A Hippocratic Oath for Campus Leaders

American college campuses are increasingly looking like the Berkeleys and Columbias of the 1960s: seething cauldrons of protest and conflict. Our colleges and universities are, more than at any time in my memory, becoming key battlegrounds where our cultural wars are being fought: over matters of race, class, gender, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, U.S. foreign policy (most notably the Israel-Palestine conflict), and indeed education itself.

This turmoil will not die down any time soon; quite the contrary. The most dramatic recent example occurred at the University of Missouri in Columbia, where repeated reports of racist incidents and attitudes on campus tended to be met with either silence or tepid responses from the administration. That dynamic triggered a cascade of protests, and ultimately, demands for, among other things, the resignation of the chancellor and the system president. The protests culminated in a graduate student’s hunger strike and then a planned strike by the football team’s black players, supported by many of the white players and the head coach. With the prospect of a players’ strike—an act of almost religious significance, deep in the heart of football country—Tim Wolfe’s days as system president were numbered. In quick succession, both he and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announced their resignations.

The Missouri situation may well be a game changer. Already, students elsewhere are issuing Mizzou-style ultimatums calling for major reforms: high-level resignations; removing the names of allegedly racist figures from campus buildings; appointing new diversity officers or enhancing the status of existing ones; and changes in such areas as curriculum, recruitment, and hiring to make campuses more diverse and help make students of color feel safer and more welcome. Unsurprisingly, a backlash started almost immediately, and given the startling escalation of racist and xenophobic in the wider cultural sphere since the attacks in Paris on November 13th, campuses will face major challenges keeping discussions over these matters peaceful and productive.

So I don’t envy campus leaders their jobs right now, for one needn’t be Nostradamus to predict new hashtag-fueled protests cropping up week after week. What chancellors and presidents can do in response will vary according to the specific protests and protestors. But a number of precedents teach us what they should not do: commit the sorts of unforced errors that have toppled some upper administrators, and landed others in the glaring light of unflattering articles on the front page The Chronicle of Higher Education. Perhaps a kind of Hippocratic Oath for campus leaders could be helpful. Here is a first draft:

  1. I will always remember that I primarily serve my students, staff, and faculty. At the same time, I will bear in mind that my institution plays a significant role in the life of the wider local community.
  2. I will form a clear sense of my institution’s core academic mission, and articulate and support it at every possible opportunity. I will not knowingly take any actions that undermine that mission.
  3. I will listen respectfully to the people and communities I serve. That respect is based on the premise that such people have points of view they are genuinely invested in, and which deserve to be honored, whether or not I agree.
  4. My administration will communicate with people clearly and honestly.[1] When responding to questions and concerns, we will do so in a timely fashion.
  5. I will combat the insidious IBS—Institutional Bloating Syndrome—that is wreaking havoc on American higher education. I will put my administration on a diet, keeping highly paid non-academic positions to a minimum, and making sure that all such positions are vital to the institution’s functioning.
  6. Neither I nor my agents will prescribe any major administrative duties without first (a) considering the amount of work involved by many different people, (b) thinking through the initiative carefully to make sure it is designed sensibly, and (c) being sure that the results it generates will effect a major, positive change on campus.[2]
  7. I will strive to protect and support the most vulnerable people on my campus, and foster an environment marked by equity, fairness, openness and respect.

The next time a campus leader lands in seriously hot water—I promise you won’t have to wait long—keep these in mind. I’m willing to bet that those who adhere to these principles will enjoy greater success than those who don’t. And as a bonus, the oath comes in handy in times of calm and prosperity too.

[1] White lies are allowed. These are narrowly as otherwise inconsequential mistruths that avoid hurt feelings, e.g. “It’s good to see you” or “No, that new mascot uniform does not make your ass look big.”

[2] A shorter way of saying this might be, “No more strategic (or academic or assessment) plans just for show.”


About Joel Berkowitz

Center director, teacher, theatre historian, translator, co-founder of yiddishstage.org. Proud supporter of the Wisconsin Idea.
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