James O. Freedman Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Liberal Arts and Higher Education: Conversation with James O. Freedman, President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, former President of Dartmouth and of the University of Iowa; 4/18/01 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Leadership and the University

As a leader you say that you were mentored by Martin Meyerson, Elliott Stellar, and Martin Gregorian, who were all at Penn with you. You go on to say, "I came to realize that the true importance of holding a senior administrative position was the power to enunciate the academy's central values and the responsibility to set forth the university's agenda." And that is really what you tried to do in these roles.

That's what I've tried to do. Because my own sense is that a president is really the only person in the institution who has an opportunity to set the agenda for debate within the faculty and the student body. He may not always prevail, but he has the opportunity, or she, to put items on the agenda and ask that they be debated. And, of course, being a president is a rare privilege in terms of access to the op-ed pages, and to television shows, and to things of that sort. I've thought it was always very important for presidents to use that opportunity to state those views that they think are important.

Now, in doing that, there are two issues. One is communication, which you talk about in one of your essays, and I'm curious about that. That is, the frustration of having a vision, being a craftsman enough to articulate with your own words what that vision is, on the one hand, but on the other hand, being a leader of a bureaucracy, where an official statement has to be filtered through that bureaucracy. Tell us about that tension and how you dealt with it.

Every president understands that when he speaks publicly, his words are circulated to alumni, faculty, students, and the local community, and that some of those words are going to alienate. Freedman speaking in ParisA president has a responsibility to be cautious, because you don't want to alienate people on whom your institution greatly depends. And so I think all of us feel frustrated on some issues because of imbalance. We conclude that it will alienate more people than one would like to alienate. They will accept you when you speak on educational issues, although affirmative action is an example that, when presidents do speak on it, they sometimes do alienate large sections of their alumni. But one has to use the privilege of that pulpit carefully, prudently, because you do run the risk of alienating people. All of us have had experience with donors who call up and say, "You know, that speech did it for me. Goodbye." That happens.

So as a president, there is an interesting play between the sense from your own personal life of the vision that you would like to realize and the political realities of a university.

That's right. There is indeed. You mentioned Martin Meyerson, who was president of the University of Pennsylvania as I was a young man moving up the academic ladder. One of the things I admired about President Meyerson is that, in his early years as president of Penn, he essentially said, "You glow in the fact that you're the best university in Philadelphia, and you glow in the fact that you're a member of the Ivy League. But until the day comes when your Ph.D.s are as valued and sought after by the Harvard and Yale faculty as their Ph.D.s are by ours, we've got ground to cover." He essentially said, "This place is a little too self-satisfied, a little too smug. We need to be better." And that had an electric effect. People were a little upset, but it had the proper impact, the intended impact.

When you came to Dartmouth, part of the challenge for you was to realize this liberal arts vision, because Dartmouth, I believe, had some difficulties before. You said in your inaugural address, "We must strengthen our attraction to those singular students whose greatest pleasure may come not from the camaraderie of classmates, but from the lonely acts of writing poetry or mastering the cello or solving mathematical riddles or translating Catullus." That was a heroic statement at that time.

Well, I'll tell you that the cello became my symbol among the students, and Catullus became an author whose name they knew. But I was concerned. I looked at Dartmouth, of course, seriously before I accepted the job. And what I was concerned with was, I thought, in a sense, that there was too much emphasis on well-rounded students. The whole place had to be well-rounded. And I wanted to us to have some students who were more distinctive. I said "You can be so well rounded that you have no point at all." Some students who had a point, had a focus, had achieved a lot and meant to achieve a lot. And so a part of my mission there was to see if we couldn't strengthen the student body in those ways. And I hope we did.

Give me a specific example of a program, either at Iowa or at Dartmouth, where you think this liberal arts vision that you brought to the table mattered in actually implementing a program.

We started at Dartmouth a Presidential Scholars program, where a student who had a certain grade point average could work ten hours a week for a faculty member as a colleague. You could help do research, you can edit manuscripts, you could work in the laboratory. You couldn't do gopher work. You couldn't do xeroxing or getting coffee. That wasn't fair to the students. We tried to set up collaboration. The consequence of that was that every year, two or three papers would be published with a faculty member's name, maybe some graduate students, and finally the undergraduate student. We very much wanted undergraduates to be able to get a feel for what it was to work with a faculty member and to be at the frontiers of research. And I think that mattered.

