Organized Anarchies: The Role of the President in Today's University From Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning

Throughout my tenure as a college president, I often encountered visitors to the campus who, upon hearing my title, inevitably responded: "Oh, so you run the place."


A college president is in charge, but only nominally so. In reality, of course, a president's authority is ill defined, constrained, and shared with others. Presidents face the constant challenge of seeking to lead institutions with distinctive cultures, often long histories, and convoluted structures binding together several constituencies. Each constituency-alumni, faculty, students, parents, employees, public officials, and trustees-sees itself as the sun around which the other constituencies rotate.

In the early 1960s, Harvard political scientist Richard Neustadt wrote a classic work on the American presidency. Presidential Power was a modern-day version of Machiavelli's The Prince-a pragmatic, realistic guide for those in positions of power. The book actually had its genesis in a memo written for newly elected president John F. Kennedy.

Neustadt's general thesis was that the formal power of the American president is limited. It is shared with other equal political branches-the judiciary and Congress. The president faces other constraints, ranging from state governments to the rule of law to even the role of media as "watchdog."

Neustadt quoted Truman's famous line about the adjustment General Eisenhower would have to make when he became President Eisenhower. "He'll sit here and he'll say ‘Do this! Do that!' And nothing will happen. Poor Ike-it won't be a bit like the Army. He'll find it very frustrating" (Neustadt, 1960 Neustadt, Richard E. (1960). Presidential Power. New York, NY: John W. Wiley and Sons. [Google Scholar], p. 9). What Truman had forgotten was that Eisenhower served briefly as president of Columbia University after leaving the Army. Ike had a taste of what was to come.

When formal powers are constrained, Neustadt argued, a president must become adept in the exercise of informal powers-such as, and perhaps most critically, the power to persuade and to convince others that it is in their own self-interest to act in the public interest. Neustadt didn't put it in quite these terms, but he was describing the difference between using power and practicing leadership. They are not the same thing.

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College presidents face a similar set of circumstances. Consider the university as an organization-and the many separate pieces that comprise it:

The students who for perfectly understandable reasons-among them the fact that we keep telling them this-believe the university exists for them and for only them during that particular four-year period that defines their collegiate experience. They see themselves as consumers of a product, an expensive one, whose effectiveness is measured by the satisfaction it brings them. They also see themselves as the only ones who truly know what's going on.

The parents who, because they usually pay the bills, consider the relationship with the college as contractual, clearly in an economic sense, but increasingly in a legal sense. This elevated involvement of parents in the collegiate education of their children is a recent development. One writer has noted that modern parents want their children to have the freedom and individual choice they enjoyed during their college years, but they also fully intend to hold the university accountable for any harm their child suffers in the exercise of that freedom (Flanagan, 2014 Flanagan, Caitlin (March 2014). The Dark Power of Fraternities. The Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved from[Google Scholar]).

The alumni, whose engagement, support, devotion and commitment are vitally important and who can be extraordinarily protective of the place. Their memories become ever more idealized and romanticized over time and lead to pleas that the university preserve forever the characteristics associated with those genuinely fond memories. Consequently, change produces anxiety for alumni, even as they demand the university constantly improve.

The faculty, whose members are typically brilliant, creative, ambitious, and intelligent. They are educated to present arguments and make judgments not only in their areas of expertise but also in their assessment of the performance of their university. They display with some regularity the critical thinking skills they hope to bestow upon their students. Though "employed" by the institution, they also maintain allegiance to their disciplines. They are members of a profession as well as employees and have a source for their own authority that is distinct from the organization that pays their salary.

Staff and administrative employees, whose work has become increasingly specialized and professionalized. Through their expertise, administrators develop their own sources of authority. And because of the increasing demands placed upon a university-by parents, students, accreditors, legislatures, and other entities-there is indeed a growing reliance on administrative professionals for guidance in areas such as student life, athletics, fundraising, finance, and the law, to name just a few.

The board, whose members now have a greatly expanded set of fiduciary responsibilities. Gone are the days when a board need only ask the traditional question-should we fire the president?-and then act accordingly. The board now has an enormous range of oversight obligations: budgetary, policy, strategic direction, legal, personnel, and so on. One touchstone remains, however. A board's authority comes from its collective actions; an individual board member has very limited authority. A president reports to the board as the board and not to the trustees individually.

All these pieces of the organization are internal, but external factors increasingly weigh heavily on decision-making. Colleges and universities face an expanding and burdensome set of compliance requirements; Title IX, of course, has dominated newspaper headlines recently. But there are also matters of accreditation, NCAA compliance, learning disabilities, financial aid disclosures, personnel and safety requirements, health and counseling guidelines, and the now-standard lawsuit threat from any student disciplined for any matter.

