Harold T. Shapiro Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Changing Role of University Presidents: Conversation with Harold T. Shapiro, former President of Princeton and of the University of Michigan, March 18, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 2 of 5

University President

At some point in your career, what led you into administration?

I got there almost serendipitously. I had served three years as chair of the Economics Department at the University of Michigan. I enjoyed that, but this was a rotating chairmanship, everyone in the department took their turn, and while I was younger than the previous chairs, it was just my turn. I took my time at that and was preparing to go back to full-time teaching when I got a call from the president of the university asking me if I would like to consider becoming provost of the university.

It was an astonishing call. I was very surprised. Without going through the whole saga, I eventually decided, since I didn't have to move my family and I liked the University of Michigan very much, that I would try it out. When I tried it out, I found it really intriguing, and I liked it a lot.

You characterized the university president as both a manager and an entrepreneur. What are the skills and talents required for these two different kinds of roles, in one job?

You are the administrative head of a very large organization, typically, with many employees -- the University of Michigan has about 25,000 employees. Princeton has many fewer than that, but still in the thousands of employees. You have a responsibility to ensure that they have satisfactory careers and they have satisfactory lives, that they are treated fairly, and that they serve the university in ways that are appropriate. That's a totally administrative operation, but extremely important. The faculty and the students can't do what they need to do if they don't have the support of the administrative staff and everybody that works at the university. So in that sense, you have administrative leadership.

The entrepreneurial leadership is more in the area of ideas -- exploring new ground, deciding where the particular university you're involved with could strike out and make a difference. The more distinguished the university, the more sensitive they are, or the more they face a difficulty or a danger of what I call "entrenched success." When you think you're good and everybody says you're good, you get to believe this after a while. But it's my own view that there are two things that are true of all universities: one is, no university is as good as its own propaganda; and second, no university is as good as it should be. So your entrepreneurial function is to help the faculty and others who are concerned with exploring areas and new ways of doing things, taking risks. It's very important to take risks. Successful people don't often take risks once they're very successful, because they have so much to lose. But maintaining leadership requires risk-taking. So in that sense, you have a entrepreneurial role.

How do you move the university along into these new directions? Is it carrots and sticks? Is it cajoling, persuading?

I think it's the power of ideas. It's the commitment to the future, distinction in the university, and the power of ideas which come from all parts of the university. Your job as president is to help the faculty and others concerned with the future of the university focus on a few ideas, and eventually, with you, select some initiatives to take on. In that way it's very different than corporate governance. In corporate governance, there might be a lot of discussion going on, but eventually the CEO decides and everybody marches in that direction. In an academic institution, it's more like a partnership. You have to get people's attention. You have to get them to sign up for this. You have to get them to want to go there, and for the faculty to believe that their own professional futures are consistent with the area you want to go to. So it's much more like a partnership than like a corporation.

It sounds like what is required are political skills, in part.

Of course it is political skills in part, because you have to bring together people who are in different areas, have different objectives, and get them to share a common vision of where the university might want to go. So it certainly requires those kinds of political skills.

You have presided over a great public university and a great private university. What are the differences in those two jobs?

First of all, I would say that there are a lot of similarities -- both great public and great private universities are tying to recruit outstanding students, trying to recruit outstanding faculty. There are a lot of the things that are very much the same; most importantly, whether public or private, universities need to think of themselves as public trusts, whether they are serving the public in the way that it's appropriate for their circumstances. So in those ways, they're very much the same.

The principal way they are different in my mind, at least from the point of view of the president, is that when head of a public university, one of your constant responsibilities is to convince the many important and powerful groups that exist in the state that their agendas and your agendas have sufficient overlap so that they can support you politically. Whether it's the business community or whether it's the labor unions or other powerful groups in the state, you have to always be in a position of convincing them that your agenda and their agenda have sufficient overlap so that they can support you, because their support is critical.

In a private university, that is an easier job. Usually, the trustees of the university share the common objectives to make the universities as distinguished as possible. They may have disagreements on how to do that, or whether your policies are the right policies, but in general that's a somewhat easier job. That makes it somewhat easier as a private university, because the basic objectives are not at stake, and it's only the agenda of the university and the public trust that it serves that are at issue. You have much less to do with mobilizing and mutually supporting other powerful political interests and important political interests.

It seems that in both the public and private university, a critical part of the president's job is mediating between the outside and the inside in various ways. Talk a little about that and what the difficulties are there.

It's always very important and difficult at a university to get the right balance between external and internal commitments -- commitments to various types of external constituencies and a reasonable commitment to internal constituencies. It's always difficult to get that balance correct. What I always ask myself in this respect is, whose interests are we trying to serve? How should our programs and our efforts be allocated so that we best serve the broadest interests of society? There are tremendous demands for universities to help other groups do things, to help the public schools become better, help the professions become better, etc. We always have to remember that we should do what we're good at. We're not good at everything. Higher education is probably not good at running K-12 education. We're probably not good at running state government. We're certainly not good at running major corporations.

So we always have to condition our objectives by what we're good at, what kind of expertise we've assembled on campus, and try to match the internal versus external commitments to the actual expertise we have, as opposed to what people would like to believe we would have. Many constituencies believe we can help them when, in fact, we can't. Even though we've supported them and have a lot of empathy for their challenge, we're just not able to help them.

Was your quantitative background in economics helpful to you in your role as a manager?

It was helpful not in any specific way, but in a general way. Economists think naturally about the allocation of resources. They think naturally about the terms like opportunity costs; that is, if you move in one direction, what do you give up by not moving in another direction? There are things economists know and are comfortable with that are very helpful. But I wouldn't want to exaggerate that too much. It's somewhat helpful. I certainly found it helpful, but in a limited way.

What in your background prepared you for the leadership side that you were just talking about -- the role as conciliator, mediator, integrator, and so on -- of both the campus and the outside community?

Unfortunately, I have to say there's nothing in my background I can think of that especially relates to that. Somehow, it seemed to work out okay. I think of my background as pretty conventional -- a child of immigrants who were trying to find a socially mobile path upwards through education. This is a very typical story of many, many families -- many millions of families. Things just worked out for me. Sometimes I was in the right place at the right time. I just happened to have a set of skills and interests that happened to fit at the right time. There's a considerable amount of luck in this, and I've been very lucky.

You write in an essay called University Presidents: Then and Now, "Whatever else it may be, the presidency of a university is a very human endeavor, and, therefore, a very humbling and humorous experience."

I think of humility as the most rewarding and most human of all characteristics. My general observation is that having a good sense of humor and being humble more or less go together, because you don't mind laughing at yourself and not taking yourself too seriously. I always remember that when I was a young faculty member at the University of Michigan in 1964, not only did I not know who the president was, I didn't care who the president was. I felt that he would do his thing, I'd do my thing, and we'd never meet and that was just fine with me. I had no desire in mind. I always remind myself about that, so that I don't take my position too seriously, and remind myself that the real creativity of the university is in the faculty and is in the student body. The job of a president is to arrange things so the faculty and students can do what they need to do.

Next page: Universities Today

© Copyright 2003, Regents of the University of California