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Book Review: William M. Chace’s 100 Semesters

December 18, 2007

[Updated: 12/21/07]

100 Semesters will strike various populations in higher education quite differently.[1] To those not of his institutional background, William Chace appears a somewhat conservative elitist. To experienced faculty, he might feel like one of their own who has turned to the dark side; Chace seems, late in the book, to have little sympathy for those involved in teaching and research.[2] To the young scholars and staff, Chace may seem a condescending—if worthy—elder voice. To a beleaguered upper-level administrator, his empathy will soothe the troubled soul. To maintenance and clerical staff, Chace provides glimpses behind doors heretofore closed to them. In the end, as is always the case, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I think I first noticed Chace’s name and the book via However, I only first paid attention in February after reading a review by Luther Spoehr at History News Network.[3] Spoehr is an Haverford alum, and his piece emphasized Chace’s connections to that school and post-Haverford administrative activities. The review colored my anticipation as a reader. I came to 100 Semesters expecting two things: wisdom on how to become a successful administrator, and high-level insight on the history of education administration since World War II. While gaining a measure of both, by the end of the book I was quite impressed with Chace’s insights on teaching and being a faculty member.

The Times

Chace navigated an historical period of unprecedented growth in academia that begs for more reflection and analysis. While he was too young to intellectually experience the enforced conformity chronicled by Ellen W. Schrecker in No Ivory Tower, Chace witnessed the liberal arts college as a student in that period.[4] For Chace, that quiet, studious undergraduate experience—characterized by relatively minor student rebelliousness—stands in stark contrast to what followed: negotiating Berkeley during the mid-1960s Free Speech Movement; controversy over Bruce Franklin, Estelle Freedman, and 1980s Western Civ reading lists at Stanford; and a stormy term as liberal Wesleyan’s president during the conservative 1980s and early 1990s. Finally, aside from some touchy interactions with trustees and Jimmy Carter at Emory University, that period—his current one since 1994—serves as a long, reflective decrescendo. It provides Chace with a platform for calm reflection on issues such as growth of college athletics in perceptions of higher education.

Administration Wisdom

While not always novel or groundbreaking, Chace’s administrative wisdom ranges from the philosophical to the practical. On the former, he reflected on matters such as the nature of a university and its location in America’s social matrix:

“The ‘impossibility’ of such places can serve as a healthy reminder of what they are not. A university or college is not a business, does not make a profit, cannot declare quarterly earnings, ‘wins’ nothing, hopes to flourish forever, will never be bought out, cannot relocate, is both in and out of the world, studies everything including itself, considers itself a meritocracy while continually worshipping the idea of community, and has as its greatest asset an odd assemblage of self-directed intellectual entrepreneurs who work on the most complicated aspects of their respective disciplines” (234).

And Chace added: “Many Americans have traditionally wanted colleges and universities to settle down to one main task: to solve the country’s problems. …Universities should offer ‘answers’ rather than ‘understanding’ ” (291).

In terms of practice, Chace both gathered wisdom and opined on issues such as: administrators accumulating many acquaintances but few friends (193); a suitable rate of error (30%) as an administrator (196); faculty resistance to change can be counted on (215); administrators are always perceived as “part of the malicious power structure” (218); all proposals of change in university settings are viewed with the “hermeneutics of suspicion” (223-4); for trustees, “affection and loyalty” trump real knowledge of education and research (227-29); presidents must give up all hope of taking credit for positive changes (247); uneven funding is a constant problem within higher education institutions (275-6); presidents must always be able convince everyone “that they are united in some joint purpose” (276); and to have a successful institution, “faculty excellence is…the only dependable key” (281).

Of course there is much more in the text. And the practical/philosophical split used here too easy to describe the nuggets provided by Chace. Even in passages where Chace is not directly addressing his experience as an administrator, he reveals interesting facts. For instance, in discussing his attraction to, and admission into, Haverford, he relayed that colleges spend an average of $2200 to attract each student. Plus, an additional $3000-5000 is spent on consumer attractions for retention, such as student recreations centers (30).

Partly, I am sure, a result of his literature background, Chace is eminently quotable. Here is one I liked on delivering bad news as an administrator, in this case about Estelle Freedman at Stanford: “I had thereby become the face of insensitivity and the representation of institutional prejudice against women. …I was the problem. Better a drama featuring a villain than a drama featuring a committee” (184-85).

Here is another nice quote on the role of university resident: “Much of the literature on presidential leadership concludes that the job is impossible. …Despite the impossibility of their work, thousands of presidents go to the office every day, successfully complete some tasks, and return home” (234).

Thoughts on Becoming and Being a Faculty Member

I was most pleasantly surprised with Chace’s reflections on training to be a faculty member, teaching, and navigating the pitfalls of being a professor. Chapters eight through sixteen cover Chace’s experiences, from 1964 to 1988, teaching students at Stillman College, Berkeley, and Stanford. In sum, about one-third of the book deals with teaching and learning. Those one hundred or so pages speak to his one year of teaching and activism at Stillman, four years of classroom and dissertation work at Berkeley, and twenty years as a member of the literature department at Stanford.

