Speaking up about college presidents speaking out

When the Supreme Court announced its decision overturning Roe v. Wade, college and university presidents faced a familiar dilemma: Should they weigh in on hotly contested public controversies?

We believe they should, but only on issues that have a direct impact on their campus communities and in ways that protect and promote their commitment to critical thinking, active debate, and the pursuit of truth by students, faculty, and staff. 

In the past, some presidents were “prominent voices of reason and thoughtfulness in the public discourse, society’s moral and ethical touchstones.” They used their bully pulpits to lead debate, not just on higher education, but on “other important issues of the time.” Today’s presidents instead “tiptoe around public controversy,” thereby abdicating “a vital role of the university in a civil society — to help shape” informed discussion “on the things that really matter.”

And yet, today’s presidents, whose public utterances are seen as representing institutional positions, have good reasons to exercise restraint. In 1967, when the Vietnam war divided the country, the Kalven Committee at the University of Chicago noted that the university’s unique function in society is — and should be — fostering an environment of unfettered inquiry. That mission, perhaps counterintuitively, requires the institutions themselves to “maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.”

The university, the committee added, “cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy” without effectively “censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted.” For this reason, the university, “the home and sponsor of critics,” should not itself be the critic.

Of course, for much of history, and still today in many parts of the world, critical thinking and active debate were not the hallmarks of university pedagogy or practice. Universities were expected to indoctrinate students to accept particular political, religious, and social principles. The presidents of Princeton and Columbia, for example, committed their universities to supporting U.S. participation in World War I, and “did all they could to repress dissent.” As former Stanford University president Richard Lyman has observed, nothing in the law of nature “says a politicized university must always be politicized in favor of peace, freedom, and equality.”

Moreover, the “criticism and dissension that emerge from campus communities” may be tolerated by the society-at-large in part because of “institutional restraint on the part of universities and their presidents.”

The erosion of that tacit bargain has already begun. Almost 60 percent of Republicans believe colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country. A major driver of their dissatisfaction is the perception that campuses lean sharply left. Conservative governors and state legislators are increasingly intervening in policies traditionally reserved for educators. Florida’s Stop WOKE Act, for example, restricts what schools can teach about race, and Gov. Ron DeSantis has recently signed laws that regulate tenure and accreditation and mandate annual viewpoint diversity surveys, with an implicit threat to cut appropriations depending on the results. “It used to be thought that a university campus was a place where you’d be exposed to a lot of different ideas,” DeSantis explained. But now orthodoxies “are promoted, and other viewpoints are shunned or even suppressed.”

“Supercharged” by social media and a 24-7 news cycle, hyper-partisan political polarization guarantees that almost any statement presidents make on “hot button” subjects will alienate a segment of their community.

Campus activists who want to “use the university to accomplish overt and covert social and political goals” often attack pronouncements that do not fully endorse their views. Further, while fears of alienating major donors “may be more myth than reality,” presidents, for whom fundraising is essential, “err on the side of caution.”

Presidents, in our view, should speak out about issues central to the institution’s operations or higher education. Of course, that standard “might lead one to wonder which issues do not have clear relevance” to these purposes. To answer that question, presidents should consider whether the impact on their campus is both significant and distinct from the impact on society-at-large. Examples include campus free speech, affirmative action, and certain visa and immigration policies.

When the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, we believe it was entirely appropriate for presidents to clarify for their communities what reproductive health services would still be available in the aftermath of the decision.

Each case is, of course, a judgment call. In this area, however, less is more. Presidents should resist calls to opine on every crisis or tragedy and be wary of issuing statements just because others are weighing in. The impact of presidential statements quickly “dissipates if presidents jump too frequently to offer vague statements/platitudes.”

The approach we have outlined may feel unsatisfying, especially to members of the campus community eager to see their own values reflected back to them, but as the Kalven Committee observed 55 years ago, the upside of an institution’s neutrality, and it is by no means inconsiderable, is “the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest.”

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Isaac Kramnick) of Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.

David Wippman is the President of Hamilton College.