Colleges Pick Devils They Don't Know


Washington. -- With search committees of eminent membership and long and short lists of possible candidates, universities perform elaborate sifting exercises in hiring their presidents. But a look at recent academic recruitments suggests that, as with mail-order brides, distance adds allure.

The most winning characteristic in today's academic presidential sweepstakes appears to be an absence of prior connections with the hiring institutions, most of them so internally embattled that any lively local candidate inevitably spawns hostile coalitions. Signifying how times have changed, the newcomers from afar usually succeed presidents who had been around for a long time before ascending to the top spot on campus.

Columbia University, riven with strife over red-ink budgets, has just recruited the president of Houston's Rice University, George E. Rupp, for its next president. In a distinguished career that began with an undergraduate degree from Princeton, Mr. Rupp has studied and served at several academic institutions, including Yale, Harvard, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Redlands, in California.

Absent from his resume is Columbia, alma mater of the departing president, Michael Sovern, who was a law professor and administrator there for 23 years before becoming president in 1980.

Stanford University, hard hit by federal auditors for misuse of government research funds, has recruited the provost of the University of Chicago, Gerhard Casper, to succeed President Donald Kennedy. Mr. Casper, a Yale graduate, had been at Chicago since he joined the law faculty there in 1966. Mr. Kennedy, a Harvard graduate, had been at Stanford for 20 years when he was named president in 1980.

Chicago, in the market for a president to succeed the retiring Hanna H. Gray, has landed the provost of Princeton University, Hugo Sonnenschein, an economist who has taught in many places since he received a Ph.D. from Purdue University in 1964 -- Chicago not among them.

The next president of Duke University will be Nannerl O. Keohane, currently the president of her undergraduate alma mater, Wellesley College. Ms. Keohane also studied at Yale and Oxford and taught at Swarthmore, the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University. Her academic itinerary did not include Duke, which is currently headed by H. Keith Brodie, a psychiatrist who joined the Duke faculty in 1974 and was appointed president in 1985.

The Harvard presidency, most august in the academic world, has traditionally been filled from inside the university. But not so the last time around. When the vacancy loomed two years ago, the job went to a Harvard Ph.D. and former junior faculty member, Neil L. Rudenstine, who had left Harvard in 1968 for Princeton, where he spent 20 years as an administrator. When Harvard beckoned, Mr. Rudenstine was a foundation executive. The previous Harvard president, Derek Bok, joined the law faculty there in 1958 and was dean of the Harvard law school when he was named president in 1971.

MIT's current president, Charles M. Vest, received his master's and doctoral degrees at the University of Michigan, where he later rose to dean of engineering and provost. His predecessor at the helm of MIT, Paul E. Gray, is a full-scale son of that institution, starting with an MIT undergraduate degree in 1954 and continuing through teaching and administrative posts right to the top of the MIT hierarchy.

The University of California, the biggest public university system in the country, has ample home- grown talent in its ranks. But to fill its number-two spot, California has recruited one of the federal government's top research officials, Walter Massey, director of the National Science Foundation, formerly a vice president of the University of Chicago. The post Mr. Massey is going to is considered a direct stepping stone to the presidency of California's statewide university system.

Serenity long ago departed the groves of academe, expelled by rancorous professors and administrators squabbling over shrinking budgets, crimped professional opportunities and ideological shadings. Add in the grisly task of dealing with unruly students, pesky government auditors and parents irate over soaring tuition. In this atmosphere, no one who has risen to eminence on campus could possibly survive the presidential search process.

As a result, in a turnabout from ancient principle, the governing rule in academic presidencies seems to be that the devil you don't know is preferable to a familiar face on campus.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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