Where Are College Presidents' Voices on Important Public Issues?


When I was a college president, I often spoke out on national issues, even when they didn’t pertain to academic life. Yet nowadays, I don’t find many college presidents commenting on such issues on the front page of The New York Times or in any of the country’s other major news outlets. Once upon a time chief executives in higher education talked to the press about military policy in the same breath as the Constitutional amendment for the 18-year-old vote, but I wonder whether we’d hear them taking stands on similar topics now. I also wonder what that all says about changes in the culture of higher education and how presidents view their roles as spokespersons on important public issues.p. My opinion seems to be reflected in a recent American Council on Education report on public perceptions of higher education, which found that “the vast majority of Americans rarely hear college presidents comment on issues of national importance, and when they do, they believe institutional needs rather than those of the students or the wider community drive such comments.”p. Let me provide a disclaimer up front: American higher education is still one of the wonders of the modern world. Although they may have slipped from view in the news media, the presidents of our colleges are maintaining the country’s leadership in educating a citizenry for the responsibilities of a democracy, as well as producing pioneering research in an age driven by science and its applications.p. College presidents today, however, do seem to be less involved in public debate than in the past. In the 1950’s, for example, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed two college presidents to the original five-person U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: John Hannah of Michigan State University, who served as chairman, and myself. Educational leaders strongly influenced public policy and opinion in areas that seemed far from ivory-tower concerns. Yet I recently ran across a comment from William Galston, a former White House domestic adviser and a leader of the National Commission on Civic Renewal, who was less than sanguine about the current lack of national leadership from college presidents. “There are very few voices,” he was quoted as saying, “that speak with moral authority today, not just in politics but everywhere. Once university presidents could speak with such authority. Now they’re administrators and fund raisers.” That may be somewhat harsh, but it is yet more evidence that others have noticed a vacuum.p. Where we once had a fellowship of public intellectuals, do we now have insulated chief executives intent on keeping the complicated machinery of American higher education running smoothly?p. College presidents may be less present to the American public today because they are less present to one another. In the 60’s, I spent one weekend every month for six years at meetings of the Carnegie Commission for the Study on the Future of Higher Education, chaired by Clark Kerr. I met frequently with people like Bill Friday of the University of North Carolina, David Henry of the University of Illinois, Nathan Pusey of Harvard University, Jim Perkins of Cornell University, Carl Kaysen of the Institute for Advanced Study, and Katharine McBride of Bryn Mawr College. It seemed nothing to know personally — and well — 250 fellow presidents. Collaboration in a common task fostered friendships; we shared birthday greetings as well as platforms. We were quoted on the issues of the day, sometimes in unified chorus, sometimes in agreed disagreement — such as when it came to whether a liberal-arts education should convey moral values as well as facts.p. In contrast, today’s college presidents appear to have taken Voltaire’s advice to cultivate their own gardens - and, as I’ve said, they are doing that very well. At the same time, however, “assistant to the president” has become such a ubiquitous administrative title that one wonders how much personal contact between presidents, the kind of bonding that grew out of the Carnegie Commission, can still occur.p. Presidents now preside over institutions that have grown much more complex and bureaucratic. As Marvin Lazerson and Ursula Wagener, professors of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, and Larry Moneta, associate vice president for campus services at Penn, wrote in The Chronicle (July 28, 2000), many colleges now operate like “mini-cities,” and presidents must manage a growing “array of public works, social services, and market-sensitive functions.” Meanwhile, the rapid and constant changes in new technology demand that presidents be entrepreneurs and visionaries- always keeping an eye on the cutting edge. Many presidents are simply too busy to speak out on issues beyond the immediate concerns of their institutions.p. It’s also true that presidents must play an ever-larger role in raising money for their institutions — and often from supporters who have strong views on what presidents should or shouldn’t say in the press. Getting involved in controversial public issues complicates the already neuralgic life of a college president. It is tough enough to maintain an irenic atmosphere on a campus without inviting criticism for taking stands outside the academy that will inevitably alienate one constituency or another.p. Yet John Hannah confronted that risk when he took on the chairmanship of the civil-rights commission in 1957, as did W. Allen Wallis, the president of the University of Rochester, when he was named to the President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Forces in 1969. I am certain that they got angry letters, as I did when I was named to President Gerald R. Ford’s Presidential Clemency Board in the 1970’s, dealing with “Vietnam offenders” like draft dodgers and deserters.p. The 60’s and early 70’s were contentious times, and college presidents found themselves in the midst of acrimonious and sometimes violent clashes not only over civil rights and the Vietnam War but other societal concerns. Peace and justice issues, as well as the debate over the “military-industrial complex,” gain a certain urgency when your R.O.T.C. buildings are on fire, as was the case at more than one institution. In fact, I kept a suit-pocket necrology during the days of the student revolution, noting fellow presidents who were forced from office. Courtney Smith at Swarthmore College even died in his office of a heart attack after confrontations with protesters.p. Painful as those days were, however, they taught a powerful lesson: We cannot urge students to have the courage to speak out unless we are willing to do so ourselves. The true antidote to the public’s view that colleges are simply ivory towers of intellectual dilettantism is engagement with important public issues — however difficult and thorny those issues may be.p. Becoming knowledgeable and articulate on complex social issues is a process that takes time and energy as it imparts wisdom. One must be willing to invest in it. I knew little about immigration, a radioactive issue in American politics, when I began serving on the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy in 1979, but I knew a lot more after sitting through hearings in nearly every port of entry to the United States. As a theologian who spent 12 years on the National Science Board, I received perhaps the nation’s best education in science from the greatest minds in the field.p. Today, the issue that would most galvanize me as a college president would be affirmative action in higher education. I applaud the former presidents of Princeton and Harvard Universities, William Bowen and Derek Bok, for their 1998 study The Shape of the River , which supports racial preferences in higher-education admissions. (As an exception to prove the point, the book and its authors received prominent news coverage in The New York Times.) We need more presidents like Lee C. Bollinger of the University of Michigan, who termed his institution’s recent defense of affirmative action in the courts “a critical moment for our society.”p. Another area longing for the attention of college presidents is developing educational programs that seek to improve the status of women — especially in Asia, South America, and Africa, where many are second-class citizens. In some areas of the world, the life expectancy of women is less than 50 years, the literacy rate less than 20 percent. Only education can break the bonds, primarily of custom, that keep many women worldwide from realizing their God-given dignity and rights.p. In fact, technology now gives us the reach — if we have the imagination — to deliver information to any corner of the world. We had a Green Revolution years ago, when we worked to increase and diversify crop yields in less-advanced countries; it fed the stomachs of an impoverished Third World. We now need to feed minds, especially those of the portion of the human race most overlooked. If we can create virtual law schools on the World Wide Web, why can’t we deliver elementary education to those most in need?p. Of course, those are just my own top concerns. Our country and world are rife with other important moral and social issues. As the founder of the Worldwatch Institute, Lester Brown, with whom I worked for some years on the Overseas Development Council, said so well, “An affluent global minority is overfed and overweight, but more than half of humanity is hungry and malnourished; some can afford heart transplants, but half of humanity receives no health care at all; a handful of Americans have journeyed to the moon, but much of mankind cannot afford a visit to the nearest city; several thousand dollars are spent on a college education for a young American, while much of mankind lacks the limited resources required to become literate.”p. I would welcome signs that more presidents of our colleges were willing to take the lead in tackling at least a few of those issues, reminding the public — and perhaps even each other — that they are custodians of institutions where independent, ethical, and compassionate thinking must flourish.p. _ The Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh is president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame. He recently became the first person from American higher education to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for distinguished service to the nation. _

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