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

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Universities Today

In a recent collection which you edited with William G. Bowen called Universities and Their Leadership, you have a chapter looking at university presidents then and now. Were you surprised by any of the things that you found?

I was very surprised. I compared the life of a university president in the nineteenth century versus the life of a university president in the later half of the twentieth century. The differences were rather extraordinary, and there were two different classes of differences that caught my attention. One was that institutions were much, much smaller at that time. The university president did everything from authorize the purchase of books and pencils and pens to teaching classes in moral philosophy.

The size of the universities was a fraction of what they are now, and the university president's personal aura and influence on the campus was very pervasive, and that really caught my attention. That was different. But the other difference that caught my attention is that of the moral and ethical issues in the nineteenth century, university presidents almost to a person knew what was right. They knew what the right attitudes were. They knew what right thinking was. They knew how all citizens ought to behave, and they had pretty rigid ideas about this -- very sincere, but very rigid. In some sense, you almost needed permission to think any differently than they thought. They were very authoritative figures.

At the end of the twentieth century, the whole idea has been turned around. The university is a place where all kinds of ideas can find expression, where all thoughtful ideas can meet each other and mediate with each other. It would be very inappropriate for the university president to say that there is one way of thinking, there's a right way to think, that there's only one moral avenue to fulfillment, and that's this one.

That's a reflection, in part, of size, and a reflection, in part, about our growing multiculturalism, our growing sensitivity to the differences we have. The university is just a very different place. It's a place where ideas commingle and interact and compete with one another, as opposed to dominate one another.

You were suggesting that one of the reasons why the president's portfolio changed was the emergence of scientific inquiry as an important feature of the university, and a feature which in a way was automatic, that once you became a scientist and became part of that community, a lot was happening because it was enforced by the scientific community.

It's not only the scientific community, but the scholarly community, broadly speaking. The attitudes changed, certainly, in the area of sciences, as you've indicated. But they also changed in literature, and they also changed in philosophy, and they changed in the social sciences. So it was the emergence of the scholarly enterprise, or the totally different foundation that was so important, including, of course very importantly, the scientific enterprise.

You conclude in that essay that "moral leadership is a realm where we had not clearly enough identified, assigned, or assumed responsibility." And you go on to say "the more pluralistic and complex a university, the tougher and more important this task of moral leadership."

I think moral leadership is an area where presidents in the latter half of the twentieth century, such as myself, did fall short. I teach in the area of biomedical ethics now, and when I talk to my students about ethics, and I try to describe to them what ethics is, the simple explanation I give is that ethical behavior requires taking other people's interests into account when you act. Very few university leaders, in my judgment, ever articulate out loud and in public whose interests are at stake and whose interests they are serving when they act or adopt certain policies. So, for example, if you ask, why does the University of California or Princeton University have admission standards of the type that they do? Very high admission standards; whose interests are served by such standards? Is it the interests of the society? The interests of those students? Is it our own selfish interests?

We should be able to articulate, out loud, why these aren't simply self-serving interests. For example, I could suggest that we have high academic achievement standards because [those students are] easier to teach. We just do it to make our job easier. I could suggest the alternative, that it makes our job harder, because they are very smart, very able, very ambitious students, and therefore we have to work harder to get them excited and enthusiastic. The point is not whether which one of these is correct, but to be able to publicly articulate why it is your admission standards are what they are, and whose interests are served. Then you've outlined your ethical position.

The same is true on an issue we talked about before. What is the appropriate dividing line between internal and external commitments to the university, and why? Whose interests are being served by setting a line in one place or another?

So it's those kinds of issues, which are very much in the minds of many college presidents and other leaders in academic life, but seldom are articulated publicly. We've lost the chance at moral leadership by not speaking publicly about this.

Is it because of the requirements of managing the university? There isn't time to sit back and articulate a vision with regard to these issues? Is it cowardice, or what?

