Former U.Va. President Teaches New Course on ‘The Presidency in Higher Education’

March 27, 2014

University of Virginia graduate students are finding out what a university president’s job entails through a new seminar being taught this spring by a former university president and two doctoral students.

The new Curry School of Education course on “The Presidency in Higher Education” is being taught by past U.Va. President John T. Casteen III and Curry doctoral students Hal Turner and Jason Jones.

Casteen, who served as president of U.Va. from 1990 until 2010 and of the University of Connecticut from 1985 to 1990, developed the course with the assistance of Curry Dean Robert Pianta and Brian Pusser, associate professor of higher education.

From recruiting top faculty and students, identifying areas in which a university can excel, to building relationships with various constituencies, to fundraising, to working with the board, and being part of a larger higher education community, nationally and globally, the role of a university president is complex. In the literature, this position is most commonly compared to that of a city mayor or President of the United States, Jones said.

“The class has an intense interest in presidential effectiveness and in deep factual backgrounds to success and perhaps also to failure,” Casteen said. “Turner and Jones bring depths of scholarly knowledge … and I bring one practitioner’s perspective.

“My own interest in the topic grows out of personal experience and my own projects over the years, specifically articles and projects done for The American Council on Education and Association of Governing Boards, and more recently work last year on a Knight Commission-funded project at AGB, plus my own ongoing work as a consultant for university boards.”

Turner and Jones instruct the class with Casteen. They are both doctoral students in Curry’s  higher education program with backgrounds in research on presidencies.  

“As a topic of study, the presidency is fascinating to me because it is a public position that is also, according to one line of research, frequently misunderstood,” said Jones, who will earn his degree in higher education and plans to pursue a career advocating liberal education. “To be able to think through the presidency with Mr. Casteen, Hal and a group of engaged students has already been a rewarding experience.”

Turner’s area of study focuses on the path to the presidency through the eyes of past presidents. Jones’ research deals with the conceptual and practice components of how students experience liberal education in liberal arts colleges.

“The Presidency in Higher Education” meets once a week for  2½ hours. The discussion-based seminar requires students to draw on source material from peer-reviewed journal articles, academic books, news media, presidential autobiographies, historical documents and policy articles. 

“We are attempting to broaden understandings by examining the complexities and ambiguities that come with a public position having so many invested stakeholders, including students, faculty, staff, local community, board members, politicians and policymakers, and presidential peers,” Jones said.

During each session students research and analyze different aspects of the college presidency.

“We organized the class into interrelated themes, such as the context of each particular school, the naturally occurring change in university processes, actions and operations, and the competition amongst universities for power, money and research prestige,” Jones said. “While these themes are common, it allows us to change perspectives throughout the semester without losing sight of the course’s presidential focus.”

Students are able to apply their gained knowledge and understanding of these themes to current affairs, such as the recent appointment of a new president at Pennsylvania State University.

“I decided to take this class because I am interested in working in higher education administration, so learning more about the college presidents is crucial for my professional development,” said Karen Connors, a Curry doctoral student. “In addition, the college presidency is such a fascinating and timely topic. I went to Penn State for undergrad and now working on a degree at U.Va., presidential controversy has been front-and-center news at both institutions.

“Plus, the privilege of taking a small graduate seminar with a legend like John Casteen doesn’t come around often.”

Connors’ classmate, Thomas Howard, a master’s student in higher education administration, agreed.

“Studying the presidency in higher education is fairly unique in that there is a rich body of literature,” he said. “Taking a class with President Casteen presented the opportunity to examine executive leadership in higher education from a number of critical angles – from a removed scholarly perspective as well as from the inside perspective of a practitioner. The combination of these perspectives makes for powerful discussion.”

Students in the class have benefited greatly from Casteen’s perspective and his experience. 

“President Casteen’s experiences have made this one of the most interesting and informative classes that I have taken in five years at U.Va.,” Howard said. “He has an example or story for nearly every question, and a rich knowledge of almost every aspect of higher education.”

Casteen, who currently serves as University Professor and Professor of English, has enjoyed sharing his practitioner’s perspective and is grateful for the opportunity to work with “remarkably smart, principled and fair-minded” students.

“The excitement of my own role here comes down to maybe two things: working with two colleagues (Hal and Jason) who know the scholarly material backward and forward and who bring very fine minds to the discussion, and watching the students shape the topics by contributing their own backgrounds and background knowledge, their own fine minds and their intensity to the class,” he said.

“This class is fun. It moves quickly. It deals with good topics. And it provokes all of us, including me, to read and think and engage in discourse vigorously.” 

The course may be repeated in the future, but it is part of a larger sequence looking at higher education. Casteen plans to teach a second course on leadership, governance and trusteeship in the spring 2015 semester. That course focuses on how leading colleges and universities is evolving from the historical understanding of schools firmly rooted in public trust and civil society to the more contemporary neoliberal, privatized models. 

by Ashley Dembeck

Media Contact

Audrey Breen

Curry School of Education