Organizational theorists would say the boundaries of college or university as an organization are porous, and, for college presidents, it has become not merely a matter of negotiating the tricky terrain of internal demands; it is increasingly, also, incorporating external requirements while doing so.

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From my graduate school days, I remember a classic article in administrative theory describing universities as "organized anarchies," a phrase that perfectly captures the disorganized qualities of these organizations. Attempting to explain the mysterious complexity of the universities, the authors imagined them as "garbage can models of organizational choice." Universities can be seen as vessels into which problems and solutions are dumped. Solutions chase problems, and problems chase solutions. They attach themselves to each other seemingly by chance rather than rational design or intent (Cohen et. al., 1972 Cohen, Michael D., March, James G. and Olsen, Johan P. (March 1972). A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice. Administrative Science Quarterly, 17(1), 1-25. [CrossRef], [Web of Science ®], [Google Scholar]).

Another author, Karl E. Weick, found universities to be the perfect example of what he called "loosely coupled systems." As the illustration of this concept in which the links are loose and frequent, he imagined organizational life in a university as a soccer match where the goals are constantly being moved, referees are changing the rules as the game progresses, players change sides on a whim, several teams may be on the field and playing against each other at the same time somehow, and the field has neither boundaries nor shape (Weick, 1976 Weick, Karl E. (1976). Educational Organizations as Loosely Coupled Systems. Administrative Science Quarterly, 21(1), 1-19.
[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®], [Google Scholar], p. 1). If those depictions were somewhat vague to me in graduate school seminars, they make perfect sense to me now.

Then there is former Yale president A. Bartlett Giamatti's explanation of universities as "free and ordered" spaces. There is nothing else like them: places where a free, roaming, random, colliding set of ideas and explorations occur within its own unmanageable dynamic, even as order and structure must exist to capture the benefits and avoid the costs of the collisions (Giamatti, 1990 Giamati, A. Bartlett (1990). A Free and Ordered Space: The Real World of the University. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company. [Google Scholar]).

They are organized anarchies, indeed, and if there is one overriding task for president it is to direct the order while not impinging on the freedom.

How, then, is that accomplished? Let me suggest four capabilities that I believe a successful college president must have in order to "run the place" effectively.


In these organized anarchies, presidents have primary responsibility for setting the agenda. In other words, the president should identify the important overarching priorities that should occupy the attention of all the constituencies, despite their differences, despite their varying perspectives. To mix my metaphors, the president has to keep everyone focused on a few fixed stars in a constellation of constantly bursting novas, comets, asteroids, and meteor showers.

Potential distractions are everywhere. Those include stories about the latest trends in higher education (followed inevitably by the predictable volley of emails from alumni or faculty asking, "why aren't we doing that?"); national reports on student success, student debt, and access; college rankings; and-worst of all when it comes to keeping an agenda on track-social media, which will take any issue, no matter how small, and turn it into a national, even international, sensation in a matter of hours.

In setting that agenda, the president must also constantly remind everyone why we have the priorities we do-what values guide our choices and what principles underlie the purposes we are trying to achieve.

For a college president, setting the agenda can be demanding in another way. Harvard President Drew Faust was asked about the difference between being a president of a college and being a faculty member. She told the story an alumnus who came to see her a year or two after she became president to complain that Faust never spoke about an issue that was of particular concern to the alumnus. Faust pulled out two or three speeches and statements about exactly that issue and wondered why the alumnus hadn't been paying attention.

She later realized, though, that simply saying something once and then moving on to the next topic-as she might have done as a teacher in a class where the students were expected to absorb the lesson and move on to the next one-was ineffective as president. You have to say things over and over and over, often to the same audience.


Any issue that ends up at the president's desk is critically important for the individual who brings it, and the issue usually ends up on that desk because it couldn't be resolved elsewhere. But not every issue can have equal priority for a president.

Treating each issue carefully and respectfully while also determining what issues need more attention than others requires considerable judgment. In my first few years as president I had to discipline myself not to overreact to the problems that landed on my desk; later in my presidency I had to discipline myself not to under-react. The point is that the response must be deliberate. Simply reacting to the issue of the day-or even the hour-means potentially losing sight of the forest for the trees, and that is easy to do without discipline.

A good rule of thumb about how a president should allocate his or her time and attention is to do those things that only the president can do. Presidents cannot be deans of students or directors of admissions. They must be able and willing to rely on others to handle responsibilities in their respective areas.

In a 24/7 world of the president, the only way to manage the constant flow of crises and complex problems is to discern what is truly important and what is not. One of the ways to accomplish this is by hiring and retaining exceptionally capable senior leadership. Another is to ask constantly whether what you are doing is something "only a president can do."


When I attended "new president's school" at Harvard, one of the most unnerving sessions was on the topic of coming to terms with being the public face of the university. Your demeanor, your statements, your involvement in the community and in higher education, your talks with parents and new students, your writings, even your trips to the local grocery store-everything you do-reflects on the university. You speak for the university first and foremost and never have the luxury of qualifying a statement with "but this is just my personal opinion."

