O'Connell Brothers' Book Examines Successes, Failures of University Leadership


A new book by University of Virginia law professor Jeffrey O'Connell and his brother, Thomas O'Connell, explores the qualities of university presidents.

March 27, 2012

University presidents are among the most highly compensated leaders in education, but the qualities that make a great college leader are not well understood, University of Virginia law professor Jeffrey O'Connell and his brother, Thomas O'Connell, write in a new book, "Five 20th Century College Presidents: From Butler to Bok (Plus Summers)."

"It's a very strange role because most college presidents come from academe, where they don't have any experience in administration, or very little. Certainly in the old days that was the case," Jeffrey O'Connell said. "They are thrust into a position where academic leadership is crucial, but there are other roles that most academics are alien to, like being an envoy to the community, and the whole element of being an administrator and delegating responsibility."

The book, published by Carolina Academic Press, focuses on the five roles of the university president: leader, manager, energizer, envoy and intellectual.

Both authors speak from the experience of working in academia at the highest levels. Thomas O'Connell founded and became president of Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, Mass., and Jeffrey O'Connell is a tort law expert and co-creator of no-fault auto insurance. Over the years the brothers occasionally reviewed biographies of university presidents for journals, and recently decided to rewrite their work and include new essays through the filter of those five qualities.

"Nobody's ever focused on these particular roles," Jeffrey O'Connell said. "The ultimate achievement of many administrators in the academic environment is to become a college president. Even those who have the goal of becoming a dean or a provost would be interested in how the ultimate role of the president is played."

The book focuses on long-serving presidents throughout the 20th century: Nicholas Murphy Butler of Columbia University (served 1900-45), Robert Hutchins of Yale Law School and the University of Chicago (1930-51), James Bryant Conant of Harvard (1933-55), John Sloan Dickey of Dartmouth (1946-71) and Derek Bok of Harvard (1971-91, 2006). The book concludes by examining the implosion of Laurence Summers' presidency at Harvard (2003-06).

Jeffrey O'Connell said Bok may exemplify the best qualities of a university leader.

"Bok is the symbol of what a college president has to be today," he said. "He always tried to lead by example and by consultation. But he also was a very strong and innovative person."

For example, O'Connell said Bok remade Harvard along more centrist lines when faced with a potentially dominating group of leftist faculty members. After the end of Laurence Summers rocky presidency (2003-06), Bok was asked to return on an interim basis.

"He's really quite an inspiring figure to emulate," Jeffrey O'Connell said.

Through exploring leading presidents' tenures, the book also shows the historical and cultural progression of higher-education institutions.

For example, Robert Hutchins, who became dean of Yale Law School at age 27 and president of the University of Chicago three years later, led an effort to make Chicago more interdisciplinary, encouraging the law and economics tradition for which the school became known.

"He was a very real leader in making higher education much more scholarly oriented than a lot of universities want to be. He, for example, wanted no part in big-time athletics," Jeffrey O'Connell said.

When James Bryan Conant saw how ruthlessly meritocratic German universities were, he moved to transform Harvard from a Brahmin institution somewhat dominated by old families and New York and Bostonian wealth to a more meritocratic school, both in selecting faculty and students.

"That had a tremendous influence throughout academic life, and universities became much more prone to try to pick the very best people regardless of whether they had local or emotional ties to the institution," he said.

Conant's tenure from the 1930s through the 1950s also demonstrated an uglier side of university life at the time.

"Even Conant couldn't escape the anti-Semitism that pervaded academe during his tenure and before," O'Connell said. Hiring Jewish faculty members was especially difficult as a result.

John Sloan Dickey's tenure at Dartmouth (1946-71) revealed still another challenge presidents can face, O'Connell said. Dickey wanted to make the school, which was largely an undergraduate institution, more intellectually focused.

"He had an interesting tightrope to walk — he wanted to keep it as a college, and undergraduate-oriented, but he also wanted to make it a much more research-oriented place," Jeffrey O'Connell said. "Some people would say he succeeded, but some alumni decried the change."

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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