Frank Rhodes Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Adaptation and Change in the American University; Conversation with Frank H.T. Rhodes, President Emeritus of Cornell University; by Harry Kreisler; 3/31/99.

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Leadership in the University

How is leadership in a university different from leadership in other sectors of society, or is it the same?

It think it's the same. I think the conditions are a little bit different but I think the qualities are not dissimilar. And I think the people who succeed, and some of them you know very well here at Berkeley (I had dinner with Clark Kerr last night who is the model for all of us in this).The people who succeed are people who are passionately committed to what it is they're doing and to the constituency that they're serving.

I've always felt that the university is really one of the most important engines in the development of society, that it plays a crucial role that no other institution does. And that commitment, that balanced but unswerving commitment to the institution you serve is the first element of leadership. But all the other things that go to make a good leader in other fields, whether it's political life or a great corporation or even a congregation, these are the same qualities. Knowing where you want to go. Having a vision of the future of the institution. Setting some goals to get there instead of just having a vague notion. Picking the people to lead with you. Setting the climate of the institution, really being an advocate for the values of the institution and developing that sense of personal engagement. And then, finally, scrambling together the resources to help you achieve those goals. That's pretty much the same whatever it is you're leading.

In your view, in the same way that you characterize the university as the engine for society, the president of the university is really an engine for the university.

I believe so. I don't want to be guilty of overstatement because it would be wrong to pretend that everything depends on the effectiveness of the president, but I believe the best presidents can really be very effective in creating a climate and creating the sense of confidence and hope and expectation, and setting the standard, establishing a benchmark. And that rubs off across the campus, across the alumni. It challenges the governing board. It builds confidence in the public. And so that public role, based on personal expectations of distinction and achievement, is something that does make a difference, yes.

You had leadership roles in both private and public universities. Is there a difference there? Do you have to worry about a different set of issues in one as opposed to the other?

There is a difference. I think the principles of leadership are the same but the great universities of the nations, the publics (the Berkeleys, the Michigans), the privates (the Harvards, the Stanfords, the Yales, the Cornells), I think are becoming more and more similar in many respects rather than continuing in different directions. The publics are becoming more heavily dependent on private funding. Here at Berkeley you have a billion dollar campaign (maybe it's more than that now but it's at least a billion) which is going wonderfully well. The privates, I think, are becoming more publicly committed and accountable. And I like to think that the old model of the land grant university is probably going to be where both publics and privates end up. I think the big difference in the private universities is that you have a much greater degree of freedom in terms of setting priorities and being politically independent, and in serving the institution without the kind of constraints that go with boards of trustees or regents who are either politically elected, running on a particular ticket as they are in some states, or are appointed by the governor, and in some cases have multiple constituencies in terms of the different campuses of the system. That makes it a much more cumbersome and less focused and less easy board with which to deal. I've benefited from both boards but I've no doubt that the opportunities for flexibility and quick decision, and achieving the kind of results that are ones that are chosen, are much easier in the private side of the house.

Looking back at your tenure at Cornell, what was your most frustrating experience as you led that great university?

Life was really full of satisfactions rather than frustrations, so I really did find that that 18 years was an incredible honeymoon and I look on it as just a golden period. So I don't have a massive sense of frustration. I guess if I have any frustration it's one that everybody shares who's been in that role, and that is that it takes so long to achieve any particular result. I feel very strongly that undergraduate education is one of the most important areas to be taken seriously by the great universities, the great research universities. And yet changing the culture and changing the climate in a way that makes that a priority for everyone is something that takes a long time. And you do your best. You use occasions to talk about this. You teach classes yourself. You advise freshmen yourself. You provide incentives for doing this. But it changes slowly, and to that extent I think most of us feel a certain measure of frustration.

What is the obstacle there?

It's the culture of the campus. It's the desire to excel in areas of scholarship, which is praiseworthy and wholly understandable. And the fact that the day is still limited to 24 hours. And the good can sometimes crowd out the better. And we all know that. Life is becoming harder for the typical faculty member, scrambling for grants, struggling with the explosive growth of knowledge, required in many public institutions to be ever more accountable to various government agencies. I understand very clearly the burdens that are placed on members of the faculty.

In your lecture yesterday you identified changes in undergraduate education as really one of the major challenges facing the American university in the next millennium.

That's right. The present situation is that we've got thirteen or fourteen million students enrolled on our campuses, and for most of those the ultimate degree will be a baccalaureate degree. What we haven't really done, especially on the research campuses, is to reach any kind of agreement as to what the purpose of that degree is. Nor have we reached agreement as to what the purpose of the Ph.D. degree is. It seems to me the most important challenge that we face as faculty members of institutions is to sit down and debate that issue: what is the purpose of an undergraduate education, not globally, but here on my own particular campus?

