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Hard Times at Haverford: Recent Travails of Daniel Weiss, Metropolitan Museum’s Incoming President

More on this here and here.

Daniel Weiss‘ attractiveness as incoming president of the Metropolitan Museum—a post he is to assume this summer–derives more from his deep knowledge of art history than from his brief, mixed record as Haverford College’s president.

Daniel Weiss, Metropolitan Museum's incoming president

Daniel Weiss, Metropolitan Museum’s incoming president

With an art history PhD from Johns Hopkins and an MBA from Yale, this Medieval Studies specialist has a double-barreled background that is increasingly common among art museums’ directors but is not often found among their presidents.

Weiss’ official bio on Haverford’s website details his professional accomplishments since arriving there in 2013—among them, “investing in core academic disciplines that support new interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship, strengthening physical and technological infrastructure, and enhancing institutional commitments to sustainability and diversity.” Also listed are details about his previous stints as a dean, art history professor and department chair at Johns Hopkins University, and as president of Lafayette College from 2005 to 2013.

But, as briefly noted in Susan Snyder‘s Philadelphia Inquirer report on his Met appointment, Weiss’ short tenure at Haverford, a small liberal arts institution, was marred by two vexing episodes: a widely publicized uproar over a controversial commencement speaker (who ultimately withdrew); a less publicly contentious but more consequential decision to cut costs by changing the five-year-old policy of giving direct financial aid (rather than loans) to all students deemed to be in need of assistance.

These incidents shed some light on Weiss’ management-under-pressure skills and may also suggest why he might not feel much compunction about leaving his current gig prematurely.

As reported by Thy Anh Vo in The Clerk, Haverford’s student newspaper, the college’s no-loan financial aid policy will be replaced, starting with the Class of 2019, with a plan to offer “loans [rather than straight aid] for students with a family income above $60,000 a year.” (Needier students will continue to receive no-loan financial aid.) This change “is projected to eliminate  $820,000 a year in financial aid costs,” The Clerk reported. Unsurprisingly, an ad hoc student group, Fords for Affordability, strongly objected to this change.

The blow-up over the choice of Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, as an honorary degree recipient and speaker for last May’s commencement ceremony ultimately impelled Weiss to publish an op-ed piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer, defending, on free-speech grounds, his continued support of Birgeneau’s selection.

One protester, Sam Warren, countered in a long essay that Weiss’ op-ed “whitewashes Birgeneau’s role in the violent suppression of student speech.” He was referring to Birgeneau’s 2011 oversight of the police dispersal, which turned violent, of Occupy Cal protests at UC Berkeley.

Weiss convened an open community meeting on this controversy and continued to support Birgeneau’s participation. But Birgeneau ultimately withdrew in the face of persistent student opposition. Weiss’ takeaway was that the college should “make positive changes to our honorary degree selection process to make sure that it is more reflective of the views of the community and especially the students whose achievements we celebrate.”

It would seem that the decision, on Weiss’ watch, to cut back on future financial aid bespeaks his failure to raise adequate funds to support it. With the benefit of hindsight, it also seems clear that the commencement speaker was ill chosen, notwithstanding his record (cited by Weiss) as “a longtime advocate for LGBT rights, faculty diversity, and access and affordability for the middle class as well as undocumented students.”

The ultimate insult to the students and the college was the tongue-lashing they received at their own graduation from commencement speaker William Bowen, former president of Princeton, who blasted the  protestors for being “immature” and “arrogant” and characterized Birgeneau’s withdrawal as “a defeat, pure and simple, for Haverford.”

The way this controversy played out under Weiss’ oversight, a bad situation became even worse.

Whether all this has any relevance to how Weiss will perform at the Met remains to be seen. Randy Kennedy sowed some doubts in his NY Times report on the appointment by noting that the Met is a far larger operation, in terms of staff and budget, than Haverford. The museum also plays more conspicuously on an international stage.

The Met’s supremely accomplished staff will undoubtedly provide Weiss with expert guidance and mentoring. But its two most deeply experienced administrators responsible for areas under Weiss’ direct purview—current president Emily Rafferty, and senior vice president for government relations and public affairs Harold Holzer—will both have left the building by the time he arrives.

an ArtsJournal blog