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Reject the Bombastic Optimism of College Presidents

Recently, while rereading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (2009), I had an awakening. Ehrenreich takes aim at “pastorpreneurs” like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, whose embrace of positive thinking has effectively flipped their church’s priorities: Instead of building a church upon a theological foundation, they survey their prospective parishioners and build a church that gives the people what they want. In other words, they treat their parishioners like customers. Swap out Warren and Osteen for university leaders, and Ehrenreich’s “pastorpreneurs” could easily become “presidentpreneurs.” Millions of dollars are spent every year on consulting advice based on the upside-down notion that students “hire” a university and that the institution therefore needs to be gutted and remodeled to attract these fresh-faced “employers.”

This consumer-based model finds its natural idiom in American-style positive thinking. In Ehrenreich’s account, bright-siding was the 19th-century remedy to Puritan soul-sickness (captured most vividly in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short fiction) and the bourgeois variation of it known as neurasthenia. It is not to be confused with optimism; it is, as Ehrenreich explains, a “practice, or discipline, of trying to think in a positive way.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson offers an intellectualized form of bright-siding when he claims, in the final lines of “Self-Reliance,” that real freedom means authoring our own destiny, not allowing ourselves to be buffeted by good or bad fortune: “A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” In a more religious context, Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science preached that disease was an illusion produced by a weak mind.

Flash forward a century and a half or so, and it’s no coincidence that Laurie Santos’s course “The Science of Well-Being,” is the most popular offering in the history of Yale University. Santos claims that students who complete her course become 17-percent happier as a result, and she has recently added a second class on happiness tailored to teens. The hype has left some students feeling disappointed, and Santos even admits to having struggled with burnout. But that has not prevented her from making bold claims about the power of her teaching to combat the mental-health crisis afflicting American youth.

If Santos shows the impact of positive thinking on curriculum, college administrators exhibit another form of it in strategic planning. Bold predictions allow college presidents, deans, and other senior leaders to burnish a personal brand in which they champion their “vision.” There is almost no incentive for a college leader to offer a measured view; if the reality fails to live up to a lofty vision, it can be blamed on uncooperative or insufficiently buoyant subordinates. The only real consequence might be a premature departure.

Those leading strategic planning are rarely the ones who will live with its aftermath, which is why the default faculty response to executive visions is either outright skepticism or “trust, but verify.” Such distrust is sensible. The average tenure of a college president a decade ago was about eight and a half years. Today it’s under six years, and deans last around five years. Similar patterns emerge in the business world. Ehrenreich notes that because senior managers enjoy stock options and often have golden parachutes built into their contracts, they can expect to strike it rich (by most Americans’ standards) no matter how market turmoil shakes out: “The combination of great danger and potentially dazzling rewards makes for a potent cocktail.”

Whereas corporate C.E.O.s once rose through the ranks of a company to senior leadership, many executives of the ‘90s and 2000s looked more like gurus or motivational speakers than seasoned businesspeople. The dark side of “charismatic visionaries,” management scholars Dennis Tourish and Ashly Pinnington argue in a 2002 article, is a “monomaniacal conviction that there is one right way of doing things.” Such leaders come to believe that “they possess an almost divine insight into reality.”

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education