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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Why Have University Presidents Fallen Silent?

The question in this editorial from The Christian Science Monitor is why university presidents don't speak out as often or as loudly as they once did. My experience suggests that the answer given, that university presidents now devote much of their time to fundraising is part of it, and I agree that fundraising has come to dominate their efforts far more than in the past. But I don't think lack of time is the major factor. Because fundraising has become so important, speaking out can offend potential donors and is therefore best avoided in the interests of the university. Even at the Department level, we've had donors threaten to pull donations due to editorials that were written by Department members and that makes Department members think twice before taking public positions that might be controversial, particularly since travel, visiting speakers, and other research activities have become increasingly dependent upon donated money. Better not to rock the boat. As universities become more dependent upon the private sector for funding, the ability to speak freely on important issues is reduced:

Where are the voices of college presidents?, by John Merrow, CS Monitor: Here's a quiz for you. Name the presidents of any three of America's 4,000-plus colleges and universities. Odds are most readers flunked that quiz, but it wouldn't be fair to take points off anyone's grade. How could the public know the names of higher education leaders, who are largely silent on the great issues of the day? Today's presidents only get noticed if they say something outrageous (Harvard's Lawrence Summers's comments about women and science), live too lavishly (former American University President Benjamin Ladner), or make millions (Lynn University's Donald Ross).

It hasn't always been this way. Father Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame ... declared, "Anyone who refuses to speak out off campus does not deserve to be listened to on campus." Many 20th-century university presidents also served as ambassadors and heads of major national commissions. Think Clark Kerr of the University of California, Jill Kerr Conway of Smith, Kingman Brewster of Yale, and Robert Hutchins and Edward Levi of the University of Chicago. Reporters knew to call them for opinions on the burning issues of the day.

I spent much of the past three years reporting about higher education and didn't find their modern-day equivalents. Presidents I met said they devoted much of their time to fundraising, often to build dormitories with wi-fi, athletic facilities with climbing walls, and stadiums with luxury boxes. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently released its own survey of university presidents, and its results confirm that observation. Five of the six most pressing issues have to do with money, and the sixth - retaining students - is only marginally related to teaching and learning.

Perhaps because of their preoccupation with dollars, today's college presidents are not educating the rest of us on issues that matter. Take the issue of intelligent design. Only three university presidents have spoken out against treating intelligent design as science. ... [T]he overwhelming silence on this topic, among others, shows just how far higher education has slipped from its pedestal. Greater leadership in public debate on critical issues is what's needed to stop academia's declining prestige, not a fixation on the bottom dollar.

    Posted by on Wednesday, December 21, 2005 at 12:16 AM in Economics, Politics, Universities | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (11)

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