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Will Monaco Fit the Mold?

Opinion | September 27, 2011

The first thing that could be said about Tony Monaco is that nobody could have expected him. This is not a comment on Tony Monaco the person, who seems singularly brilliant and accomplished from any angle. Rather, the selection of a white male scientist from the UK just doesn’t seem to fit in the narrative about what we feel Tufts represents.
The narrative that first comes to mind is a vital and persistent one about institutionalized racism and sexism and the preponderance of such attitudes among certain segments of the student body. The Primary Source’s Christmas carol debacle and their resultant obstinacy; the famed bias incident of 2009; the repugnant flares of sexism during Lauren Levine’s presidential campaign; the needless ugliness surrounding the debate over minority representation on the TCU Senate this past year; the long overdue reworking of a sexual assault policy, arguably at odds with Massachusetts state law-these are the public examples that epitomize the countless instances of racism, sexism, and sexual assault that occur all around us. So, for those of us who have felt that the last five years at Tufts have been tainted by these issues, the presidential search was cast as a chance at institutional reparation.

The hope was that, if we couldn’t at least expect a candidate whose identity would signal progressive intentions for the university, our next president would at least have demonstrated engagement with the issue of diversity, whatever that might mean for her or him. The increasingly fractured nature of the student body, along increasingly touchy fault lines, should have suggested that any decision made without sufficient attention to these issues might imperil our sense of community. Committed members of the Tufts women’s community, in collaboration with others, wrote to the search committee a brilliant open letter whose eloquence was matched only by its sense of immediacy. It bears mentioning at this point that Tufts has not had a female student body president in almost two decades. It also bears repeating, though we are all well aware of this, that the university itself has never had a female president or a president of color.

What we got, in the end, was an exceptionally accomplished and specialized academic whose 44 page curriculum vitae-the bulk of which is incomprehensible to anyone without advanced training in neurobiology and genetics-demonstrates an astonishing body of work. But at the same time, it evinces less than half a decade’s worth of direct central administrative experience, and includes no mention of a personal commitment to diversity of any sort. Press coverage following the announcement made much of his cutting-edge work in genetics, but, for those of us in the beleaguered humanities departments of an institution that is forever insisting that it can be both a liberal arts college and a research university, the news wasn’t quite as meaningful.

It is too early to judge Monaco’s accomplishments, or capacity for accomplishment, at Tufts, but I believe we do have a sense of his style at this point. What, perhaps above all, has emerged to characterize this style is a focus on social media, specifically his conspicuous presence on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Tony Monaco, we may be assured, will tweet back as we welcome him, and vouch for our resumés on LinkedIn. Typing his name into the search bar, you will find that “Anthony Monaco Twitter” is number three on Google’s suggested searches, followed by “Anthony Monaco CV” and “Anthony Monaco Facebook.” The first question this raises, at least for me, is whether we want our university president to be primarily distinguished by his use of Twitter. Or, more to the point, how much time do we want our university president to spend adding us on Facebook and tweeting us notes? What seems a novel way to engage with students could just as well foreclose the possibility of deep engagement and understanding, which would be rather hard to fit into 140 characters.

Yet this outward sociability belies a personal reserve that might go unnoticed in the United Kingdom but in the Northeast suggests a dearth of charisma. I feel that our most pressing contemporary issues require not administrative or budgetary skills but a leadership whose direction can compel a sense of rejuvenation. Having spent a year abroad at the university Monaco hails from, I feel that the orientation of Oxford towards its students-a hands-off attitude towards student welfare coupled with an institutional conservatism and rigidity- slightly contradicts Tufts’ long-held values. This is of course not to say that Monaco will necessarily align himself with any of these positions, but I would urge that he be as conscious as possible of where he is coming from and where he is now. The issue of charisma is far more important than it might at first seem.

I remain optimistic, though; Tony Monaco may yet be the president we’ve been waiting for. He has already demonstrated a willingness to take on some of the challenges I have noted. His recent e-mail to the student body shows, in print at least, a pledge to act on the issue of diversity, and his near-ubiquity on campus in the past few weeks suggests a geniune desire to engage with the student body. The challenges he faces are sizable, and we have every reason to believe from his past experience that he is aware of this and has a sense of how to move forward. Most of all, I think, the success of his presidency will depend upon his commitment to approach us with a candid and open understanding of our desires and our concerns. We shouldn’t accept anything less.

Amy Shipp