This book addresses the phenomenon of leadership and its exercise in the context of American higher education in general and in that of the independent, free-standing, non-sectarian liberal arts college in particular. It is well known that college and university presidents must deal with a variety of constituencies -- alumni, faculty, donors, trustees, students, townspeople, and in some venues, sports fans. Inevitably educational leaders must mediate among these sometimes conflicting blocs. But this book suggests that the "blocs" are often divided within themselves -- between older and younger alumni, students of different genders, races and ethnic groups, faculty members likely to divide over academic policy. If college presidents are so occupied as negotiators or "transactional leaders," do they have the time and energy and organizational support to pursue their higher goals -- yes, their visions -- through "transformational leadership?" This question lies at the heart of Frank Oakley's book even as he pursues a host of related matters.
This study is the best I have seen on educational leadership, because the author has a thorough grasp of both the potential and the problems of collective leadership, and at the same time enhances the general study of leadership with sophisticated concepts of what he calls the "instructional" or "interpretive" dimension of leadership, encompassing both the meaning and the exercise of this complex process. After three decades serving as professor, dean of the faculty and then president of Williams, the author offers fresh insights into the exacting leadership required even of a smallish college of 2,000 undergraduates. He did serve as an accomplished transactional leader but he always clung to his basic belief -- the primacy of student and teacher as against other priorities. Of course all educators say this -- especially at Williams with its Mark Hopkins and the Log -- but Frank Oakley really meant it when he faced hard choices in faculty recruitment and tenure policy, student admissions, disciplinary judgments, campus demonstrations, and much more.
The author is no armchair strategist -- he has jumped into the thick of the fight, on the campus and outside, when the freedom and integrity of liberal arts education seemed to be threatened. Here he joyously takes on a warren of critics who ganged up against American higher education in the late 1960s, when they wrote hysterical books with such titles as Academy in Anarchy, Academy in Turmoil, Degradation of the Academic Dogma, Exploding University and worse, or, later, as they contended that our higher education had become trivial, irrelevant, incoherent, dishonest. Warning that we must never become complacent, the author brilliantly rebuts these accusations with facts and figures, without losing his own poise and judgment. The work is helpfully organized in the chronological order of his evolving college presidency. Even in that short time momentous changes occurred at home and abroad, at Williams and most of the nation's 3,500 institutions of higher learning. The author had to face militant students who conducted demonstrations, a hunger strike, and even a student appeal to the courts. How he dealt with campus protest offers some of the most edifying pages of this work.
Frank Oakley writes with a kind of stately elegance that enlivens both his analysis and his anecdotes (including the best Winston Churchill story I have heard). He writes also with a fine sense of humor, perhaps drawn from his British and Oxford experiences. All told, this is the fascinating, highly personal account of one man's leadership -- and conception of leadership -- of a fine old college facing constant change, heavy demands, and occasional crises. It is both a critical and heartening look at a college that in a marked degree transformed itself under the leadership of a college president who kept his values straight and his ammunition dry.