One of the challenges that we face in California is this question of Affirmative Action, that is, who will be the undergraduate students. That's a problem that you had to address at Cornell and did so in quite a successful way. What lessons did you learn that might be relevant to the current discussion about Affirmative Action?

I don't presume to have anything to offer California. The state doesn't need and the university doesn't need my help. They've great experience and great wisdom available to them, and so I don't presume to comment on the situation here. In my own case though, I think the most important question to be addressed was the need to take this as a serious challenge. And so I chaired a national commission on this topic that had some useful influence. I refer to it frequently on the campus. And the challenge on a any campus is to make sure that this isn't just the business of the administration, it isn't just a few people struggling in the central office whose objective is to improve enrollment and retention, but it's everybody's business. Everybody's. Every faculty member's business in every department. Every admissions officer in every college. And getting that sense of mutual commitment is something that takes time. But we had good results and I hope they can go on getting better. There is a challenge in California, obviously, but the present need is to find ways of going ahead with that commitment even in the face of the fact that traditional methods are no longer acceptable.

I hear you saying again and again that the challenge is to have a vision, to have goals (for example with regard to Affirmative Action), but really to work with people.

That's right. I think that's the secret. And you know that's going to be true for Affirmative Action.

It's very clear that we have to have a system of higher education which provides equal access for all our people, and that unless we have that, we shall be impoverished as a nation. It's not only a question of justice in terms of the access of individuals. The nation needs that kind of participation. And so there has to be a way to make it possible. If the old ways are no longer available, we must find new ones so that all will participate. Maybe not every institution is going to participate in exactly the same way but the vision, shared and acted on together, that has to persist.

Eighteen years is a long time to be the head of any organization. How did the problems of managing the university change during that tenure?

I suppose there are many ways it changed. The two that come to mind, which are probably the most conspicuous, were first of all financial ones. Cornell had acquired a habit of deficit spending, where each year's budget was out of balance, and it turned to the endowment more and more frequently for more and more support in ways that eroded the long term health of that [endowment]. I decided we had to stop that and so we did: put the brakes on. And that was very unpopular, very painful. But it did the trick, because you cannot go to foundations and donors unless you can assure them that you're behaving responsibly and that you have a financial plan which is a prudent one. That was a painful change early on but it's one that has now become part of the fabric of managing the university. The second one that is important in retrospect, and I felt was important at the time, was that the university that I found had somehow lost confidence in itself. Cornell had a very tough time in the late '60s, very tough.

Because of the dissent?

Because of the dissent, yes. That had split the faculty down the middle and split the alumni. It had lost confidence in itself. It was made up of faculty, of people, who were rather resentful that they weren't Harvard or Yale, that they happened to be Cornell instead. It was made up of students who felt that they just missed getting into Princeton and so they had to settle for Cornell. I think one of the most important opportunities was to present Cornell not as something close to Harvard or Berkeley, but as something in its own right that was distinctive and that had a certain quality and a certain ethos. And to share that sense of confidence and pride with other people on campus. I think over the years people felt that they could take the world on and win on their own terms, and I think that's an important role of leadership.

You were responsible for a number of initiatives in new areas, Asian Studies, Super-computing, Biotechnology and so on. Give us one as an example and explain how you chose to move in that direction, and what was involved in mobilizing support to do that.

I'll maybe take a couple of those. The first one, Asian Studies. Cornell had had a strong tradition of Asian Studies. Some of the earliest students came from China. Some of the earliest scholars had an interest in Asian affairs and literature. And so that seemed a natural area to try to pull together to make some progress. And we did it by strengthening faculty numbers and faculty appointments in those areas. We did it also by beginning to take a much closer interest in Asia. And so I traveled to Asia maybe ten or maybe more times during the years that I was there, building contacts with Asian universities, getting to know Asian alumni, building bridges with Asian government agencies and corporations. I think all that helped, and continues to help. It so happens that one of our alumni was president of Taiwan, and so that was a natural kind of linkage of interest.

The other one was biotechnology, where I'm bound to say we haven't done nearly as well as the University of California system has done, for reasons that I don't find myself able to say clearly what they were.

Better weather.

That might have something to do with it. In fact, the early movies were made in Ithaca. (The term "cliffhanger" refers to the cliffs all around the Ithaca campus and these gorges.) But gradually [the movie industry] moved west because of the weather and we lost that to California. But it was very clear that biotechnology was up and coming and we put an institute together, a center for biotechnology. Built a new building, built some corporate contacts. I don't think that's done as well as I'd hoped. One reason perhaps was that our medical school is 250 miles away from the campus -- it's in Manhattan. (We've got another campus downtown in New York City.) And there was never the kind of interchange there that might have linked the clinical development of these products to their creation. I hope we can make up for lost time, but I think that was an initiative that started well but hasn't fulfilled some of its promise.

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