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Leadership 101
Veteran higher ed administrator weighs in on diversity, technology and college affordability.

By Nannerl O. Keohane
Duke University Press, 2006
280 pp., $24.95
ISBN: 082233786X

Indisputably, Nan Keohane has enjoyed a long and storied career in higher education. She has taught at Stanford University, Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania; spent a dozen years as president of Wellesley College, an elite liberal arts college for women; and was the first woman president of Duke University, one of the nation’s leading research universities.

Her latest book, Higher Ground: Ethics and Leadership in the Modern University, is a compilation of articles, speeches and university addresses from the decade she spent  at Duke’s helm. It is a wide-ranging collection, with book chapters, articles from publications as such as the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society and College Board Review, and speeches to a variety of audiences, including Stanford’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender, the American Council on Education and Southern Methodist University. At the end of the book are a half-dozen addresses to the Duke campus community.

Keohane writes both as a university leader and as a political scientist. In her introduction, she acknowledges the influence of Aristotle, Machiavelli, Rousseau and Weber on her thinking, as well as the inspiration of John Henry Newman, George Keller, Cohen and March, Jaroslav Pelikan, Charles Anderson, Dick Chait and Hanna Gray. Both lists will strike some as remarkable for their dearth of women and people of color.

In her essays and speeches, Keohane addresses major issues in higher education — diversity, technology, access and affordability — and opines on qualities needed for effective leadership. The book begins with an overview that presages major themes that appear throughout the various pieces and that, in some ways, anticipates readers’ criticism of the book and attempts to answer it. For example, the book gives short shrift to concerns about the “corporatization” of higher education, and Keohane acknowledges this and responds to an imaginary “cynical reader’s” criticism of her choice.

There is nothing earth-shatteringly new here by way of insights into the challenges facing higher education or possible solutions. Readers of other books on higher education leadership will find themselves on familiar ground as Keohane expounds on the value of collaboration, while insisting on the need for presidents to take a stand — even an unpopular one — when necessary. However, Keohane is an excellent thinker and writer. In elegant prose, she articulates strong values and principles. It is interesting to note, as one reads through the essays, how little change there is in much of her thinking about these issues and challenges over the course of the decade. The one exception is perhaps technology, where she moves from early skepticism to a more grudging acceptance of the potential of online and “hybrid” delivery models.

As one might expect in a book of essays that touches on several different issues rather than exploring one in depth, the book is generally strong on values but short on implementation and practical examples. For instance, Keohane’s commitment to the value of diversity is undeniable and is expressed in several essays in clear, compelling terms. Her thinking about how colleges and universities might fulfill this commitment on their campuses and thus have the desired impact on the broader society is less well articulated.

Much of what Keohane writes is most relevant to the fairly rarefied world of elite higher education — research universities and selective liberal arts colleges — and may resonate less clearly, or perhaps in different ways, with those from other sectors of higher education, such as community colleges and for-profit institutions. Keohane’s conception of higher education as an “intergenerational partnership in discovery and exploration” has a different meaning at an institution where some of the students are older than their faculty members.

For me, the most enjoyable essays are the university addresses, perhaps because they are the most personal and allow Keohane to reveal more of herself. She makes some interesting choices in her selection of essays to include. For example, of the many speeches she gave in the months following Sept. 11, 2001, she chooses to include in the book a speech to the faculty about the value of the liberal arts. Her addresses to the students are delightful — how often do we hear an encouragement to first-year students to choose their courses “playfully as well as carefully?”

Overall, this is an enjoyable book that provides insight into important issues facing higher education and the thought processes of one of the country’s prominent higher education leaders.

— Patricia O’Brien is the deputy director of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institutions of Higher Education.

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