A guest reflection from Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus and university professor at the George Washington University (his most recent book, Presidencies Derailed [Johns Hopkins University Press], seeks to extract wisdom from the experiences of university presidents whose contracts have ended unhappily):
It has been said that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. That is surely true at the University of Texas where the chancellor of the university, Francisco Cigarroa, recently attempted to dismiss the president, William Powers. Watching the events transpire, one could not help but recall the 1970 excitement in Austin when Frank Erwin, the then chairman of the board at UT decided after conflicts with the dean of arts and sciences, John Silber, to as he put it “make Silber famous” by dismissing him.
Erwin, a historic ally of Governor John Connally, and Silber a robust Texas liberal crossed swords over the chairman’s desire to divide the college of arts and sciences into two schools, one in the sciences and the other in the social sciences and the humanities. It was generally believed that Erwin’s intention was to reduce Dean Silber’s powers by bifurcating his empire. Silber argued for the intellectual necessity of a united arts and sciences. Ultimately Erwin prevailed. Silber departed for Massachusetts where he became president of Boston University and politically wiser for his experiences in the West administered with a strong hand. He served for almost four decades in one capacity or another, bringing what had been a mid-level largely commuter institution to the threshold of membership in the American Association of Universities (AAU) arguably one of higher education’s most elite organizations whose membership is limited to 64 research campuses.
From 1970-1977 I worked for John Silber at BU in several capacities, the last being vice president, before departing for Connecticut where I was named president of the University of Hartford. On my last day at BU, President Silber showed up in my office around 5:00 PM with two glasses, a plastic bucket of ice, and an unopened bottle of very fine scotch. We sat there together drinking for a couple of hours as he shared with me the wisdom of his career. The most significant point was that the first thing to do as a president is to figure out who does the hiring and who does the firing. It is the only way to stay ahead of your critics, he said, and then he recalled his experiences with Erwin. Silber said, “When Frank Erwin decided to fire me, hundreds of faculty and well over 1000 students petitioned for my retention. Frank Erwin with only one vote prevailed. I always took that lesson very much to heart.”
Contemporary events in Austin and not too distant events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where president Theresa Sullivan managed to thwart efforts by a cabal of board members at the University of Virginia to dismiss her makes me wonder if today Silber might have prevailed in his disputation. The voice of students and faculty and other stakeholders may be more persuasive than it was back in the day.