There was a lot of student criticism at the first: it was elitist and it was "special opportunities." We've now reached the point where it's listed along with the academic honors in the commencement program. Presidential Scholars are listed as a category of achievers. So I've been very pleased at that.

Now, you were at both Iowa, a great public university, and at Dartmouth, a great private university. What is the difference? Are there differences in the challenges that you faced in leading?

There are superficial differences, which I think are not at the center of what are the differences. The superficial one is that Iowa had 30,000 students; Dartmouth's a little better than 5,000. Iowa was public and would have to deal with the legislature; Dartmouth is private, governed by a Board of Trustees. James O. FreedmanFor me the biggest difference was that the value added to a student's life at Iowa was greater than at Dartmouth, because the distance the student traveled was greater. Students came to that university from small towns in Iowa, never had left the state, never been to Chicago, never seen a play, never been to a symphony, maybe never seen a bookstore in their hometowns. And they came and they started to read Plato and Aristotle, and all of those things. And they were set afire. And they grew and grew and grew.

Dartmouth students were from more affluent homes. They'd had more higher quality educational opportunities. They came in at a much higher point of sophistication. And, of course, they grew too. But I was really struck by the role of the University of Iowa, just opening up the lives of kids who'd not had that experience before.

In this public/private distinction, compare dealing with legislators for state budgets with dealing with trustees and donors. Is there a difference in those two sets of tasks?

There surely was not a difference in dealing with donors. There are people who love their universities and are philanthropic and want to give and want to be helpful. Dealing with legislators is different because I sensed the distance between me and them was very great. I was not of their type. You know, these are legislators who are elected by the people of Iowa, and I was a very different Eastern-bred type of person. It was quite different with the Board of Trustees at Dartmouth, who share similar backgrounds and you much more readily belonged to that kind of group. So it was a different experience at Iowa.

If you were writing a job description for the title University President, educational requirements aside, what does it take to undertake the task of leading great, either public or private, institutions of higher education?

It takes an appetite to want to govern the institution. And by that I mean, to channel your own energies and, ultimately, professional fulfillment through the institution. You no longer channel your energies through becoming a fixture on the lecture circuit or a writer of lots of books or an attender of conferences. You ought to be a person who wants your glory to come through the strengthening of the institution, so that at the end of a period of five or ten or fifteen years, people will say, "This is a better place because he or she was president."

I do think you have to be a person interested in ideas. For myself, I think that, by and large, you need to be a person who is a scholar. I don't think you can lead the faculty if you haven't yourself been a scholar and had the experience of teaching and creating knowledge. There are notable exceptions to that. But I think as a general rule, that's very important.

I think, too, you somehow have to exemplify something of a selflessness or a devotion to the place, because you're asking other people -- all those people you work with, all the vice presidents and deans, to be devoted to the place. And if you show less than full devotion, or if you show cynicism in that, it's much harder to motivate those people to share your commitment to making this a stronger place.

One of the problems that all universities confronted during these periods was the question of excellence and equality. Not necessarily saying they're in conflict. Ensuring greater equality, ensuring greater diversity raises questions about the procedures by which people will be admitted. Tell us a little about your thoughts on that set of problems and how well universities in general have weathered that process.

The process of opening up universities so there is greater access and for a greater range of students has been a very successful one. You look at most universities and I think that affirmative action has clearly worked. It has given us more interesting student bodies. It's given us minority graduates who will now take a place in the professions. When I look at what this country is becoming and think of the possibility that without affirmative action, we would not be graduating people of minority background who will become the leaders of this new country -- in the professions, in education, in medicine, and in business -- I fear to think what the country would have been like otherwise. I think affirmative action has been indispensable. All of us find that one of the ways that incoming students, high school seniors, judge the places they're looking at is the degree of diversity that it has. Students don't want to go to schools that don't have sufficient diversity. They recognize that they're inherently more interesting places.

You say in your discussion of what a liberal arts education should be that the contribution that is being made by being exposed to different communities, being exposed to different people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, is very important.