Chace’s Holy Grail in the classroom was the attempt to integrate politics and the teaching of literature. For instance, in his chapter-long reflection on teaching at Stillman during the civil rights era, he concluded: “I had…learned that the distance between the classroom and political reality was shorter than I imagined it to be. I had taught, but I also had tried to stand for something—racial justice—in which I believed” (95). But later the integration of politics and teaching became more complicated for him. At Berkeley he observed of himself: “Indeed, I looked down at those who had become politically impassioned as ‘the students’ and I gave myself a standing in some other category. It was ‘they’ who were protesting. …The ‘private’ world of my mind was separate from the ‘public’ world of social change” (106). Finally, after teaching a course on black literature during his first year at Stanford, Chace recalled: “I understood that it was no easier at Stanford than at Stillman or Berkeley to make teaching and politics come together in a coherent way” (128).

The following sums up Chace’s final thoughts on pursuing his own Holy Grail: “I later came to understand, that universities, all of them, outlive the issues, every one of them—political and otherwise—that momentarily seize the attention of students and others. On a campus, nothing is so transient as a crucial moment. Indeed, everything at a university is transient except what it perpetually does: teach the young, create knowledge, and save what it can of the past” (103-4).

Building on wisdom gained about deeper and shallower currents in academia, Chace connected the faculty’s role to a university’s overall mission to explain his optimism about higher education. He expressed that positive assessment early in the text when he wrote: “[As] a witness of higher education for [a] half-century, I continue to find the American campus an attractive and even a good place. Most informed people believe that American higher education is the best the world has to offer. They are right” (3).

Chace opined further on that optimism as it applied to teaching: “At its best, teaching is unlike any other experience in life. It asks the teacher to take at face value everything the students said or implied when they filled out their applications for admission—that they want to be challenged, that they know the material is difficult, and that they will show their full capacity to be intellectually responsive” (314). To me, reflections like this undermine the credibility of reviews that question Chace’s ability, in his later years as an administrator, to understand or empathize with faculty. He clearly both engaged and enjoyed his role as a teacher (at least when it went well).

Despite his optimism, Chace understands the pitfalls teaching—especially in the humanities. He observed the following about the humanist’s plight in higher education: “Neither the federal government nor any other sponsoring agency would ever knowingly or willingly pay the salary of a humanist” (135). This certainly is the case in the United States.

As a faculty member Chace also came to understand something of their odd place in the university’s structure. He remarked as follows on the school spirit of patriotism of faculty members: “Institutional loyalty is a struggle for many professors. They often feel more responsibility to the professional guild—historians, biologists, philosophers, cardiac surgeons, East Asian experts—than to the university where they find themselves employed” (150). As the years go by, I too have observed the truth of this statement. As long as the paychecks show up on time, the place in which a humanist or scientist teaches is less important than his profession.

But Chace’s reflections were not limited to his philosophical views on teaching and the professor’s place in academia. He demonstrated his bona fides as a literature specialist in empathizing with the student in learning literature in college and graduate school. He remarked in detail on the theory-versus-close-textual-study conundrum facing students (and instructors):

“And so in classrooms the students who remained to study ‘English’ might indeed know a great deal about critical theory but not much about literature. While familiar with Jacques Derrida or Mikhail Bakhtin or ‘reader-response’ theory or neo-Marxist strategies or Orientalist critiques or notions of ‘foregrounding,’ they may not have read, actually read to the very end, many poems or novels, these things being mere grist for the critical mill. …To know critical theory is a genuine intellectual achievement. …But I came to believe that those students had equipped themselves with an occult mastery. …As for puzzling themselves, they might well call that ‘jouissance,’ the seductive play of mind, the pleasure of well-wrought obfuscation. To me, however, the plight of the humanities was disturbingly real” (171).

As a specialist on the history of the great books idea, and its connections to this debate, I found Chace’s on-the-ground knowledge here to be real. Even if, like me, you disagree with his pseudo-false dichotomy, he has one of the core issues in grasp.

Criticisms of 100 Semesters

While the reader of this review probably sees the drift of my final assessment (hint: positive), Chace’s book is not perfect.

I found his experiential grounding in elite, selective institutions to occasionally grow tiresome. Of course this is not his fault: it was simply his experience. Chace himself admits to being part “of a special and privileged entity in American culture” (p. 336). But this background colors his general and philosophical reflections on administration, teaching, and student life.

Some of Chace’s concerns, and the framing of those associated problems, tended toward the bourgeois. For instance, his use of the phrase “aspirational schools” as a kind of hand-waving descriptor for institutions serving middle and lower-class students (p. 279); his occasional contact, as a purely administrative concern, with the “acute distresses” and “sadness” of young people in the 1990s (p. 294); and his view that specialization makes a faculty’s reputation (p. 188). Students, faculty, and administrators of community colleges, as well as smaller “directional” schools, will find Chace’s reflections mildly annoying in these and other areas. Again, it is not that what Chace sees is untrue, but rather his framing reflects the perspective of upper-middle-class and upper-class institutions.

