A Job I Can’t Imagine Wanting

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I have two good friends who have both recently become college presidents. One visited last weekend. And as part of a long and wide-ranging dinner conversation with her and her family, blessedly little of which was about higher ed, she did happen to mention that she’d discovered how much money her school spends on the athletic department. “For that kind of money, we ought to be doing better,” she said.

And that little interchange, twenty seconds or so, illuminated perfectly for me exactly why I have never wanted to be a college president. I mean, I’m not especially interested in real estate, or in negotiations with the community over contributions to the fire department and EMTs who respond to campus events. I’ve never wanted to be responsible for women’s soccer or men’s golf. I’ve never wanted to run a private police department, a health center, a sexual assault response team, a legal department, an advertising department. I’ve never wanted to manage a server farm and network, a campus bus system, an off-campus travel system, an insurance agency. I went into higher ed because I was selfish, because I wanted to be a teacher and a writer, because those things mattered to me. I can’t imagine giving all that up, really for the rest of my life, to wrangle about corporate branding and trustee relations.

And, I mean, thank god somebody’s willing to do it. Someone has to tend the machine, has to make sure that the parts are properly synchronized and lubricated, the worn or defective parts replaced. But what a job! And especially what a job for someone who was trained as a scholar, who made his or her mark through close and careful focus to their own students, to their own research, tending their own intellectual garden in rich detail.

I’d rather have a scholar running my college than a banker or a venture capitalist or a lawyer. But what a massive sacrifice it is, when you do it for the right reasons.