Essay on College Presidential Inaugurations

April 11, 2010

From The Chronicle of Higher Education

Note: I wrote this essay when I received an invitation, sent to all alumni, to attend the inauguration of the newly appointed president of my alma mater, St. Lawrence University. The essay is available online to Chronicle subscribers only by clicking here: Forget the Inauguration. Just Show Up. – Commentary – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Phil Headshot 1a

Forget the Inauguration. Just Show Up.

By Philip Benoit

As with many other academic ceremonies, the staging of elaborate, multiday celebrations to mark the inauguration of newly hired college and university presidents probably goes back to the Middle Ages—gaudeamus igitur and all that. Whatever its origins, let’s not do it anymore. It’s distracting, expensive, and unnecessary. But more than that, it’s just silly.

As both a faculty member and administrator at a small gaggle of colleges and universities over many years, I have lived through more than my share of these contrived circuses up close and personal, and I’ve even helped to plan a few. As a communications official, I wrote many of the less-than-memorable introductions, greetings, remarks, speeches, bios, newsletters, and vision statements that form the rhetorical bit stream flowing around and through these events.

In addition to the speechifying and endless paying of homage, there is a steady stream of food- and drink-related activity at such celebrations—dinners with trustees and dignitaries, donor luncheons, toasts aplenty, receptions for visitors from other institutions. (That these visitors are routinely local alumni of the invited institution tapped by presidents too busy to attend themselves hints at the low esteem sister institutions hold for inaugurations.) There is dancing, conversation, one-upmanship, and all manner of genteel revelry.

All is photographed and reported by alumni-magazine staff members and occasionally covered by local TV crews, who will now and then, on a no-news day, succumb to the pitches of institutional flacks who promise that something significant is afoot. The coverage gets archived and stored somewhere behind the ivy-covered walls for some future, hapless history professor doomed to write yet another institutional history on a distant anniversary.

These events cost a fortune, but not to worry, say the development staff members who usually plan the festivities. New presidents, they aver, and the glow of good feeling that accompanies their much-heralded periodic arrivals, create a sense of renewal that loosens the purse strings of trustees and donors. Those trustees and donors are the intensely coddled constituents for whom this season of merriment and bonhomie is usually mounted.

A naïve observer of an average institution’s inauguration festivities might be forgiven for assuming that a Golden Age has dawned on the campus, bringing with it some new version of Camelot. But that seldom happens. Nor does the expected avalanche of donations. (And I never have learned the final inaugural price tag.)

Rather, anxiety heightens among the nakedly untenured administrators whose livelihoods are suddenly threatened as new brooms implement change by sweeping away dead wood. The honeymoon with faculty members plays out rapidly, and new battle lines are formed on the landscape where turf wars are fought. (At one institution where I worked, it was not a year before the new president was out, a newer one was in, and plans for the next inauguration were under way.)

Why not hold a nice, old-fashioned faculty tea to mark the arrival of the newest chief executive? Or, to be more hip, the new president might mark the occasion with a beer-pong tournament on the quad.

Here’s an even more novel idea: The new prez could just show up on Day 1 and start to work. After all, it’s not like he or she really has much to do with changing anything significant. (I interviewed once with the chancellor of a major research university who was questioning the wisdom of a recent decision to eliminate an entire discipline from the curriculum. I asked him why he had let it happen if he had doubts. He told me that he had had no say in the matter.)

Hype to the contrary, new presidents ultimately rise or fall on the basis of fund raising and campus construction—necessary tasks, but usually not transformative. Although every departing president claims ownership of all that was good that transpired on her or his watch, the faculty controls everything that really matters—curriculum, hiring, firing, student achievement, research, the arts, parking.

Yes, I think that would be best, you new presidents out there: Just show up one day and start. Then, when it comes time to confer degrees on your first batch of graduates, just say something like: “I’m the new guy in the big office whom you never see on the campus. Now that you have passed into the ranks of donors, I’ll be getting to know you a lot better.”

Philip Benoit is an adjunct professor of English at Millersville University.


1. rjbornstein – April 12, 2010 at 11:52 am

Of course inaugurations should be modest and tasteful. At the same time, they serve to celebrate and maintain the institution’s history and traditions while building a sense of community among constituents. These are worthy purposes.

2. conahec4u – April 14, 2010 at 07:43 am

Thanks, Philip for this article which has a great sense of humor and sarcasm.

3. 11276469 – April 14, 2010 at 08:13 am

At SCSU we didn’t have an inauguration for our current president…he insisted on a coronation.

4. osholes – April 14, 2010 at 08:27 am

We planned our latest inauguration for months, got the music and lighting just right, managed to get a good crowd, and when it was all over, there were punchbowls of ice water for the masses (the bigwigs got a dinner). It served to let all of us know our place in the institution, which turned out to be the only lasting effect of the event. That plus our cut in compensation for next year.

5. 22108469 – April 14, 2010 at 10:13 am

#3 wrote: “he insisted on a coronation.” One of my relatives, after having to oversee one of the most egregious examples of “coronation” he witnessed during his long career, filled the monarch’s next request (for a handcarved conference table) with a sumptuously polished surface in the shape of a coffin.