Monday, December 14, 2009

Historians running universities

The Globe and Mail profiles Daniel Woolf, historian turned principal of Queen's University, and the difficult situation he faces. Woolf has a pretty impressive resume as a historian of Britain and of historical writing, and I confess I've never understood why anyone who had a situation like that would voluntarily become a university administrator. But it seems to happen all the time.

How do historians do as university presidents and principals? Is there any data on that? I recall some awkward situations with historians running Canadian universities. On the other hand, Drew Gilpin Faust is an American Civil War historian and president of Harvard. (The other theory, of course, is that it doesn't really matter who runs universities, since they are ungovernable anyway.)

Update, September 15: Charles Levi, who knows university history, offers wisdom:
Do we have any criteria to evaluate how well a university president does? For anyone? What are your limits: lack of disruption of daily activities? Awards received from outside agencies during tenure as president? Honorary degrees received from other universities? Ability to get other jobs after leaving the presidency?

I don't think we have a good set of rules to evaluate this stuff. For one example, James Loudon of U of T is continually criticized as being a bad president of his University -- but in the context in which he administered, he did a pretty good job. The problem was that the context was toxic, and this did him in. Falconer, who succeeded him, gets most of the credit for initiatives Loudon began. Wilson, who preceded him, gets none of the blame for the events which he set in motion and Loudon had to clean up after.

It's a good question whether the physicist Loudon was a better president that the anthropologist Wilson or the theologian Falconer -- but without any good set of criteria for those three, judging historians in comparision just isn't possible.
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