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Independent Outlook

Recent popular books and articles on the state of higher education today might lead a reader to conclude that no students are prepared for college-level work, nor are they learning or studying as much as they should, especially in their first two years in college. In the March 24 New York Review of Books, Peter Brooks, the distinguished scholar of comparative literature who spent many years at Yale and is now at Princeton, reviews several of the recently published critiques of American higher education.

Renewed efforts will be needed in the days ahead to prepare the next generation of campus leaders. The average age of college and university presidents is about 60; a wave of retirements over the next five to 10 years is inevitable. The ranks of chief academic officers -- the traditional proving ground of candidates for presidencies -- appear to be less promising as a source for the next cohort of presidents because the average age of CAOs is 57.

As a reader of this magazine, you were probably not surprised--much less chagrined--by the 2009 publication of a three-volume set of books entitled, The Business of Higher Education (Praeger Publishers, 2009). Nor, I would wager, do you find University Business an unusual magazine title. As the CEO of a college, neither do I.

But we need to recognize that, for many constituencies of the academy not among University Business readers, the phrase "university business" may sound odd, if not oxymoronic. And that is true for at least two reasons.

Educating students to "think critically, reason wisely, and act humanely" is solidly at the core of what we do in higher education. Sometimes it seems, though, that what's at the periphery—including retail, real estate, and public facilities— demands an inordinate amount of our time and energy. In audits and reports, letters to alumni, and press releases, we lump those responsibilities together under "auxiliary enterprises." The diversity and range of what these may be, however, defies categorization.

In America, we lavish attention on our most talented fellow citizens—star athletes, film and television celebrities, brilliant scholars and scientists, and sometimes even college presidents—but we also insist that our celebrities not act like self-styled royalty. When members of America's elite are aloof and ignore the public's welfare—as many titans of Wall Street did, first ruining the economy, then paying themselves bonuses—Americans insist on retribution.