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Review: A Look At All Other Sides of A University Presidency

Dr. Stephen Joel Trachtenberg’s book, “Big Man on Campus: A University President Speaks Out on Higher Education” (Simon and Schuster, 2008), provides the reader with an extraordinary personal and sensitive look into the multifaceted responsibilities, challenges, problems, highlights and pitfalls of being the top administrator at one of nation’s venerable universities.  The title of book initially gives the impression the author will make some argument about higher education. However, once inside this timely work one finds an interesting, captivating and informative story filled with the experiences of a man who has spent a lifetime in higher education.


“Big Man on Campus” was written for several reasons. Trachtenberg wants the public to have a better understanding, to be more informed, of the inner workings of institution of higher education. Why? “We need an educated, informed electorate that understands universities as human institutions and their leaders as people dancing and juggling as fast as they can to make universities flourish in the face of great challenges.” Trachtenberg knows that universities have a significant impact on America, our culture, economy, politics, and existence as a major world power. He understands that without public and private support institutions of higher education will find it increasingly difficult to maintain their operations. If they fail, America fails. His book was also written to move individuals who might otherwise not be interested in higher education to learn, to appreciate, and to perhaps give to help sustain some college or university.


Trachtenberg’s writing style is open, friendly, and inviting. It flows. This makes reading “Big Man on Campus” an easy and enjoyable experience. His choice of chapter titles —Young Enough to Still Do Some Damage, Seize The Day, Descartes Goes Into A Bar and Orders a Martini and The Bride Is Too Beautiful — intrigues the reader, causing one to wonder what is behind them. 


I was moved by reading this book. It changed my previous interpretation and appreciation of what the life of a university president consisted of. It is more than raising money, pleasing the board of visitors, greeting new students, keeping the confidence of the faculty and successfully maintaining the institution’s accreditation. It is leading, compromising, fighting for, nurturing, often gently navigating, and sometimes pushing an institution and its people through a complex maze of problems, situations, policies, and experiences. The complicated part is that the president has to do this while maintaining his or her sanity.


The book meets the author’s goal. He indicates in the beginning of his work his desire to provide a total picture of running a university not to produce a textbook. “Big Man on Campus” is not a textbook. It is a running dialogue between Trachtenberg and the reader, as you walk with him, through his words, descriptions, and emotions performing a difficult, but rewarding job as a university president.


A book review is not complete without a decision if the reviewer would recommend it or not. “Big Man on Campus” should be read by parents preparing to send their children to college, by every new faculty member as a part of the orientation process, by individuals who are appointed to serve on university boards of visitors or trustees, by those who want to learn more about leadership in general and higher education in particular and by anyone who shares Stephen Joel Trachtenberg’s concern for the future of higher education in America.


Dr. Wayne A. Jones is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, Public Administration and Economics at Virginia State University.

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