who might be arrested along with the outsiders and making campus a police state. What if you didn’t intervene? Then you are abrogating your responsibilities as leader of the institution.

And that’s just the anti-Israel protests. What if you attempt to institute a diversity, equity and inclusion effort? Then you are violating the principle recently stated by Ann Coulter: “The core around which the nation’s values were formed, is the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant).” And if you don’t? You are racist, sexist, classist and a protector of the status quo.

Yes, being a university president just doesn’t sound appealing right now. Recently, there have been a great many people asking, “Who would want to be a teacher these days?” It’s just not fun anymore, and teachers are quitting in droves.

University presidents are dropping like fall leaves. The job has become a circular firing squad, and they’re in the center. In schools, when teachers quit and there’s nobody to replace them, the requirements for getting a job are lowered to the point where you don’t need a college degree to be a teacher. Who will replace university presidents when they finally say, Enough?

Not me.

Peter Smagorinsky is a retired University of Georgia faculty member who never aspired to hold institutional leadership positions while on the faculty.