Chen: In search for new Buffett director, NU should expand definition of ‘qualified’

Sophie Chen, Op-Ed Contributor

This winter, the curious case of the missing executive director for the Buffett Institute for Global Studies may finally be solved. But I’m not sure if I’ll like the solution waiting at its end.

On Dec. 5, the Office of the Provost sent out an announcement regarding the University’s efforts to, once again, find a leader for the Buffett Institute. This month, they released a list of those participating in the search committee.

Of the 11 names, one stood out — Patrick Eccles. Eccles is the senior associate director of NU’s Global Engagement Programs and, it seems, the only non-professorial member of the whole committee. The fact that the team is “comprised primarily of faculty members” is something the Office of the Provost seems to advertise with pride, and, in light of previous events, as insurance.

The previous events I mention refer to the Karl Eikenberry debacle. Considering how much humiliation the University has endured because of these events, I am almost loathe to bring it up. Still, I bring up the unfortunate (un)appointment because I fear that some of the credentialism shown towards the former ambassador may pervade the latest investigation.

I understand that academic elitism in universities has been a popular critique as of late and has caused many to reconsider academe’s norms. I also understand that some of the biggest critics have been academics themselves. Academics are regularly subjected to hearing academic news outlets berate academics for being too, well, academic. I feel fatigued, sometimes, just hearing about it on the margins of the University circuit.

However, seeing the provost’s careful stress over the “strong faculty composition” of the search team makes me concerned that some of these arguments, albeit overplayed, may be right. In a best-case scenario, this redo is an effort to democratize the administrative process, which I happily applaud. In a worst-case scenario though, it is an effort to appease those who previously judged Eikenberry’s potential to lead the Buffett Institute on how many letters were listed after his name (hint: much of the outrage was that none of them were P, H or D).

As insulting as it may seem, popular vitriol levied against Eikenberry shamed him for only possessing two master’s degrees, 35 years of military experience and a measly thing called an ambassadorship. It seemed that the mental capacity he employed to determine the trajectory of U.S. policy did not encompass the aptitude to write it all down. He was to many, by virtue of his time away from fresh cut grass and limestone walls, not a scholar.

It was an incredulous notion. Ignoring how insulting some of these accusations were (a letter in The Daily written by NU faculty even went so far as to cite Eikenberry’s loose connection to and lack of regular membership as faculty at an elite institution like Stanford), the complaints also point to a disturbing attitude of exclusivity. Imagine if academic expertise was wholly rejected in Washington, thereby abolishing a tradition of consulting lifelong professors on national policy? Imagine if Silicon Valley altogether stopped valuing the input of the humanities in storytelling, entrepreneurship and management? The need for academia to be involved in all these sectors has been well-argued. So why not the inverse?

Some of those reading this may claim that as a young student I may have an incomplete understanding of this University. They would not be incorrect. There is still much about Northwestern I do not know. However, as a student also learning that the world runs rife with knowledge — much of which goes unpublished in peer-reviewed journals or dissertations — I should hope that the parameters for what constitutes that which is worthy of being taught are not so narrowly defined. On a less presumptuous level, I would have at least liked to see how Eikenberry’s direct experience and background would have combatted or interacted with the abstractions of research and theoretical frames.

So, I plead for this search committee to, when focusing on finding someone with the limited qualifications to be “tenurable as a faculty member,” also provide an executive director for the Buffett Institute who will deliver to campus a perspective as diverse as Eikenberry would have brought. I would like to see a leader who has either lived a good portion of their life outside academia or, more importantly, brings a minority ideology to campus. Until one is found, I shall wait with hope and trust that the lessons Karl Eikenberry ended up teaching Northwestern are contemplated with good faith.

Sophie Chen is a Weinberg junior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.