This is a harsh reality to which one must adapt. At the same time, a lesson presidents must learn quickly is to avoid putting themselves in the spotlight rather than constantly shining the light on their universities. Some presidents do adopt the mistaken belief that the story is about him or her rather than the institution. When that happens-when the focus is on the president rather than the university; when it is about his or her leadership and accomplishments rather than the university's progress and its programs-the university has a problem, and ultimately so will the president.

I believe there are two types of presidents that reveal themselves early in their tenures. One is the person who conveys the impression that the institution is fortunate to have been blessed with his or her leadership; the university, the president seems to suggest, really needed me. The other type makes it clear how fortunate he or she feels to have been chosen to lead such an outstanding university with so much promise. Those profiles may seem like caricatures, but time and again I have seen presidents fail when they think the way to advance the university to advance themselves.

Presidents also need to be comfortable with their own styles. Some embrace Twitter and Facebook, and love doing YouTube videos and volunteering for dance performances and dunking booths. Others tend to go in a different direction. One style is not better than another. But trying to adopt a style that is not your own just because some other presidents are doing it, and sometimes doing it well, will ultimately come across as false and inauthentic.


Leading any complex organization is both a science and an art. Embracing only the science is for those with a very low tolerance for ambiguity. In value-laden organizations, such as universities, where differences of opinion are signs of strength not weakness, a fixation on only the neat, the tidy, the easily explained, and the perfectly rational is a path to a short tenure.

Embracing only the art, however, is a sure sign of hubris. It comes from an intellectual arrogance that leadership is simply a matter of judgment, style, common sense, and intuition-qualities reserved for uniquely capable individuals, often self-identified. Those who choose to make decisions without carefully weighing evidence and countervailing opinions are designed to have equally short tenures.

As a college or university president how you do things matters along with what you do. It is not sufficient to do only the right thing; it must also be done the right way. And one of the most challenging dilemmas any leader faces in any setting is the choice between doing the right thing the wrong way or the wrong thing the right way. Neither the science nor the art of public management can tell you exactly what to do in such situations. But together they help you understand that such situations can exist, sometimes in disguised forms, sometimes calling upon the science to reveal them and sometimes the art.

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If these are the capabilities that define what a president should do amidst all the challenges, I imagine there is a lingering question about why do it. I cannot imagine any president of any college or university who, if they are being totally candid, cannot point to at least one day when they asked, "What was I thinking?"

But most days, I suspect that they are, as I am, deeply aware that what occurs at a university is profoundly interesting and significant. Our institutions have arisen over a long span of history as the places responsible for the creation and diffusion of knowledge. At every moment of the day, a college is immersed in preserving the "accumulated wisdom of the ages," passing it on to another generation, and adding to the inventory of knowledge and wisdom that will serve the future of civilization. These are the roles higher education plays in our society and indeed our civilization, and they happen to be seriously interesting as well.

In the end, though, working at a college or university means working at a place where what you do truly matters-and truly matters because of the impact on others. We talk about how a college education shapes the lives of those who graduate from our institutions. It really does. We have the testimony of those who continue to give back.

At Washington and Lee, we talk of an intergenerational contract that allows us, on the one hand, to be the beneficiaries of the sacrifices of those who came before us, while on the other hand obligating us to sacrifice equally for those still to come. That contract remains in force only if we believe that such a place does indeed influence who we become and how we lead our lives, and only as long as we believe it will continue to have that influence on future generations of students.

But it is even more than that. We are involved with individuals who will eventually have an impact, often a profound impact, on the rest of society. That is a responsibility that all of us at a university share; it is an obligation and a duty. But is also immensely gratifying to do work that matters-matters for the individuals specifically, but also for the society, and for the democracy and the economy we are a part of.

Most days, it is even fun.

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This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning on May 30, 2017, available online:


Cohen, Michael D., March, James G. and Olsen, Johan P. (March 1972). A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice. Administrative Science Quarterly, 17(1), 1-25.[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®], [Google Scholar]OpenURL Washington & Lee University

Flanagan, Caitlin (March 2014). The Dark Power of Fraternities. The Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved from [Google Scholar]OpenURL Washington & Lee University

Giamati, A. Bartlett (1990). A Free and Ordered Space: The Real World of the University. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company. [Google Scholar]OpenURL Washington & Lee University

Neustadt, Richard E. (1960). Presidential Power. New York, NY: John W. Wiley and Sons. [Google Scholar]OpenURL Washington & Lee University
Weick, Karl E. (1976). Educational Organizations as Loosely Coupled Systems. Administrative Science Quarterly, 21(1), 1-19.[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®], [Google Scholar]