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Where Have All the Great Presidents Gone?
(Or Have They?)

Harvard Graduate School of Education
July 1, 2001
A story from Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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About Ed. magazine

On the occasion of the presidential transition at Harvard this year, HGSE News is featuring a series of responses by HGSE alumni who are university or college presidents to an essay by HGSE professor Richard Chait about the "great" presidents. The resulting exchange is a provocative and thoughtful conversation on the nature of contemporary leadership.

This response was written by Peggy Ryan Williams, Ed.D.'83, President, Ithaca College.

Peggy Ryan Williams, Ed.D.'83 (photo courtesy of Ithaca College) 

I applaud Professor Chait on his article. As the world of higher education has changed in the last several decades, so have the leaders who are at the helm of our colleges and universities across the country. Are we in a leadership vacuum? I certainly think not.

Throughout my career in higher education, I have worked closely with a number of college and university presidents who have had varying styles of leadership, and most of whom have had successful presidencies with healthy growth at their institutions. The challenges that we face as educators as we head into the twenty-first century will require the type of leadership that is collaborative and creative—the type of leadership that will create a synergy on campus embraced by all as opposed to having one strong leader who will carve the path for all.

The Myth of Presidential Vision
Robert Birnbaum effectively conveys this concept in How Academic Leadership Works: Understanding Success and Failure in the College Presidency, when he says: "The myth of presidential vision is that leaders must set the direction for the college and move people toward achieving those goals. The reality of presidential vision is that goals are already within the institution, waiting to be both discovered and renewed through interpretation."

I am sure that Charles William Eliot, Nicholas Murray Butler, and Robert Maynard Hutchins were all outstanding presidents in their day and provided the type of leadership that was needed at the time. I believe that we have hundreds of leaders today who are providing their institutions and the world of higher education with innovative and forward-looking ideas while working closely with their campus communities to move their institutions forward. I believe that our successors will look back on these decades and see tremendous growth with solid leadership grounded in collaboration and teamwork.

About the Commentary
This commentary also appeared in the Summer 1998 issue of the HGSE Bulletin.

What do YOU think?

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