Yes, indeed. It's interesting that for a generation from World War II onward, universities understood that geographic diversity was important. They went out of their way to try to enroll students from wider and wider sections of the United States, so that the notion that you learned in better circumstances with students who've had diverse upbringings is not one that started with the Civil Rights movement. It's one that goes back much earlier than that.

Let's talk a little about where universities are going, in general. One thing that strikes me ... I think it's fair to ask you: is your commitment and your powerful statement of the importance of a liberal arts education a losing battle in the face of the specialization of the academic disciplines, the emphasis in our society, generally, on the importance and priorities that should be given to the market and other factors?

I don't know whether it's a losing battle. It's easy to look around and conclude that it may be; that pre-vocational education and college, professional education at the college level, is growing and growing, and many, many parents want that. But if people don't speak up for the importance of liberal education, we'll never know if it might not be a losing battle. We've certainly seen in the national political scene that ideas that seemed like a losing battle during the New Deal or the Great Society, whatever, suddenly their time seemed to come. My great hope is that enough of us will keep alive the focus on liberal education; that the day may well come when it's much more widely accepted.

What would a successful result be, a kind of core curriculum that exposes students to more than what we used to call "Western Civ," but rather the multiple civilizations that are important to our understanding of world cultures?

I think, ultimately, a successful result would be one that moved professional education to the graduate level, so that undergraduate education could be a liberal education. One could then go to a graduate school of business or a graduate school of nursing, or a graduate school of accounting or journalism. But that the undergraduate years would be given over to a liberal education.

Is there a report card that parents and students who agree with what you're saying should give to the university that they're looking at? Is there a check-off list? Is there a way of getting a handle on what a school would look like that embodies the vision that you're talking about?

I think it would look like many, many universities and colleges that exist today, who provide full opportunities to major in English or chemistry or psychology or biology or Portuguese literature, or whatever. But parents are so concerned that their children have the tools for success in this society that, in a sense, they constrict the kinds of things students are willing to look at.

I had a young woman in my office at Dartmouth one year whose parents wanted her to major in economics, because they thought that had great professional utility. And she had, indeed, fallen in love with Portuguese literature. She just loved it. And they could not understand why, what was the attraction of that and why you would ever want to do that instead of economics. In many ways it's the parents we have to talk to.

This harkens back to this themes and your background; that is, the themes of ambition and a well-developed liberal vision of the world. One lesson I'm drawing from this conversation is that part of the goal of education is to empower students to carefully and thoughtfully make those kinds of choices for themselves.

That's right. People sometimes don't remember that during the college years, you are still very young. You are still, in a sense, a post-adolescent. You're trying to figure out who you are. You are confused about what career path to take. You don't really, fully know how to estimate your own ability. You're influenced by peers. It's a very confusing time of life for students. It's important to expose them to all these kinds of opportunities that a liberal education does, as they form more fully and more conclusively who it is they want to be.

What about the implications of the technology that is available in our environment today? You stated the problem beautifully yesterday in your lecture, that is, the capacity of technology not to leave us alone. The way that we can be interrupted in those moments of silence, reflection, reading, and so on. This leads me to ask for your comments on how we will navigate the future, carrying in ourselves this vision, which is both powerful and beautifully stated, about a liberal arts way of dealing with life and the world versus the power, the attraction, the seduction of all of these new technologies.

The new technologies are, of course, incredibly seductive and attractive, as you say. And right now we're in the first generation of living with these technologies. That means that people are forever made frantic by them. People carry beepers and cell phones. The minute they get home or to the office, they get on the e-mail to see what's listed there. Then they get on the answering machine to see what's listed there. On the other hand, they bring you CDs and DVDs and all kinds of wonderful things. I hope we're going to figure out, finally, that we don't want a lifestyle driven by these things. I think, for example, with television, adolescents aside, more and more adults have figured out over two generations that you watch television selectively. You watch it for the things that you truly want, but it's not a narcotic for you. I hope we're going to reach that age with a lot of this new technology, that we don't allow it to follow us on vacation and follow us into our home at night, and forever pursue us, but give us some time for ourselves.

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