Books: January-February 2007

January 31, 2007

Higher Ground: Ethics and Leadership in the Modern University By Nannerl O. Keohane

Higher Ground: Ethics and Leadership in the Modern University
By Nannerl O. Keohane. Duke University Press, 2006. 284 pages. $24.95.

As a signal of its confidence and ambition, Duke University swept in to steal Nannerl O. Keohane as its president in 1993 from the approaching embrace of Yale University, which also clearly intended to hire her away from Wellesley College.

Duke did well. It attracted an experienced higher-education leader, a distinguished scholar, and a lively human being. On the morning of her inauguration, she ran, as she regularly did, and the dozens of women, men, and students who joined her sported "I Ran with Nan" T-shirts. On the evening of her successor's inauguration, she jitterbugged with her husband, himself an eminent political scientist, under a festive tent in the company of scores of Duke undergraduates. In between came eleven years of progression toward Duke's now-undoubted stature as a world-class university.

In this book, a selection of speeches and articles crafted during her presidency, Keohane is plainly optimistic about the future of higher education. She contends fiercely that the residential campus will—indeed must—remain central to the enterprise: "Students on residential campuses share aspects of their lives in an intimacy they will not elsewhere experience outside the family." She understands that the enormous gains in knowledge through technology—"more than the brain can grasp"—will change education irrevocably but reminds us that education is "not simply the hoarding ... of facts. Education is in reality an activity, a dialogue, a process."

Keohane is not bashful, however, in identifying a number of social issues endemic to higher education that she doesn't much like. On the positive side, she expects the student bodies and faculties of universities to become more diverse in the areas of race, nationality, and, notably, age, with people returning for second and third rounds of formal education in midlife and later.

Higher education has a responsibility, she argues, to increase access for students "from all backgrounds." She deplores a "growing concentration of people of wealth and privilege in our elite institutions," partly resulting from an increasing realignment of financial aid—what universities cynically call "merit aid"—as they compete for top students.

"A sense of 'entitlement' appears to be growing among some talented students from well-to-do families" that can reverse progress in opening "selective colleges and universities to more and more gifted and ambitious students of varied backgrounds."

Keohane does not spare university presidents, whose compensation as a group now approaches that of top corporate executives. Even granting similar complexities and demands in the jobs, "this does not, in my view, justify paying salaries that are anywhere near comparable. University leadership provides other kinds of rewards ... and those who pay tuition or support our programs are doing so to help us accomplish our basic mission, not bolster our compensation."

University leaders "need to speak truth to economic power, which we have been less willing to do than speaking truth to the folks in government," she argued in a speech delivered in 2000 at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education. "Admittedly, such truths may bite much closer to home.

"All of us are dependent on generous support from [wealthy donors]," she continues. "But this makes it all the more imperative that all of us—not just the radical sociologists or the ethicists or theologians, but college and university administrators too—speak out frankly about the long-term threats to a society where wealth occupies too large a space on the social landscape."

Keohane takes some pains to explain why, as one of the most visible feminists in higher education, she did not exploit that credential until her last three years at Duke—most notably in the redoubtable Women's Initiative, which is already a national paradigm. "I made a more or less conscious calculation that I wouldn't put issues around women and families high on my priority list in the early years, since that would just confirm the suspicions of those who doubted that a feminist from a woman's college could possibly understand Duke, much less run the place," she notes in an address given at Stanford University in 2004.

In collecting essays and speeches, choices must be made. Still, I regret that Keohane chose not to address in some detail two subjects that both awe and bedevil almost every major university: intercollegiate athletics and the medical center. At Duke, the leader of the medical center is the institution's highest-paid executive; in many ways it marches to its own drummer, but it is barely mentioned here. At Duke, the men's basketball coach is the most famous person associated with the institution, and obviously many students and alumni love the teams, yet Keohane only references in passing "the hours we spent dealing with threats from the 'commercialization' of big-time athletics."

After two decades as a prominent administrator, Keohane has settled at Princeton University (she also serves on the governing board of Harvard University) and has returned to what she describes as her academic first love—scholarship. Some of us who also care about higher education hope that she uses her distinctive stature not just to speak about speaking truth to power but to speak truth to power, regularly and vociferously. Perhaps it is too much to hope that today's university presidents—highly paid, and, often, corporate directors as well—will take on national issues as people like Charles William Eliot, Nicholas Murray Butler, Robert Maynard Hutchins, and James Bryant Conant once did. But they can, and they should.

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Digging to America
By Anne Tyler '61. Knopf, 2006. 288 pages. $24.95.

