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Decades of Chaos and Revolution

Showdowns for College Presidents

Stephen J. Nelson

Decades of Chaos and Revolution: Showdowns for College Presidents is the story and comparison of two eras in the history of higher education. The first era covers the period of the 1960s through the mid-1970s, and the second is the first decade of the twenty-first century. Both decades were marked by events that shook the foundations of colleges and universities, and society as a whole. Nelson weaves an engaging story, told through the eyes of the presidents of the institutions that were involved in the chaos of those eras.

For colleges and universities and their presidents, these two decades are the toughest, most tense and demanding of times in the last hundred years, and likely in the entire history of colleges and universities in America. The enduring images are equal parts chaos and change, revolution and recovery, dashed dreams and unflagging hopes. Nelson asks, of the two eras, which faced the greater challenges? Which era required more profound leadership? And which was the more difficult and demanding of their time to navigate successfully? It is clear that Steve Nelson sees the era of the 1960s and ‘70s as the most difficult. He believes that it was the presidents of that earlier era who confronted dilemmas and controversies unimagined before and not witnessed since.

Decades of Chaos and Revolution presents an insightful picture of the tension and tumult that presidents of the 1960s and ‘70s had no choice but to face. Nelson traces the roots of ideological battles in the university that have persisted over the last sixty years. He examines what worked and what didn’t in the tactics used by presidents in the face of the demands inspired by the protests and politics of the 1960s and shows how they have shaped succeeding generations of presidents. Then he unravels the parallel issues and unfinished business of the 1960s, which evolved in ensuing decades, and with which presidents in the twenty-first century must also grapple.
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Rowman & Littlefield Publishers / Amer Council Ed Ace (Post Acq)
Pages: 184Size: 6 x 9
978-1-4422-1080-6 • Hardback • March 2012 • $76.00 • (£49.95)
978-1-4422-1082-0 • eBook • March 2012 • $72.00 • (£47.95)
Stephen J. Nelson is associate professor of educational leadership at Bridgewater State University and senior scholar in the Leadership Alliance at Brown University. He has written three previous books about the college presidency: Leaders in the Crossroads: Success and Failure in the College Presidency, Leaders in the Labyrinth: College Presidents and the Battleground of Creeds and Convictions, Leaders in the Crucible: The Moral Voice of College Presidents, as well as numerous scholarly articles. He holds a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Connecticut, a Master of Divinity degree from Andover Newton Theological School, a Master of Arts in Religious Studies from the Hartford Seminary, and an A.B. in history from Gettysburg College.

Eras of Chaos and Revolution in the Academy

Chapter One

The Enduring Seeds and Legacy of the 1960s

Chapter Two

Into the War Room:
Sieges of Protest and What Happened to the Presidency?

Chapter Three

Cornell and Kent State: Inevitable Disaster and Tragedy?

The unprecedented upheavals of the 1960s presented momentous challenges to higher education, forcing university leaders to wrestle with political forces that threatened to compromise and even undermine the university’s historical commitments to free inquiry and the unbiased pursuit of truth. New challenges since the `60s have thrown additional challenges in the university’s path, including financial issues, the decline of faculty commitment to shared governance and institutional responsibility, and the politics of political correctness. Considering these dilemmas from the perspectives of university presidents, Stephen Nelson has written a compelling and important account of the ways that leaders of major universities have struggled to navigate these turbulent waters. Nelson presents illustrative background information about the forces that have riveted higher education, provides instructive portrayals of university leaders, and offers profiles of success and failure. This highly instructive book should be read by anyone concerned about the status and prospects of higher education.
Donald Alexander Downs, Alexander Meiklejohn Professor of Political Science, Law, and Journalism, University of Wisconsin, Madison

It turns out, remarkably, that those U.S. college presidents of the chaotic and demanding decades of the 1960s and 1970s who were most successful were those who had the courage to take a stand in the middle path, to hold the center. This is among the many startling yet ultimately convincing conclusions of Stephen Nelson’s Decades of Chaos and Revolution. Nelson cites Harvard’s Charles William Eliot who, seeking some comparison for the challenges of a college president among other professional leaders, concluded that there is ‘no equal in the world.’ So, too, there is no study of the American college presidency the equal of Decades of Chaos and Revolution, the most discerning and wisest of recent scholars on the subject.
Robert Oden Jr., past president, Carleton College

This book, lively and comprehensive, serves as a reminder of the duress under which college and university presidents in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies learned to live. Some notably failed; some notably succeeded. None could have anticipated what they soon had to face. Amid disruptions and genuine threats to academic freedom, the identity of the presidential mission was transformed. No longer could it be isolated from the larger world beyond the campus gates. Stephen J. Nelson helps us to understand this momentous change. His portraits of leading presidents of the time will help us understand the recent past. His book will show us how that past now shapes the campus of today.
William Chace, professor emeritus of English, Stanford University

Stephen J. Nelson has delivered yet another excellent analysis of the American college presidency, this time by comparing the turbulent 1960s through mid-70s to the opening decade of the twenty-first century. Although Nelson concludes that the earlier time period was more challenging for college presidents, he extracts lessons learned from a series of 60s-era case studies that provide insight about contemporary presidents and may inform them as they face similar, if less daunting, challenges. Although presidential success can never be assured, Nelson asserts that its likelihood increases when presidents lead from the middle, honor institutional history, and focus intently on mission. ‘More than anything,’ Nelson states, ‘we need college presidents who can lead from responsibility and conviction.’ Those who have an interest in the evolution of the academy and the college presidency over the last 50 years will find Nelson’s selection and analysis of case studies to be both fascinating and enlightening.
Janet Riggs, president, Gettysburg College