"I served as the dean of one medical school, New York University, during the period of rapid expansion, and at another, Yale. . . . Both experiences brought me closer to the inner workings of the modern university than I had ever been before.
The governance of academic institutions has been considered and reconsidered, reviewed over and over by faculty committee after committee, had more reports written about than even the curriculum, even tenure. Nothing much ever comes of the labor.
How should a university be run? Who is really in charge, holding the power? The proper answer is, of course, nobody. I know of one or two colleges and universities that have actually been tightly administered, managed rather like large businesses, controlled in every detail by a president and his immediately surrounding bureaucrats, but these were not really very good universities to begin with.
A university, as has been said so many times that there is risk of losing the meaning, is a community of scholars. When its affairs are going well, when its students are acquiring some comprehension of the culture and its faculty are contributing new knowledge in their special fields, it runs itself, rather like a large organism. The function of the administration is solely to see that the funds are adequate for its purposes and not overspent, that the air is right, that the grounds are tidy -- and then to stay out of its way. . . .
The principle task of the administrators--the president, the provost, and the deans--after making sure that the proper systems are in place for keeping track of the money and generating reliable reports to the outside world in accounting for all funds, is to Let Nature Take Its Course. The university is perhaps the greatest of all social inventions, a marvel of civilization, a product of collective human wisdom working at its best. A good university doesn't need to be headed as much as to be given its head, and it is the administrator's task to see that this happens. The temptations to intervene from the top, to reach in and try to change the way the place works, to arrive at one's desk each morning with one's mind filled with exhilarating ideas for revitalizing the whole institution, are temptations of the devil and need resisting with all the strength of the administrator's character.
Hands off is the safest rule of thumb. The hands of trustees, the state legislature, the alumni, the federal granting bureaucracies, the national professional and educational societies, and most of all the administrators, must be held off, waving wildly from a distance but never touching the mechanism."
-- from "The Governance of a University," in The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine Watcher, by Lewis Thomas.
Lewis Thomas, M.D., was president of the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute in New York City. Deeply educated in both the sciences and the humanities -- "one of those rare physician-administrators," as a colleague put it, "who was as at home with Socrates and Shakespeare as with neurotransmitters or messenger RNA" -- he won the National Book Award in 1974 for his book The Lives of a Cell.
"During Gross's presidency, Rutgers was transformed. Enrollments rose from 12,000 to 20,000, the budget grew from $18 million to $68 million, and an enormous construction program transformed the campus. . . . New professional schools and a new college were founded. For all this to happen smoothly it was necessary, presumably, that the university be run with a reasonable amount of efficiency, and it was. But the characteristic tone of the Gross regime was relaxed, encouraging and rewarding distinction in teaching and research, and assuming that the various faculties of the University were the best judges of how to manage their own afairs. The atmosphere was unfriendly to "professional educators" and "scientific administration." So far as I know, Gross never went to a lecture or a conference or read a book on how to manage a university.
Once, the Governors of the University, many of them business executives, became alarmed at the apparent lack of system in the Rutgers administration and, for a vast sum, hired a famous firm of management consultants to study Rutgers. Their report was a many-volume work of "bureaucratese." Gross quietly shunted aside its recommendations with the comment that they were made by men who did not know what a university was about and that they were an unnecessary expense.
The educational authority which Gross quoted again and again in his speeches was The Aims of Education by his old teacher, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. If we may for a moment imagine Plato as the President of the University of Athens lecturing to students and citizens, using as his text his notes on the words of his master, Socrates, then we may have a notion of what Gross was like as a university president."