Anne Tyler's seventeenth novel, Digging to America, begins with a scene at the Baltimore airport in 1997 that deftly introduces all the main characters. Bitsy Dickenson and Brad Donaldson, a middle-aged couple, have brought their extended family to welcome their adopted infant daughter from Korea. The Dickenson-Donaldsons are a busy, boisterous bunch. With their name tags, balloons, gifts, and video cameras, they're as comfortable in the waiting area as at a backyard family reunion.

In the commotion, we almost miss the other family who has come to meet their baby. Sami and Ziba, a young Iranian-American couple, are accompanied by Sami's mother, Maryam, whose quiet dignity is memorable from the moment she corrects the adoption agent's mispronunciation of their family name: It's Yaz-dan, not Yazdun. As the novel follows the intertwining story of the two families, Maryam's sense of foreignness, after thirty-five years in America, becomes increasingly poignant and complex.

The novel is as compellingly intimate as it is ambitious. Tyler explores a timely and daunting question—what does it mean to be an American at the turn of the twenty-first century?—by dramatizing the surprising ebb and flow of human relationships. As the various couples, family members, and friends are drawn to one another, driven apart, and brought back together, the questions of home and family become just as important as those of national origin.

The two families, who get together regularly after Bitsy invites the Yazdans to a leaf-raking party, have much in common. Even their opposite choices for their daughters (Bitsy and Brad want Jin-Ho to keep her Korean name and heritage; Sami and Ziba change their daughter's name from Sooki to Susan and ask their relatives not to speak to her in Farsi) are motivated by the same desire to prepare the girls for what each family perceives to be the ideal American society of the future.

Speaking the same language or belonging to the same family, as it turns out, doesn't help people communicate clearly. When Bitsy mentions her plan to adopt a second child, her father, Dave, thinks the idea is crazy but only manages to mutter, "Is that a fact." Maryam and Ziba often misunderstand each other because they are too polite to spell out what they want. But when Bitsy's mother, Connie, says to Maryam, "Aren't family gatherings wearying? All those people who know you so well, they think they can say just anything," the two women understand each other perfectly.

Still, these characters, like many Americans, retreat into the most parochial interpretation of their own and one another's "cultural heritage" in times of crisis or uncertainty. After Connie dies and Dave begins to court Maryam, Bitsy confides her worries to Ziba: Her father might get hurt; why can't Maryam be more affectionate? Ziba surprises herself by answering stiffly, "She's a lady. In our country, ladies don't act that way."

Later, Dave's half-hearted defense of Maryam—she is "a woman with her boundaries"—causes Bitsy momentarily to lose her political sensitivity along with her temper: "If she's so fond of her boundaries, what did she ever immigrate for?"

Maryam herself labels Dave too "American." All Americans are pushy and forward, she tells Sami, and they try to take over your space. In her more honest moments, she admits that she'd begun to lose her sense of home and national identity long before she met Dave. She now speaks Farsi with a slight American accent, and she has little in common with the more recent immigrants from Iran, including Ziba's family. The real cultural clash, she muses, might be between the two sexes, in "the agonizing back-and-forth of romance." Tyler's portrayal of these characters is unflinching and yet compassionate. When Bitsy behaves thoughtlessly, as she often does, with the best of intentions, Dave feels "a stab of love mixed with pity; he couldn't have said quite why." That's how the reader—and the author, too, I suspect—feels about these quirky, flawed characters. Tyler is masterful at catching the small moments between people, the split second when affection gives way to resentment and wariness, or the one gesture that turns irritation back into love.

The novel is rich in apt details that convey both humor and pathos. Maryam recalls the tumbler of club soda she used to set on her night stand in her first months in America because she wanted to hear the bubbles softly bouncing against the glass, like the whispering of the fountain in her family's courtyard back home. When Dave thinks of the confusing amorphousness of modern life, he pictures the "leashes people walked their dogs with nowadays: huge spools of some sort that played out to allow the dogs to run as far ahead as they liked."

Such details make us want to linger on every sentence, but the plot pulls us forward with its irresistible momentum. The eight years that span the novel's action end all too soon.
I once missed my plane while reading another Anne Tyler novel, Ladder of Years. I was at O'Hare, sitting twenty feet from the podium at a crowded departure gate. When I finished the chapter and looked up, all the chairs were empty, and the gate agent was turning off her computer. The plane had left ten minutes ago, she informed me, after the multiple boarding announcements that were customary. I had heard nothing except the waves in the distance, the sunbathers on a beach in Delaware, a woman walking away from her family, the straw soles of her espadrilles sinking into the sand and then slapping against the pavement. I knew better than to start Digging to America where I had to pay attention to anything else.