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Presidential Leadership: Intellectual Vocation, Moral Mandate

President John T. Casteen III
September 2002

John T. Casteen III is president of the University of Virginia. He expresses his gratitude for the advice and collaboration of Margaret Klosko in preparing this article.

Aristotle and Cicero, Dante and Machiavelli, John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass, Yeats and Sartre, Edmund Wilson and Hannah Arendt—all felt empowered and obligated to comment on public policy. College and university presidents have sometimes played this role as well. In our own time, public engagement has somehow become political engagement circumscribed by the limits of credentialed expertise. Everyone knows the value of Robert Hutchins's, James Conant's, and Charles Eliot's critical commentaries on the moral issues of their time, but (probably to our detriment) contemporary political realities have altered the college president's role, perhaps forever.

In fact, the public intellectual might now be a quaint cultural relic. Once, at least a few public intellectuals lived by Milton's plea for conscience above all: "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties." Now, a reasonable critic might charge many or most of us with avoiding public engagement on most questions of conscience that do not properly fall under narrow disciplinary authority. The bravest among us address the great general issues of the academy—affirmative action, academic freedom, student drinking, sponsored research, state funding, and so on, and do so with reasonable effectiveness. But few venture beyond the academy's internal issues. Why not?

Perhaps the reason lies in the virtues and inevitable vices of an expanding American democracy and a political culture that denies leaders much authority—political, moral, or intellectual. It is helpful for those of us with leadership positions in the academy to compare our public discourse with the public utterances of our counterparts in political and corporate offices.

Most of us would prefer, I think, to be compared with faculty colleagues. Yet this comfortable comparison reveals little. Our intellectual limitations differ considerably. Exceptions such as Chomsky or perhaps Teller notwithstanding, teaching faculty tend to speak within the ranges of their disciplines. On the other hand, to compare college presidents to corporate chief executive officers and presidents of the United States may, in the universe of moral failure, be overly ambitious, thus a disclaimer: College presidents' failings are mere shadows on the cave wall, poor representations of the Platonic form of leadership failure. Leaders in other fields have far larger failings to explain.

Still, college presidents, who may believe that they strive to be philosopher kings, more and more commonly come to resemble politicians and corporate officers, perhaps even in their least comely habits of equivocation and sophistry. Professional politicians (college presidents are ultimately amateurs) participate in a denatured Machiavellian rhetoric. Their utterances are crafted to say little, to mean the opposite of what they seem to mean, or to throw the hounds off the scent. Voltaire said, "Men use thought only to justify their wrongdoings, and speech only to conceal their thoughts." He knew his own craft.

Machiavelli's signature book offers some context. The prince stands apart from morality (or sentimentality). Ends justify his means, and he judges his own actions without regard to precedent, rule, or universal principle. He submits to no higher authority. He calculates his appearance in the world. Wisdom or goodness has a place in the prince's actions only if he can use these qualities, and then only as apparent qualities, neither real nor innate. He is, in most situations, ruthlessly self-interested. But because the prince is the state, his self-interest redounds to the state's welfare. Contemporary politicians might be said to embody less of state and more of self, but the notion that kings define their nations (or think they do) is as useful analytically in contemporary Washington or Beijing as it was in Renaissance Florence.

Modern American politicians, living in the context of instantaneous media reinforcement, invest themselves heavily in their personae, generally defined as a combination of image and position, that is, they look or sound a certain way and craft positions to either attract followers or defeat enemies on battlefields that exist at least partly to serve the politician's own fictitious persona. When the prince spoke, he saw himself as addressing the needs of the state. When American politicians or self-justifying corporate officers speak, they seem in our time to speak without regard for the needs of the institutions for which they bear responsibility.

The contemporary salability in the media of titillation for its own sake leads to what Senator Hillary Clinton has called "the politics of personal destruction." Campaign donors overtly pursue narrowly defined corporate or personal agendas—a truth that is evident in the fund solicitations issued by almost any political action committee. Enron and a dozen other corporate disasters demonstrate how readily the pursuit of the immediate gain entices executives and shareholders (and their political beneficiaries) to claim bogus gains and make self-preservation, even if it's an illusion, the primary goal. Beholden to such goals and pursued by media for whom scandal is profit, leaders' interests become narrow and petty. Speech, like action (forgetting, denying, or shredding memory, for example), echoes that narrowness and pettiness.

