Chancellor Cantor and a Fender Bender: Lessons

The Chronicle of Higher Ed released a video of the Chancellor berating the Rutgers campus police. Apparently there was a fender bender and the police wanted to document it — Chancellor or not. I think, looking at the long video, that there are lots of lessons here, lessons lost in the story told in the Chronicle — which focused on the Chancellor’s recent apology.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Everything a leader does is seen. You actually have no privacy. The Chancellor’s reaction was anger — she was worried about missing here plane. Understandable. But her argument and her tone were really based on privilege and “I deserve special treatment.” I get that. Sadly, I’ve done it myself in the context of getting a ticket. I apologized in person to the Chief of Police. And I paid for the ticket never issued because I pulled rank.

2. No attention is paid to Chancellor’s remarkable personal staff. They stayed calm. They offered quality alternatives and suggestions. They remained polite and balanced and non-threatening. The best line: “yes, there are rules but they need to be applied contextually.” They were, in a word, terrific.

Why aren’t they mentioned in the article? I had staff that good and hopefully they did not go unnoticed. Bad that their good behavior was not highlighted.

3. The relationship between the Chancellor and President is surely prickly based on this episode. The Chancellor comments that the President would not have been treated the same way and I think she was disappointed the police did not recognize her and her rank.

Think about that. She wanted to be known. That’s on her. If police don’t know her, perhaps she hasn’t been visible enough on campus in general and with police in particular.

I get getting angry. But, surely the whole incident could and should have played out differently. What if the Chancellor had said: “I appreciate that you are doing your jobs and following procedure — no exceptions. Help me here though. I need to get to the airport. Is there a way to do this quickly now and I can follow up when I return or perhaps you can drive me to the airport?”

The best: she refused to give her identification when asked. For real? Yipes. What witness to accident will not share name (her staff offered)? That’s really bad.

4. I wonder if absent the bodycam, the Chancellor would have apologized. Perhaps she did right after her return. I hope so. She should have invited officers over to her home to apologize. Think Professor Henry Louis Gates and his sharing a beer with police officer who accused him of breaking into his own home. Make peace, not war.

5. By all accounts at Rutgers and elsewhere, Nancy Cantor is a wonderful educational administrator. Sure, this wasn’t her finest moment. Maybe she learned something. I sure did.

And leaders: it is often our worst moments that get highlighted. Remember that. Take a deep breath. There is always another plane. There isn’t always a second chance to treat people well. And rank? It can go to one’s head. That’s when one needs a puppy who pees on the carpet or a friend who needs a pep talk or a small slip on a wet bathroom floor. Humanity returns and one’s and title fall off.

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Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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