Renée Loth

The academic bully pulpit

By Renée Loth
December 11, 2010

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THE ROLE of the university president as public intellectual, using the prestige of the office to take moral stands on issues of the moment, has ebbed and flowed (though mostly ebbed) over the years. Crushing administrative loads, fund-raising duties, and sometimes fear of alienating powerful constituencies has muffled the voices of academic leaders who once spoke out on issues ranging from civil rights to the Vietnam War to Supreme Court nominations.

But much of the higher education establishment has been vocal in support of the Dream Act, which passed the House this week only to be delayed in the Senate. The bill would give conditional legal status to certain undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children and who attend college or serve in the military

“I have seen extraordinarily talented young people who did not make a decision to come to this country on their own,’’ Lawrence Bacow, president of Tufts University, said in an interview. “They represent the hope and promise of the future of this nation and all they want to do is continue their education. And to say no to them, to say we’re not going to give you an opportunity to become citizens, just strikes me not only as morally wrong but wrong-headed.’’

In September, Bacow joined the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and five other Boston-area universities in urging Senators John F. Kerry and Scott Brown to support the act. That month Harvard president Drew Faust traveled to Washington with molecular biology student Eric Balderas, who had faced deportation because his parents brought him here illegally at age 4 (his case has since been deferred). Ruth Simmons at Brown also has been a vocal advocate of immigration reform.

The decision of whether and when to speak out on public policy issues is a delicate one for college presidents. “You have to give them credit for a degree of bravery,’’ says Rita Bornstein, former president of Rollins College in Florida, who has written extensively on university leadership. “The immigration issue is sufficiently controversial that everyone has a passionate perspective. They have to be concerned about their trustees and donors.’’ She adds that the democratization of opinion has dimmed some of the moral authority of college presidents, as with other elites.

Stephen J. Nelson, author of “Leaders in the Crucible: The Moral Voice of Presidents’’ and a professor at Bridgewater State University, says that college presidents today are expected to be “fund-raisers, managers of large and complex academic bureaucracies, public-relations magicians, and astute politicians.’’ Those who are successful at engaging public debate “have to pick their battles.’’

Bacow, who is stepping down after 10 years as president in June, speaks of getting the “signal to noise ratio’’ into proper balance so that his voice doesn’t get lost in the clutter. He tries to offer opinions on issues that directly affect the university or its students. “When I speak out, it ought to be in a way that helps to advance the interest of the institution,’’ he said.

In that regard it’s hard to imagine a better issue for the academic bully pulpit than the Dream Act. The mission of higher education is to reward intellectual achievement and offer opportunity to promising students. The Dream Act’s “path to citizenship’’ is no primrose path: applicants must have been brought to the United States before age 16, must have lived here for five years, serve as students or military enlistees in good standing for two years, and then wait at least another three years under “conditional permanent residency’’ status before being allowed to apply for citizenship. It is hardly a blanket amnesty for millions of hardened criminals, though you could be forgiven for thinking that after listening to opponents.

In this and other issues, Bornstein says, “what presidents can bring to the discussion is a rational overview of what the issues are instead of just entering the mindless fray.’’ To judge from the level of vitriol and falsehoods that have plagued this moderate bill in the nine years since it was first introduced, those rational voices are needed more than ever.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.