A review of major political and economic scandals in recent times reveals a good bit about a new rhetoric of leadership in our times. Often lacking in this rhetoric is reason, intellectual rigor, truthfulness, and moral seriousness, to name just a few qualities for which one might want to be remembered. What we do find, unfortunately, is self-righteousness, defensiveness, blame shifting, and not least, a trivial and tedious juvenility. Most interesting is the sum of all these qualities, which add up to a stunning failure of authority. One can only conclude that as the political rhetoric is drained of authority, so are the offices from which the rhetoric emanates. Do these models define leadership in ways that can survive the moment of utterance?

We have had a few presidents and presidential aspirants who got closer than contemporary leaders to Plato's model of political leadership—Adlai Stevenson, for example, or perhaps Eugene McCarthy ("Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it important."), tarnished though he may have been by his cerebral disengagement from the political moment. These two unsuccessful contenders for the White House were perhaps too idealistic and not realistic enough to survive our national political frenzy. In their political failures, they fell short of becoming philosopher kings. By contrast, Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Jefferson, faulted though both are for many reasons, became philosopher kings specifically by refusing to claim the role.

In American politics, vagueness cloaked in the mantle of glibness or aptness counts for a great deal, especially in an age of instantaneous reporting. To say a lot about a little is to change the status quo as little as possible. Intellectual acuity or profound moral qualities can get in the way of succeeding in this arena. Anyone who meets the citizenship and age requirements can become president of the United States. Ross Perot, Patrick Buchanan, Ralph Reed, Ralph Nader—all ran for president. Gracie Allen, who ran for president as a shtick on her and her husband George Burns's radio show, expressed this brand of egalitarianism in a piping, baby's voice: "All the other candidates are making speeches about how much they have done for their country, which is ridiculous. I haven't done anything yet, and I think it's just common sense to send me to Washington and make me do my share."

Given that, Machiavelli's prince and Plato's philosopher king do not work as leadership models in contemporary American politics. Both require investments of authority in political leadership that democratic individualism does not allow and that modern media cannot report except with frenzied disdain. Can we expect to find philosopher queens or kings in the American academy if the qualities that make for success in government and business diverge so bluntly from the traditional paradigms of leaders?

Derek Bok, often notably outspoken about academic issues, not only recognizes the political reality that constrains principled public expression but also notes the ethical constraints on such expression. In a brief essay urging that college presidents take on the mantle of the public intellectual, Rita Bornstein quoted Bok in explaining the complexity of wearing the crown: "Presidents . . . [must] refrain from using their authority to impose their private political views on the university. . . . Academic leaders are appointed to serve the interests of a wide variety of groups who support the university and benefit from its activities."

What perhaps compels this political quietism are commonplace social phenomena: increased diversity on university campuses; the contemporary Western penchant for moral relativism; financial exigency; authentically weaker authority; boards of trustees' new, often political, assertiveness; the expectation that public intellectuals be scholarly rather than baleful; and the fact that, as Kingman Brewster said, "We all live in a televised goldfish bowl." Because of these and other constraints, we often cannot (or believe we cannot) take the kinds of principled stands on public policy that at least some of our predecessors in the academy (i.e., the memorable ones) took. The topics we address are circumscribed by what I suspect are shrinking spheres of influence.

Perhaps we can no longer be public intellectuals with Milton's "liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely." Still, we can be principled in our academic leadership and in our speech in ways that are as numerous as are the constraints on our free expression of opinion. We can foster diversity in dialogue, lead by building consensus, stand for the core values of the institutions we lead, and refrain from speaking when we cannot speak substance. And when we do speak about matters of substance, we can be forthright about the limits of our authority and the impossibility of certainty. In our actions, we can recognize that we serve a higher purpose than personal advancement.

A becoming modesty, along with vigorous moral seriousness, might characterize a new style and discourse of academic leadership. We can realize that we are not superwomen and men, who can with an utterance change minds and the course of history. Like doctors, we can "first, do no harm." Like Boy Scouts, we can be loyal and true. And we can be useful—instrumental in advancing the institutions we lead and their educational missions. We can refrain from letting our own voices be music to our ears. If cults of personality or self-satisfaction are out, even on campuses, perhaps rigorous and fair forums for discourse can replace them.

But we are not simple. What makes us something more than knee-jerk organization women and men are the critical and moral faculties that we apply in the exercise of our duties. These faculties, along with humility and ethical purpose, can protect us from the intellectual and moral rootlessness that often sends leaders careening like pinballs from one strategy to another. As we plant ourselves in the lives and values of the institutions we lead, as we promote the complex and creative interaction of many minds, we can be the leaders that our institutions need and that we are meant to be. And as we do that, we can also contribute to reshaping the public mind and soul, not least because our institutions are their nurseries.