An Academic Question — Scapegoat or Sacrificial Lamb?

By Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, President Emeritus and University Professor of Public Service, and Gerald B. Kauvar, Special Assistant to the President Emeritus and Research Professor of Public Policy and Public Administration, The George Washington University

A president bearing the blame for the sins of others or one provided by the trustees as a burnt offering to whatever gods may be.

Maybe.  Some who resign take responsibility for whatever occurred on their watch – personal or institutional, success or failure.

As in the military, where the ranking officer is held responsible for any mishap caused by his or her subordinates,[1] so university presidents are deemed responsible for whatever felonies or misdemeanors or mischievous behavior or errant ways or stupidity is committed on campus by students, athletes (sometimes a separate category, sometimes not) faculty, or staff or the independent alumni office or the institution’s boosters.

Commanding officers get credit when all goes well, but that credit is generally shared with the troops and crews whose members get unit citations for valor or bravery.  College and university presidents often get credit when the institution does well; despite attempts to share the praise, the press and the popular imagination attribute to their leadership any ascent or decline in the institution’s reputation.

Let’s look at the recent resignation of Holden Thorpe.  As one report put it, ‘the past two years of Thorpe’s tenure have been burdened by athletic and administrative scandals that, while not of Thorpe’s doing, led to significant criticism of his leadership from sources inside and outside the university.” [2] Not of his doing.  And not to his knowledge, though to the knowledge of those who perpetrated and perpetuated the scandals.  If you’re consistently lied to, it’s hard to ask enough questions or the right questions.[3] Thorpe fired a football coach whose players received improper benefits.  The university’s top fundraiser resigned after the discovery of a romantic relationship with a subordinate and improper travel by the pair.  And the African studies department included dozens of no-show classes heavily enrolled by athletes, poorly supervised independent study courses, and forged faculty signatures.[4]

Thorpe sacrificed himself, perhaps saving others the trouble but probably not.  No one has suggested that either the faculty or the trustees wanted him ousted.  Nevertheless, a wise decision for his career.  He left himself a year to make necessary changes without having to be concerned about whether the actions he might need to take to restore the institution’s luster were so severe that he might lose the confidence of his faculty or trustees.  He’ll get well deserved credit for taking the fall for others because he was the actual and symbolic head of the institution, and he’ll get credit for whatever reforms he institutes.

Another resignation bears scrutiny.  Why did the President of the University of Vermont resign after the disclosure of his wife’s amatory relationship with the Assistant Vice President of Development?  We may never know his reasons, but the trustees seemed to believe that the values of the institution were undermined.

A relationship between the wife of the University of Vermont’s former president and a university administrator did not violate any laws or university policies, but nonetheless ran counter to the institution’s stated “guidelines and values,” according to a review released by the university’s Board of Trustees[5]. “Effective management and oversight were lacking, for which the president, and in turn the Board of Trustees, must accept final responsibility,” the report states.[6]  Management and oversight of what – his spouse?    The board has accomplished an acrobatic feat of logic –blaming the victim while claiming final responsibility.

Under Mr. Fogel’s contract, he is granted a year of leave while retaining full salary and benefits of about $410,000. But the compensation agreement Mr. Fogel struck with the university extends that benefit for another five months, providing an additional $170,000 in salary and benefits, several Vermont news-media outlets have reported. Additionally, Mr. Fogel will be given a position in the English department, where he will make $195,000 a year, about $80,000 more than the department’s highest-paid professor.

Mr. Cioffi, the Board chair, defended Mr. Fogel’s severance package thusly:  “It is a balance between certainly some very public shortcomings and the accomplishments he’s made over the last year,” Mr. Cioffi said.

“The trustees’ report also outlines a number of policies that will be changed or introduced as a result of the investigation. The board will develop policies regarding services provided by a presidential spouse; review procedures related to reimbursement of expenditures; and consider a new policy related to workplace climate.”

“Mr. Fogel supported the review and its recommendations.  His formal statement reads “It is good to have reached closure on this unfortunate matter, and I regret the distraction it has caused the university.”[7]

Both men had been good presidents – they had improved the institutions under their leadership.  “Dillon Fogel has been at the university for almost a decade. His tenure was marked by a building boom on campus and growth in the student population. Fogel launched an honors college on campus, and is credited with raising the school’s academic standards”[8]  Thorpe was credited with “steering the university through a budget crisis, boosting fund-raising, increasing student quality and research funding.”  “He emphasized innovation and entrepreneurship in education and made steps to improve town-gown relationships.”[9]

Are Thorpe and Fogel to be admired?  Surely they’re not to be pitied, but perhaps held harmless – and not simply financially.   Their leadership skills and reputations remain untarnished and transferable.  Their integrity is more than intact, and their instinct for potential trouble probably sharper than ever.  They’ve been tempered by fire, if not by firing.  Both should be considered as candidates for a future presidency.  They’ve demonstrated wisdom, selflessness, and grace under pressure.

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