Some notes on books recently read:
University Leadership and Public Policy in the Twenty-First Century, by Peter MacKinnon. I really wanted to like this book before I started it. Since I started working in this field, few university Presidents have had such a profound positive effect on their institution as Peter McKinnon did at the University of Saskatchewan. And how can you not love someone who says stuff like: “weak academic departments tend to perpetuate themselves because of their reluctance to apply standards higher than they see reflected in themselves”?
That said, the book is a bit uneven. Where he has real passion and a good story to tell from his time at the University of Saskatchewan (e.g. chapters on collective bargaining and tenure), he’s flat-out great. Where he has less passion, and the narrative is mostly stitched together from things like AUCC reports, it’s much less compelling. And I’m not 100% sure he needed to take such a shot as his successor, Ilene Busch-Vishniac, over the Buckingham affair. Still, worth a read. Buy it.
Designing the New American University, by Michael Crow and William Dabars. As with MacKinnon’s work, I really wanted to like this book before I started it. The re-think of the relationships between department and faculties at Arizona State under Crow’s watch is quite intriguing (see this Change article from 2009), and is that rare thing in higher education: a genuinely innovative model. And how can you not love an American university President who thinks the main problem of elite American universities is that they aren’t enough like elite Canadian universities (i.e. large)?
The problem is, this book – co-authored with University of Arizona historian William Dabars – is a tedious slog. Very little of it is actually about ASU; far, far too many pages are devoted to a history of higher education, which breaks little new ground and is written in a plodding, name-dropping style that repeatedly had me wishing to hurl the book across the room. There are a few interesting bits in chapters 5 and 7 on ASU, but even then Crow talks a lot about the fabulous results ASU has achieved, while saying very little about the practical tactics of how ASU achieved a re-conceptualization (which is what any sane editor would have told them was the interesting bit). Anyways, save your money, skip this book, and read this free download of articles about ASU instead.
Locus of Authority, by William Bowen and E.M Tobin. I had no particular reason to think I would like this book, because I find former Princeton President William Bowen’s writing style to be that of a tedious blowhard. That said, it actually ended up being a light and interesting history of governance in American universities, combined with an argument that governance today is in not bad shape, except that professors should on no account have any control over whether the courses they offer are in-person or online. If this seems like an oddly specific preoccupation, you need to know Bowen’s consultancy outfit is really big on online delivery. Buy it if you’re a governance freak, don’t if you’re not.
Crisis in Higher Education: A Plan to Save Small Liberal Arts Colleges in America, by Jeffrey Docking with Carman Curton. I had no idea what to think of this book, because I’d never heard of Jeffrey Docking of Adrian College, the small liberal arts school in Michigan where he is President. Since I work with some small institutions, the book’s subtitle is what attracted me. According to Docking, the answer to saving small liberal arts colleges is “more Div III football”.
I was a bit befuddled by this, but this article actually makes the case pretty simply: kids in the US will pay a lot of money to be part of a sports team, and since Div III sports are cheap (no scholarships), this actually works out pretty well for institutions What Docking is really saying, of course, is that the answer to shortages of funds is: more students. At almost any cost, you need more students. In other words, the way to save small liberal arts colleges is to make them somewhat larger liberal arts colleges. This would not come as a surprise to any of our U4 universities (Bishop’s, Mount Allison, Acadia, St. FX); they’ve been doing this for years, only without the benefit of the $25,000 tuitions US Liberal Arts colleges can demand. Buy this book if you for some reason are proposing an Athletics-led strategic enrolment plan; otherwise, just know that there is a literature on Athletics-led strategic enrolment plans.
Have a good weekend.