Ruminations on University Presidency: evil is abolished and paradise restored


In the introduction of A Free and Ordered Space, Ruminations on University Presidency, Giamatti parodies his experience as president of Yale University, and the university broadly, foreshadowing the rise of the corporate university. Through his parodies, he pokes at the corporatization of the university, some of the relationships between the university and society, and the character of the university presidency in the late 20th century. This is the first part of a two part sequence that is followed by Ruminations on University Presidency: The University Voice.

“Being president of a university is no way
for an adult to make a living.”


I look back at the date of my last post made in March 2013 with a little embarrassment recognising how much time has passed. As indicated in my last few posts, Thoughts Provoked in “A Free and Ordered Space” and More Thoughts Provoked in “A Free and Ordered Space,” I had planned to really dig into A Free and Ordered Space, but got swept away with all that comes along with an international move and a new appointment. I have finally been forced to raise my head a bit through participating in a University of Southern Queensland version of “23-Things,” which includes a section on blogging and has resulted in renewed interest in sharing on this forum.
So, I am going to pick-up where I left off, but with no promises that I will stick to a schedule. I have reread the introductory chapter, Ruminations on University Presidency, which I found absolutely engaging… actually much more so than a year ago. I think that my experiences here in Australia and the opportunity to reflect from a distance on what is happening in the US has sharpened some of my thinking.
As mentioned in earlier posts, A Free and Ordered Space is a collection of speeches and presentations. So, the introduction serves a critical function, in effect providing guidance to the reader and pulling at threads that the author intends to pursue. In this case Giamatti decided to structured his introduction first to provide a retrospective overview of his 8 years as president of Yale through a series of parodies that need to be read a few times for full enjoyment. He then takes the time to address what a university ought to do, where he has seen the university fail, and the consequences of such failure. I will address the first part of the introduction in this posting and then move on to the second part in a later posting.


In the first part of his Ruminations on University Presidency, Giamatti describes the transformation he experienced while moving from scholar to corporate citizen. He pokes at the corporate university with such skill that I could not help but smiling and then thinking and then not smiling so much.  He is of course writing his own comedy while also painting the university’s tragedy – its assent into corporate culture and his role. He is of course speaking of a general trend at universities and an affliction suffered by university leadership more generally.
Giamatti chooses to make his point by cataloguing the anxiety he experienced while preparing for his presidency and how he responded. As it turns out, he felt compelled to focus on learning about the corporate world and concluded that Yale needed a corporate strategy and a policy, neither of which, as he points out, are things that he has ever had. During his preparation his activities included:
  • casting about;
  • soliciting data, forecasts, projects, and models;
  • doing comparative and longitudinal studies;
  • making a flowchart, and convening a taskforce.
All of which are activities that many of us know quite well and by implication are the things needed to repair the decent of the university. At the end of his preparations, while squatting in his garage he wrote the following policy:

To the members of the University Community: 

In order to repair what Milton called the ruin of our grand parents, I wish to announce that henceforth, as a matter of University Policy, evil is abolished and paradise is restored.  

I trust all of us will do whatever possible to achieve this policy objective. 


The responses to Giamatti’s first policy are playfully prepared to illustrate a profound lack of understanding from a variety of archetypes, to lay bare a cast of predictable characters / caricatures, and to flaunt his misguided trust. Most of the characters either do not recognise any evil, see it, but do not want to change anything, or feel that Giamatti himself and others like him are the source. Eventually though, toward then end of his tenure, evil is recognised by a small group of “clergy from in town” who act on behalf of campus academics and engage in thoughtful conversation with the intent of making things better.


Giamatti then tells of his visit with an elected representative, Congressman Phlange, from the third district of a state we call Grace, in what I assume is his collective experience with the political environment and how it represents our public. Once again, by implication, it is the sentiments articulated during this visit that fertilise the growth of corporatization as it has taken its shapes in the American University. During his visit, the congressman briefs President Giamatti, and during the business end of the briefing the President is informed by the Congressman that:

  • We think that NIH cuts should go through.
  • We are not impressed with your fatuous argument that we can’t change the rules half way through the game.
  • We believe that student aid benefits only the rich and the poor; rather than stopping abuse, we’d rather do away with everything.
  • We are for cutting out charitable deductions, instituting for the 2 percent floor, and for forbidding gifts of appreciated assets.
  • We do not believe in a federal science facilities fund or in the nonprofit postal subsidy.
  • We think it would be the height of fraud and abuse to fund the Humanities.
  • We intend to uncap retirement, cap technology transfer, cut the NEA and NSF, get rid of the Library of Congress, and slash the Health Manpower act.

And the punch line to this familiar joke is that these positions are held because the Congressman and his public want to get this country moving again.  Taken together, these internal and public perspective-holders are the unofficial self-appointed “university owners” as discussed by Henry Rosovsky in The University, an Owners Manual. Rosovsky’s description of these constituent groups is probably worth introducing in a future post as well.


I find this all very satisfying, first for its pure entertainment value, but also for its continued relevance. In the first part of his introduction, Giamatti is pointing toward the confluence of attitudes and conditions that have driven the growth of the corporatization of the American University, which in itself is a complex topic that merits additional consideration. Now, in 2014 many of us in Australia can take notes as well as we assess proposed higher education reform, which very much frame the university as a business competing in a free market for student customers.
It is my feeling though that what we really need to do is assess ourselves. The acceptance by university administrators, academics, university governance groups, trustees, and the public that universities are knowledge corporations that through their teaching mission are designed solely and practically to feed the job market is not part of an inescapable logic yielding universally beneficial outcomes. But there needs to be a conversation. It needs to be critical and reflective. And university academics and leaders need to frame it in terms that assert value in our fundamental purposes. The value would seem to include a broader social service requiring a logic that is different but not entirely divorced from maximising returns to our “equity holders” as defined appropriately.
In the second half of Giamatti’s introduction he poetically describes the nature of the university, its essential connection with conversation, and the need to rekindle it in public.
It is my hope that as I progress through what Giamatti is communicating in A Free and Ordered Space, the treatment of these topics will become more subtle, thought provoking, and meaningful for those of us participating in current conversations about the changing nature of higher education and the identity of the university. As always, I invite discussion and critique. I also invite those with insights to share their knowledge about what was happening at Yale and other universities during the mid-70s through mid-80s that may have influenced Giamatti’s thinking and attitudes. Insights about specific events along the lines of what Eric Feinblatt shared in a comment last year are incredibly valuable.


The Corporate Analogy Unravels, Chronicle of Higher Education

The The Earthly Paradise (Detail – The Fall of the Rebel Angels)
Brief excerpt from Paradise Lost referenced in Giamatti’s first policy

Say first—for Heaven hides nothing from thy view, Nor the deep tract of Hell—say first what cause Moved our grand Parents, in that happy state, Favoured of Heaven so highly, to fall off        30
From their Creator, and transgress his will For one restraint, lords of the World besides. Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?


The Shepherd’s Dream, from ‘Paradise Lost’ 1793 by Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

Found at:

Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

Ruminations on University Presidency: The University’s Voice. by Ken Udas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *