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The silencing of college presidents

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. After all, I am a product of the 1960s, and we 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. The managerial challenges paled in comparison to the opportunity to enhance young people's lives, to be an incubator for positive social change, and to have a bully pulpit to speak out on important societal issues.

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. Two US presidents served as college presidents: Woodrow Wilson and Dwight Eisenhower. Leaders such as Benjamin Mays, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, and Kingman Brewster had spoken out on the moral issues of their day: race, poverty, and the Vietnam War. Their moral courage often courted controversy, but as Brewster noted: ''My decision [to speak] was not a simple self-indulgence of my right of free speech. It was the result of a deliberate balance of judgment about what degree of speaking out was best for the university under the circumstances: how to avoid excessive exploitation of the presidential office, and how to avoid being a moral eunuch on a morally anguished campus."

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? The system demands more but wants to hear from us less. 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 surveilance?

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.

I have learned a lot in 20 years in this job. Having the opportunity to use a bully pulpit is more difficult and less significant than I expected. All of us who are part of the higher education system need to learn from the moral leadership of our predecessors, and model the kind of civic engagement and courage we want our students to practice.

Margaret A. McKenna is president of Lesley University.

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