Several years ago, while I was the president of Drake University, a retired judge asked me, “What’s happened to you folks? College presidents used to be prominent voices of reason and thoughtfulness in the public discourse, society’s moral and ethical touchstones, the ‘keepers’ of values, and you’ve disappeared!”
That was an accurate and important observation at the time, and its impact is all the more acute as we face the paralysis in Washington, the stonewalling of a distinguished Supreme Court nominee, and the unsettling prospect of a Donald Trump presidency (and I want to emphasize that I am not taking a political position in opposing Mr. Trump’s policies, particularly since other than building a wall, deporting immigrants and barring Muslims, we don’t know what his policies are; the reasons for my concern will become clear below).
There are, in my view, two reasons for the apparent withdrawal of college presidents as public intellectuals (and I should note that in recent months there have been some exceptions to that characterization—some brave and thoughtful voices).
The first is that I fear that our voices are no longer respected at the level they once were. Thanks to the hyperbolic and mostly inaccurate portrayals of higher education by sensationalist media and politicians, we are often cast as over-paid villains leading institutions that are too expensive, too elitist, with students who are majoring in “irrelevant” subjects, and who don’t get jobs when they graduate with crippling loan debt. I’m not at all sure that the public looks at us as ethical and moral beacons any longer.
“Colleges and universities – and their leaders – have become victims of the disintegration of civility in public discourse...”
But even more troubling in the current political environment is the second reason: that college presidents are less likely to speak out because of the toxic—even dangerous—nature of public discourse, because we have become so antagonistic as a society, because every issue seems to get ideological labels slapped on it, even if it’s not really a political issue—that they’re legitimately afraid that those who disagree with them will punish the school by not sending their children or their dollars to the institution.
There’s good reason for that fear—and no matter how passionately one might feel about an issue as an individual, a responsible college president cannot expose the institution to those kinds of risks. Further, in many cases, because their boards of trustees (who hire and fire the president) themselves are often so deeply divided about politics, presidents are justifiably afraid to put their very jobs (and careers) in jeopardy.
Colleges and universities – and their leaders – have become victims of the disintegration of civility in public discourse, victims of the fact that we seem to live in an era in which belief and assertion (and in the case of Donald Trump, exaggeration and falsehood) seem to have the same validity as knowledge and facts. We are victims of the fact that most of the news outlets, as well as the proliferation of reality TV (and the dividing line between “news” and reality TV is becoming more and more blurred), are conditioning the public to believe that screaming, yelling, interrupting and name-calling are the ways in which people conduct meaningful discourse. And Mr. Trump is the hyperbolic symbol of our vanishing ability as a public to engage in reasoned disagreement about the vital issues that affect the future of our country.
All of this is in direct opposition to one of the core values of higher education—the importance of civil and respectful disagreement in search of the truth. In stark contrast to the tenor of Mr. Trump’s response to those who question his statements, who by virtue of their disagreement are often characterized as stupid, evil and the spawn of the devil (and ugly, bleeding or developmentally disabled), the successful search for new knowledge is critically dependent on divergent perspectives and opinions that challenge the already-known and make us rethink (and sometimes reaffirm) our most basic assumptions.
As academics, we are trained not only to question—in a respectful and civil manner—the ideas of others, but to accept challenges to our own ideas as an essential part of the process of refining and validating them. In that context, a fundamental principle of the academy (which is, I admit, sometimes only honored in the breach) is the recognition that speech that demeans, denigrates or humiliates is a wholly unacceptable impediment to achieving our goals, and inconsistent with our commitment to civil discourse. Sadly, there is a yawning chasm between that principle and the stream-of-consciousness, denigrating invective that erupts unfiltered from Mr. Trump on a regular basis, breathtakingly devoid of detailed knowledge or fully-formed ideas.
“We in higher education have an obligation to reclaim our voice in the midst of this corrosive noise and the very real threat of a Trump presidency.”
We should find much of what Donald Trump says to be truly frightening as the antithesis of everything that we stand for as institutions, challenging by implication the very legitimacy of the enterprise. As President Rosenberg of Macalester College noted, Mr. Trump’s comments and policies are “antithetical to the mission of higher education.” But it’s even more than that: Mr. Trump’s flagrant disregard for the truth, his cavalier debunking of the validity of scientific fact, and his racist and xenophobic outbursts at a time when America’s colleges and universities have passionately committed themselves to diversity, inclusion and global education are in stark opposition to who we are and all that we aspire to. And, of course, Mrs. Trump’s recent plagiarism, had it been in a paper for a college class, would have gotten her a failing grade in most institutions and suspended or expelled in many.
We in higher education have an obligation to reclaim our voice in the midst of this corrosive noise and the very real threat of a Trump presidency. With our silence we have abdicated a vital role of the university in a civil society—to help shape the public discourse in a reasoned, informed and thoughtful way on the things that really matter.
I by no means intend to be critical of my former colleagues who lead America’s colleges and universities, and that should be clear from what I have said above. College presidents rarely have the luxury of speaking as individuals; anything they say reflects on their institutions, and there’s really no easy way to escape that.
But from the relative safety (at least institutional) of retirement, I urge us to find ways to fulfill our collective obligation to the health of our democracy. We must raise our voices to insist that the political parties recruit candidates who are willing to have productive and respectful arguments about the ideas and policies that will move this country forward. We must provide an alternative to the noxious rhetoric that is eroding our dignity as human beings, finding ways to show the public what civil discourse looks and sounds like, how people can engage in productive, respectful disagreement.
We need to help focus the public consciousness and the political discourse not on whom we hate, what we’re afraid of and whom we blame, but on the ideas and the strategies that will enable us to manage the immense challenges that face us as a nation, and that will allow us to fulfill our collective dreams as a people.