Books: January-February 2006

January 31, 2006

The Research University Presidency in the Late Twentieth Century: A Life Cycle/Case History Approach By H. Keith H. Brodie and Leslie Banner
The Research University Presidency in the Late Twentieth Century: A Life Cycle/Case History Approach
By H. Keith H. Brodie and Leslie Banner.
Praeger Publishers, 2005.
352 pages. $35.

This book on the role of the presidency in research universities provides an inside look at the dynamics of the university during the late twentieth century. H. Keith H. Brodie, president emeritus of Duke, is a psychiatrist, and Leslie Banner is a writer and higher-education specialist who served as Brodie's special assistant during his presidency.

The book is a study of leadership as reflected in the case histories of eight university presidents who were appointed during the 1980s. These represent twelve universities, a number of individuals having presided over more than one institution. It so happens that of the twelve institutions, six are private and six are public, and this is a useful balance. Of the presidents interviewed, two had served in presidencies in both public and private universities, and one had served as president of three different public universities.

The backgrounds of the writers, one as a president and psychiatrist, the other as a writer and editor in the study of literature, have led them to examine the presidency in terms of developmental psychology and personal narrative. More than half the book is taken up with edited transcriptions of presidential narratives. The earlier part of the book is a comparative analysis of these narratives, organized around the various stages through which a presidency passes. It compares the presidential term with the Eriksonian principle of the life cycle, which holds that each stage of human development requires successful engagement with certain basic conflicts if the individual is to reach maturity.

The working hypothesis the authors developed was that the presidency could be represented by four phases: the prelude phase, including courtship, appointment, and preparation; the honeymoon phase; the plateau, or settled phase of an administration; and the exit phase, extending from a president's first thoughts of resignation to his or her actual departure from office. The authors argue that the limitation of the analysis to presidential terms that began in the 1980s, its restriction to former presidents of AAU Research I universities (the major doctoral-awarding research universities), and the fact that all presidents interviewed had departed from the positions they described and could therefore speak freely about them, allowed them to draw meaningful comparisons and generalizations from a relatively small sample. Given the variety of both individuals and institutions involved, it is perhaps scarcely surprising that there is little consistency between the narratives involved, and that few generalizations emerge.

Chapters one through four deal successively with each of the four phases, quoting at length from the presidential narratives and comparing one with another. In the interviews, the presidents provided both descriptions and "their own frank, personal evaluations of their experiences," according to Brodie and Banner. The hope was that, by using this method, the authors might "discover whether the epigenetic principle would hold true, that is, whether one must resolve conflicts associated with one stage of the presidency before moving on to achieve success in the next."

The four chapters comparing presidential responses and the chapter (five) on the summary of findings are intended to demonstrate whether the "developmental model would yield useful insights," whether illustrations of conflicts and attitudes common to their positions could be drawn from interviews, and whether the life cycle hypothesis would have predictive value.

The results of the analytical study are limited. The authors conclude that "approaching the university presidents in terms of a life cycle provided a useful paradigm for helping others to understand the conditions under which presidents must operate." This is less apparent in the conclusions than it is in the individual interviews. Furthermore, because the interview questions were oriented toward finding specific points of conflict, the resulting responses scarcely provide a balanced representation of the overall outcome, or even the issues, of particular presidencies. The summary of findings is, in many ways, a summary of the detailed comparisons and contrasts given in the first four chapters.

The chapters containing the presidents' interviews are gold mines. The narratives themselves are full of insight, though it would have been helpful to have known precisely what were the questions to which the presidents responded. The personal accounts are reflective, remarkably candid, and rarely self-congratulatory. They give a wholly realistic view of the broad sweep of each of the various terms of presidential experience and service. They also emphasize in their individual variety why it is so difficult to make generalizations about the role of the university president.

We should not be surprised or discouraged that this is so. A faculty member, it has been said, is one who thinks otherwise. What is true of faculty members is also true of university communities and their presidents. To anticipate that there are close similarities or profound commonalities among them, or to anticipate that any hypothesis could provide significant predictive value is, perhaps, to be a trifle optimistic. But we should be grateful to the authors of this work for the novel study they have undertaken. The individual narratives demonstrate the complexities, subtleties, frustrations, and rewards of leadership in that most complex and vital institution, the research university.

Overall, this is a valuable book, one that will be particularly helpful to incumbent and intending presidents. It gives a useful insight in the day-to-day life of a president, grappling with real-life issues, with all the turmoil and frequent inconsistency that mark the advancement of knowledge.