I don't think it's cowardice. And I certainly don't think it's time, either. I don't think either of those. It's just that university leadership in most instances, and I include myself in that, has not taken seriously the ethical implications of decisions which seem natural to them. So, to go back to the example I used a few moments ago, universities almost uniformly set the admission standards as high as they can get away with. Maybe that's the correct policy. On the other hand, it's hard to find anyone who's ever explained why they do that, and not only why they do it, but why this isn't simply self-serving, why this actual serves the public interest. I believe, at the end of the day, it does serve the public interest; but very few people explain it or articulate why. Therefore, they have lost the chance to explain the ethical resonance of their policies.

Does this suggest that on a issue like Affirmative Action, the university has done a poor job of explaining itself because there hasn't been this kind of dialogue? Or is Affirmative Action a case where, actually, successful efforts were made?

[With] Affirmative Action there have been successful efforts, because that's an area which is so controversial that many presidents have spoken up on exactly why they believe what they do believe. But I don't think we've gone all the way. We've talked about diversity, the necessity of training leadership from all parts of our society, all of which are very important and very critical issues. But we don't often use the framework of saying whose interests are served, which is the critical issue to examine. But Affirmative Action is a bit of an exception. There have been some very wonderful statements in that area.

In your writings, you talk a lot about this dual role of the university as both a servant of society and a critic of society. Is that duality part of the issue here? In other words, because we've got to do both of those assignments, it becomes difficult to sit down and say, "Let's really talk about what we're doing."

No, I think that dual role of the modern university as both a servant of society, serving its various interests, and as a critic of society, standing back at an angle and trying to see if there aren't a better set of arrangements for society -- these dual roles simply ensure that the university, if it's doing its job, is going to be a controversial place. Universities will always be looking for better arrangements, to move away from the status quo to a better set of arrangements. We should welcome that controversy, because it's essential to our social legitimacy and our social vitality and social relevance.

The thing that's historically unusual is to have a government, namely the status quo, support another social institution, one of whose jobs is to criticize existing arrangements. That's what's so wonderful about the modern research university, and, historically, very atypical. Governments don't typically support people looking for better arrangements, they support those trying to consolidate current arrangements. That's been an usual and important aspect, and we don't take enough advantage of it. We don't take that responsibility seriously as we ought to.

You wrote in one of your essays, "It's surely the task of presidents," that is, the president of a university, "to grasp the meaning of current events for the evolution of higher education, to anticipate transformation, and to pose questions such as ..." and you list a number of questions. The one I want to focus on is: "To what extent are liberal democracy and free scientific inquiry tied together?" I would like to relate this problem to the current war on terrorism. What do you think are the long-term implications for the university community? Are there problems that you see, where the university in its role as servant has to also maintain this view of a critic of what the society is up to?

First of all, with respect to the war on terrorism, this is an issue that's going to impact the whole society. The university is impacted in some ways, just like everyone else is. So we will have certain impacts. But there is potential to impact the university in a rather serious way. That is, should this [war on terrorism] proceed by asking the university in its function to, let's say, do a little more classified research -- this will undermine both the university's social legitimacy and its task to educate its students.

So that could be a difficulty. We may not be able, as an institution, to participate in some of the [war on terrorism] activities, however necessary they might be, within the context of a university where openness is so critical. We may have to come to a decision in that [classified] research, which might be very important. It has to be done, and we hope to get good people to work on it, but we may have to go so outside the university context. I'm very hesitant about a university taking on work that cannot be widely shared on campus; which has to be secret; where you can't go in and out of labs, you can't exchange information. That can undermine our vitality quite quickly. And while there might be extreme circumstances in which you would want to do that, I think we ought to be very cautious.

And the extent to which the university is being asked to take on a security role in identifying who's doing what kind of study, limiting access of students from certain countries, that also seems to be a potential problem.

It seems to me that openness is a solution to these kinds of problems. I don't see why we can't be open about who is doing what, and why don't we just publish in the book. We have a faculty directory; we have a student directory. We could say who is working on this and that. I don't see what one loses by openness. Openness is what we say we stand for, so I don't understand what we have to lose by just being frank about what we are doing. I don't think there's any reason to be concerned about it, whether we tell the local newspaper, or we tell the government, or we tell everybody. Now, if we were to only tell some people, that would be a problem.

And [with openness] you don't enter into a role that you might not want to have?

That's right. You don't enter into it, but be free and open about what you're doing. If you want to know, look it up.

Next page: Ethics and Biomedical Research

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