Last time the question of why college presidents have fallen silent came up, I noted that the role of a college president today is largely one of fund raising and thus it was no mystery why they would be unwilling to risk offending potential donors by speaking out on controversial issues. This commentary by Margaret A. McKenna, president of Lesley University, explores the question further:
The silencing of college presidents, by Margaret A. McKenna, Boston Globe: When I became president of Lesley University 20 years ago, I was attracted to the college because of its mission and beliefs that individuals can and should make a difference. ... I ... believed that we had an opportunity, in fact a responsibility, to make the world a better place. I knew, though may have underestimated, the demands of a university presidency: the pressures of fund-raising and enrollment numbers, the toll on personal time, and the economic challenges of tuition dependent institutions. ...
In the 19th century, presidents taught their college's course in moral philosophy and ethics. Moral leadership was the centerpiece of the college president's role. In the 20th century, that tradition began to ebb, but some college presidents still provided very public models of moral leadership. ... Much has changed in a few decades. The president's role as fund-raiser has grown. The university system and its expectations are stacked against any president providing the kind of public moral leadership that once characterized our profession. Too much risk is involved. Prospective students, donors, trustees, and alumni could be offended. Faculty may fear that a president's opinion too forcefully expressed might impinge on academic freedom.
And since 9/11, dissent of almost any kind has been labeled as unpatriotic, and even reasoned debate on hot button social issues is viewed as dangerously controversial. Thus, while many of my colleagues will state positions on issues clearly affecting their campuses, like financial aid, they are loath to venture an opinion outside of academe. Who can blame them? ... But I wonder what it would take for more of us to speak out?
We will defend our students' right to financial aid, but what about basic human rights like those trampled at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib? We can respond to college students displaced by Katrina, but are we willing to speak on behalf of children of undocumented immigrants? We might write our congressman to protect charitable deductions for nonprofits, but what of tax reform that disproportionately aids the rich and ignores the poor? We are eloquent advocates of academic freedom, but what of freedom to communicate free from government surveillance?
The country is sorely in need of new voices of courage and conviction. Thank God for John McCain, Ted Kennedy, and more recently John Murtha. Others who speak from less formal roles: George Will, Dan Schorr, Cindy Sheehan, Bono, and Pat Buchanan on his more rational days. Whether you agree with them or not, you can believe they say what they mean and mean what they say. Regardless of ideological position, we need more voices in public dialogue like that.
The punditry of Sunday morning talk shows is not an answer. On the other hand, I am convinced moral leaders can be found at all levels of society. Their formal roles matter less than the power of their ideas, vision, and voices. But university presidents, in particular, have a unique historical tradition, and strong educational reason, to reassert their voices in their historical role of moral leadership.
Many college students are increasingly cynical about politics. They are willing to serve as volunteers, but less willing to be part of the political process. I believe that if we want our students to be engaged in civic life, to be leaders, to speak out on issues, we need to provide them with the models for doing so. ...