Benjamin Alexander, who has resigned as president of the University of the District of Columbia, still doesn't know what hit him.
He thinks he was the victim of a philosophical impasse: that he wanted tough academic standards, because he believes UDC's students can meet them, and that his board and faculty opponents wanted weaker standards, because they harbor doubts as to the students' ability to meet more stringent ones.
Without denying the existence of the philosophical differences (there are those, Alexander not among them, who see a fundamental conflict between tough college standards and open enrollment in a city whose public schools, though improving, are still troubled), I think that is not what led to Alexander's coerced resignation. What did?
Alexander himself may unwittingly have supplied the answer in a report to his board, excerpts of which appeared on Tuesday's op- ed page: "I choose to do what is right," he said, "and not what is political."
The controversial Alexander sees that as a major virtue. It may have been a fatal flaw.
He understood, as did the board majority that hired him last year, that it would be difficult to infect his faculty and administration with his confidence in the ability of UDC's students to do solid college-level work. But he thought that if they let him do his thing, they would discover the correctness of his view.
So he did what was right. He installed the new standards, with a minimum of consultation with those who doubted his wisdom or questioned his speed or wondered whether the university's remediation program was adequate to compensate for the students' frequently inadequate background.
He eschewed the political, taking little notice of the nonphilosophical concerns of his staff--such considerations as turf and prerogative and ego. Not only did he fail to do what was necessary to convert the unconvinced; he failed also to give those who tended to agree with him a sense that they were "on the team." Ego-massaging, ally- recruiting and team-building are, by Alexander's lights, political enterprises, and he had no time or inclination for politics.
And as a result, when the confidence test came, he had no allies--even among those who believed he was fundamentally right-- no one to go to bat for him because it was in their interest to go to bat for him.
Successful leaders, whether they are grade-school principals, athletic coaches or presidents, understand that being right is necessary but not sufficient. Unlike philosophers, for whom Truth is enough, leaders have to be concerned as well with consensus and support and loyalty: with politics.
Alexander wasn't, and that is a key reason why he is no longer president of UDC. He sees himself now as a martyr to his deeply held beliefs. On his personal report card, he has awarded himself an "A" for being right, the one area he deems of overriding importance, and he contends with great feeling that he has "not failed" in his administration at UDC.
By the test of pragmatism, he gets 50 percent. He was right. He failed.
It's a pity. He might have been very good for UDC.