The Bully Pulpit
I recently attended a lecture given by Jon Meacham at Chautauqua Institution where he was introduced as “One of America’s leading public intellectuals.” Meacham responded with his trademark self-effacing humor and a quip to the effect that just by being a public intellectual these days qualifies you as a leading one.
We certainly have a surplus of pundits, or at least talking heads promoted as subject experts across the spectrum of news outlets and media feeds, but Meacham may be right in recognizing that we are experiencing a time in which the recognition and value of public intellectuals has ebbed.
This would align with the precipitous decline in Americans’ faith in institutions. A recent Gallup poll showed that across parties, Americans are expressing record low confidence in institutions ranging from congress to newspapers to medical systems and public schools. In Meacham’s talk, he noted that in 1965 76% of Americans believed the U.S. government would do the right thing most of the time, and now, that number is 9%. If we don’t trust institutions, it should be no surprise that we may feel the same way about high-profile individuals.
What I find intriguing is that at the same time, campus communities seem to want their leaders to speak out on a wide range of topics.
When I was student in the 1980s, I don’t recall the president of my alma mater publicly opining on any major issues of the day. That was typical across higher education. In recent years however, students, faculty and staff, and more and more alumni have expressed a desire for their institutions to articulate a position, typically through the voice of the president, on major events and issues.
College presidents do have the luxury and the curse of possessing some of the few remaining bully pulpits outside of social media. As I have written before, we can and should be political, advocating for our institutions, our students, our employees, and our alumni, but we can’t be partisan
Like many of my peers, I have made public proclamations about Pell funding, DACA students, research funding, and academic freedom, but I stay far away from endorsing candidates or parties. Public partisanship from campus leaders could jeopardize an institution’s access to Title IV funding, but lobbying and advocating for policies and programs that benefit our constituencies is part of our jobs.
Often, we are called upon to make statements that are less directly aligned with our duties as institutional advocates, including topics of social justice, human rights, geopolitical conflicts, and legal issues. Determining when to speak and when to remain silent can be a challenge. We want to be responsive to members of our communities in need of support, but that can run the risk of alienating others, or creating new institutional lightning rods. It is also important to recognize that expressing one’s personal beliefs may be incongruent with articulating an institutional message.
According to a recent survey from the Chronicle of Higher Education, fear of sparking controversy has led many presidents to become less inclined to speak out on pressing current issues. That survey revealed that the following percentages of respondents indicated these topics are “so controversial that you self-censor your public remarks to avoid creating controversy for you or the institution.”
National politics 83%
State politics 66%
Gender/sexual identity 41%
Racial justice 37%
Diversity, equity, and inclusion 32%
Free speech 20%
Covid-19 policy 15%
Academic freedom 13%
An institution’s mission, and in some cases, its religious affiliation, as well as if it is public or private, all affect whether a president can or should make proclamations on specific issues.
Universities are built on principles that create institutional identity. One of the duties of president is to foster and promote that identity. Another is to cultivate meaningful discourse on topics of consequence on our campuses and beyond. That is a core foundation of our enterprise.
A number of my colleagues at sister institutions have created decision trees and/or guidelines to help them determine when to comment and when to defer. I use our institutional Mission Statement and our board’s Statement on Ethical and Inclusive Living as touchstones in making that determination. When the conclusion remains ambiguous, I consult board leadership.
Most of the time, that works. There will always be members of our extended community who take exception with any position I articulate. That’s what one should hope for in an intellectually diverse community.