In addition, it seemed to me—throughout the book—that Chace underestimated the role of class in determining who constitutes the group of students categorized as the “brightest.” Although he acknowledged that money plays a role in access via affordability (i.e. tuition costs), he did not seem to deeply understand, or calculate, that money greatly helps in creating the “brightest” students (p. 258). Considering that Chace has not been retired that long, his view made me wonder how many other high-level, higher education administrators also underestimate that problem? Despite the academic talk about class over the past thirty years or so, it surprised me that Chace did not elaborate more on solving the problem of creating, not just admitting, “bright” students. Does he not believe in the educability of all students? Do students fail more often than teachers fail to teach? To live in a democracy and be an educator, one must have a philosophy on the educability of the populace in general. How does this “trickle up” toward college? Chace did not thoroughly address this extremely relevant aspect of his philosophy of education.

Throughout his text Chace consistently refers to universities as a not-for-profit entities. While this is technically true, any work on higher education that does this without nuance is deceiving its reader. In my view, Chace does not dig into the subtleties. For example, a more interesting point about this status is that we allow U.S. higher education institutions to exist as semi-profitable entities. In this environment, when a university swings to far to the profit-making side, complaints are aired by students and critics. But who says when an institution swings too far? The Department of Education? Accrediting agencies? Having been an administrator for just less than one-half of his 100 semesters, Chace’s views on this issue would have been a welcome addition.

With profiteering in mind, chapter twenty-five is an unsavory read. The first two pages consist of Chace reflecting on the ease with which a university president can see his responsibilities as that of a capitalist proprietor (p. 287-88). It is tough to stomach his parallels in light of the increased criticism of universities as corporations. I would have liked to seen Chace offer suggestions on how institutions could move toward really being non-profits. I wanted him to talk about how we can slow down the trend toward corporate universities.

My last two criticisms reflect my educational training and practical concern. As an historian, I wanted to see more dates in his middle chapters. It was hard to follow Chace’s chronological engagement with the 1970s and 1980s. Finally, the binding on my hardback review copy fell apart about half-way through reading. I received my copy in March but did not finish the book until October. Perhaps my copy suffered extreme duress in my backpack? Hopefully this was a singular flaw. While I paid nothing for my book, a university library that spends the money on a hardback and has to repair it after 15-20 readings will lose money.


New York University’s Tom Gerety, quoted on the dust jacket of 100 Semesters, called Chace “the best commentator on college and university life since Clark Kerr.” While this is a hazardous comparison, I will briefly extend it. Kerr’s Uses of the University, was a book comprised, at least in its first 1963 edition, as an administrator’s reflections on the historical, global development of the university and its social status as of that time. Chace’s autobiographical and empirically-based reflections, however, provide a view of several types of schools from a humanist’s perspective. And of course Chace deals exclusively with the 1950s and onward; deeper historical reflection is purposely, I believe, omitted.

Whereas Kerr’s book shows the “multiversity” as the product of structural momentum and social forces, Chace sees our colleges and universities as being composed of a variety of humans. Indeed, Chace is dedicated to understanding how humans can manage higher education, not how the institutions manage us and reflect societal trends. To be sure, societal trends are a part of 100 Semesters, but Chace is more concerned of the administrator’s hand in creating or perpetuating problems (and successes) in higher education.

And of course Chace’s optimism sets him apart from the Kerr of 1963. In the fifth edition of Kerr’s book, published in 2001, he came around to a “guarded optimism.” [5] Chace’s positive outlook is evident from the beginning of his memoirs.

So, what audiences will learn the most from Chace’s book? To me two groups stand to gain a great deal: aspiring faculty and aspiring administrators in higher education. I will go so far as to assert that this book should be required reading for both groups. While I understand that the last half of 100 Semesters speaks best to administrators, Chace’s humanities background offers something different from Kerr’s concerns about scientific, state-funded research. And I believe Chace’s experience in the humanities allowed him the perspective to deal with people from diverse backgrounds as an administrator.

100 Semesters will be a very useful, if not crucial addition, to the libraries of aspiring humanists and administrators in U.S. higher education. Although neither a call to arms nor a road-map for change, Chace’s book is a rich, timely, and sober reflection on higher education’s upper half at the start of the twenty-first century.


[1] William M. Chace, 100 Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President, and What I Learned Along the Way (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[2] Richard P. Mulcahy, Review of 100 Semesters, Academe 93, no. 4 (July-August 2007). Available online here. Accessed October 30, 2007.

[3] posted an excerpt on September 11, 2006, available here. Spoehr’s January 19 review is available here. My first H&E mention of Chace’s book came February 12. It is available here. I have since quoted from 100 Semesters on two occasions at H&E: October 16 and November 19.

[4] Ellen W. Schrecker, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

[5] Clark Kerr, Uses of the University, 5th ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), x.


Disclosure: After my February 12 mention of Chace’s book at H&E, a Princeton University Press representative sent me the book free of charge. – TL

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