Selected Poems By James ApplewhiteSelected Poems
By James Applewhite '58, A.M. '60,
Ph.D. '69.
Duke University Press, 2005.
172 pages. $18.85.

Who that shall point as with a wand," William Wordsworth asks in The Prelude, "and say, 'This portion of the river of my mind/Came from yon fountain?' " It will be clear to anyone who reads Duke English professor James Applewhite's newly released Selected Poems that the river of this poet's mind originates in eastern North Carolina. The collection, which gathers work from his nine previous books, may include poems that find themselves in other geographies--Minnesota, Italy, the Grand Tetons, and Wordsworth's own Lake Grasmere for instance--but their maker rarely lets us forget that he is a poet whose subjects are locally inspired.

"You must find in the general store," Applewhite remarks in "The Descent," "More than you came for." And this seems to be a presiding theme for many of these selections as, along the way, he expresses a mournful love for the place in which he grew up, its stands of pine and its tobacco barns, its flora and, perhaps most important, its people. At his best, he names the textures of hard-worn rural lives in a language that is rich and original.

"Some Words for Fall" is one example. "The tobacco's long put in. Whiffs of it curing/Are a memory that rustles the sweet gums." What follows is a poem that rides its elegiac notes into the scenery of a post-harvest landscape where "Barbecue's smell shines in the blue wind[,]" and soft drink signs, "Titles of Nehi Grape, Dr Pepper, are nailed/Onto barns, into wood sides silvered and alive,/

Like the color pork turns in heat over ashes." "Some Words for Fall," in its quiet, unpretentious tone, manages--as all successful lyric poems do--to speak the unspeakable; it embodies the evanescent longings that haunt those who inhabit this county in Somewhere, Carolina. But autumn, as the poem acknowledges, is also a state of mind, and Applewhite crystallizes this thought for us all. "No words they have are enough./Sky in rags between riverbank trees/

Pieces the torn banner of heroic name."

When reading "Leaf Mirrors," "Tobacco Men," "Water," "Firewood," "Jonquils," and "World's Shoulder, Turning," it isn't difficult to feel as if we are in the hands of a skilled and trusted guide. Applewhite's creative judgment in these poems is pretty much beyond reproach. In "Clear Winter, " the poet finds himself where poets often will--out in the woods, isolated, pondering. "Light that on trunks seemed warm/Looked bleak and bare/On chill limbs high in chill air." It is not only the afternoon's feeling of barrenness that he recreates with a cosmic and melancholy precision, but also the sweet sensation of coming in from both the literal and the figurative cold. He turns "toward home,/Alone as a pane of ice/the keen sun shines through." But all that loneliness is redeemed in the end: "I kissed my warm wife/And under the first star/Gathered cedar for a fire." These lovely, unassuming and clarifying last lines are the kind poetry could use more of today.

As is often the case with Southern writers, there are times when Applewhite leans too heavily on his regional identity, and, ultimately, he can't quite resist the temptation of certain clichÈs. This is inconsequential enough in "How to Fix a Pig (as told by Dee Grimes)," about the ritual of making barbecue. "Take a piece of tin that's/Blowed off a barn in a storm[,]" Dee Grimes begins. She tells us to "Take a little hit from the bottle in your pocket." If we get hungry while we wait, we should "Eat that cold chunk of corn bread/[We] brought from the house in a greasy paper bag." Even if it has minimal ambitions, "How to Fix a Pig" seems a bit too pleased with its vernacular and country shtick.

The stakes grow increasingly higher, however, in "Visit with Artina," written largely in the dialect of an elderly black woman. "[S]ome days I jes can't go," Artina tells the narrator. "That ten dollars a week I used to get--I was study'en on it/Yesterday. I raised Joseph, Bernice, Wilma Doris and theirs,/And they didn't never grow hungry, we always had more/Than cornbread and greens a' sett'en on the stove[.]" Though "Visit with Artina" may be written out of love, as many of these poems clearly are, its language is stiff and uncomfortably condescending. The poem's heroine, as a result, seems little more than a caricature, a vehicle for airing the poet's ambiguously heavy (and unmistakably Southern) social conscience.

Robert Penn Warren, a writer with whom James Applewhite has much in common, remarked once that "everybody knows a thousand stories, but only one cocklebur catches in your fur and that subject is your question. You live with that question.... It hangs around a long time." I think readers will find this is particularly the case with Selected Poems, a book that represents some thirty years of one poet's writing. Applewhite's questions are persistent ones, but, when these poems hit their mark, they can be both sorrowful and true.