As I continue my reading quest (tackling a biography of every president) I have just finished His Excellency: George Washington (ISBN #978-1-4000-4031-5) by Joseph J. Ellis. I bought this book while visiting Mount Vernon during my 4,500 mile trip at the beginning of my sabbatical. I’m impressed that the gift shop sells this tome because it’s not the most flattering portrayal of our inaugural president.
Here’s the first half of the book in a nutshell. George is desperate for recognition, George is self-conscious about his lack of formal education, George isn’t much of a soldier (he really blew his first big foray). George looks the part (well over six feet tall) and doesn’t get blown to bits, so people give him the benefit of he doubt and decide he’s a fantastic soldier.
George is ambitious.
Talk about being in the right place at the right time! Clearly our country needed a hero and George was more than willing to step up to the plate. The rest is, as they say, history.
Here’s the second half of the book. George becomes president. He pretends to be humble and says he is not ambitious, but the writing is on the wall. He ends up doing a lot of good things. But politicians and the people learn fast. The new Americans go from a “do no wrong” in his first term to all sorts of criticism in the second term. Before Washington leaves office, the groundwork for vicious partisan politics is already established.
So what did His Excellency teach me about university leaders?
First, some people are willing to do whatever is necessary to get to whatever position they seek. I continue to marvel at who gets jobs and who doesn’t in the world of university politics. Washington had laser focus with his plans for the future and what he wanted his legacy to look like. He was willing to “rethink” a situation long enough that even if it wasn’t totally accurate, it had been reworked enough times that he honestly believed the revised story. For example, Washington used Robert Cary in London (a British merchant with a stellar reputation) to sell his tobacco crop. When Washington realized he was running out of money (actually, running out of his wife’s money, but that’s another story), after contemplating all the possibilities, he decides that his financial woes are because Cary is cheating him. According to Ellis, there is no evidence that Cary was anything but an honest businessman. But to Washington, the case was closed.
I know some university people like this. A problem arises. They consider the options. They make a decision—even if there is no convincing evidence that this decision is appropriate—and that’s that. They tell their version of the argument with enough conviction and gusto that the innocent bystanders (often intimidated assistant professors) fall into line. (“He sounded so authoritative, how was I to know?” they lament.)
Second, George Washington looked like a leader. In universities, we still tend to pick people who look the part. People who know me know I rarely pull the gender card, but in this case I’ve seen it happen too often to say it doesn’t exist. Some think a leader looks like a tall white man in a great-fitting dark suit. Washington’s clothes might not have fit him well (Apparently, he didn’t know how tall he was and consistently told his tailors that he was shorter than he was.), but according to Ellis, he cut quite the figure on his dashing white horse. I remember some comments from colleagues when I was on the search committee for an administrator at a previous institution. One of the finalists was a woman who was on the short side. One of my male colleagues actually told me that this woman was “too dowdy” for the post. If you find that hard to believe, how about this? When I was a graduate student, a professor once said loudly enough that I could overhear, “Only ugly women get PhDs.” (Fortunately, this fellow was not on my dissertation committee!) Looks matter. And, George Washington looked the part.
Third—and I’ll end on a positive note—in my opinion, George Washington became a better person as he aged. Whether he had pure motives or not, he ended up doing a lot of good things. He also worked hard as president and also when he returned to Mount Vernon. He wasn’t perfect, but, really, who is? Even though he remained sensitive about his lack of formal education, he became self-educated. Washington showed me that whether a person is handed life on a golden platter, or whether a person has to work for every single improvement, effort matters. Over the years, I’ve watched scores of colleagues (at my own institution and other universities) go through the tenure process. In almost every situation, working hard pays off. Those who consistently worked at their research (even if they weren’t naturally gifted at it), eventually amassed enough publications to warrant tenure. They don’t all get to progress as far in their careers as they might have hoped, but, then again, there are a lot worse things in the world than being a tenured professor!
As I begin the second half of my sabbatical, I’m going to remember George Washington’s work ethic—and not take his personal quirks too seriously. After all, we all have quirks. Even my university colleagues. Even me.