Why College Presidents Need to Speak Up

To the cacophony of voices, often shouted, that defines the national body-politic these days is added, occasionally, that of a college president. Compared to the daily podium and social-media utterances candidates and pundits seeking the widest possible attention, we tend to do most of our talking to our campus constituents.

It doesn't always stay that way.

Liberty University's President Jerry Falwell Jr. received a campus ovation -- and national coverage -- for linking concealed-carry permits to preventing tragedies like the one in San Bernardino.

Oklahoma Wesleyan University's Everett Piper made news when he challenged students, in effect, to get a grip. Responding to a student complaint about a chapel sermon, he wrote: "At OKWU, we teach you to be selfless rather than self-centered. We are more interested in you practicing personal forgiveness than political revenge. ... This is a place where you will quickly learn that you need to grow up."

"This is not a day care. This is a university."

University of Missouri President Timothy Wolfe was compelled to resign amid various campus grievances, charges of racism and a threatened football-team boycott for what his critics perceived as his inadequate response to their concerns. Protests brought the institution virtually to a standstill.

Coverage of academic ceremonies has often been driven by protests accompanying them. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice backed out of an invitation to deliver the commencement address at Rutgers University following an outcry fueled by a letter to the university's president, charging that "by inviting her to speak and awarding her an honorary degree, we are encouraging and perpetuating a world that justifies torture and debases humanity."

For years, I've debated whether higher-education presidents need to speak out publicly and forcefully on controversial topics. After a quarter-century as a college president, my conclusion is that, yes, we need to.

Although many presidents are reluctant to voice their opinions in public for fear of offending key stakeholders (donors, legislators and, increasingly, faculty and students), I see little reason to decline an opportunity to use the "bully pulpit" of our offices.

One reason: We usually try to have something of significance and relevance to say. A president who takes a stand on any hot topic -- gun control, abortion, terrorism, global warming -- risks the same scrutiny as a candidate for the White House. But a university president should have the advantage of reflecting knowledge, viewpoints and research grounded in long-term scientific investigation, vetted by institutional experts and carefully readied for distribution without the daily pressures of political leverage or media deadlines.

Presidents also have a role as guardians of academic freedom. Because America's institutions of higher education have traditionally fostered open dialogue about the most compelling issues, we should join current debate about topics affecting not only our campuses, but all of our citizens. To shrink from doing so relegates our institutions to an unsettling and unnecessary silence, to existing as places of intellectual vapidity.

Putting it another way is the late University of Notre Dame President Father Theodore Hesburgh: "Anyone who refuses to speak out off campus does not deserve to be listened to on campus."

The problem for many presidents now, of course, is the spread of a new strain of political correctness on campus. Symptoms range from shouting down unacceptable (often politically conservative) commencement speakers to demanding "safe areas" free from offensive words and threatening ideas. Comedians are bypassing campus gigs because today's students either don't get, or can't take, the jokes.

That doesn't bother me so much; some campus comics aren't that clever anyway. But many of my presidential colleagues are also treading carefully. Some use the rationale that they simply don't have time to blog, tweet or text. For others, their caution overrides a sincere desire to speak out. I have been fortunate during my career to enjoy broad support of my governing boards for my public communication. Some presidents do not have that freedom.

Still, I believe we have an obligation to speak our minds, whether we offend audiences or not. Our responsibility as educators demands that we embrace different, challenging, even threatening ideas.

As attorney and professor Mark Weaver writes: "University leaders must not shrink from their duties to be the rock of principle in a rushing stream of campus anger, confusion, and unrest. Students won't always like it when they don't get all they ask for. But they will learn a great deal about the real world of family life and career, where angry demands are not always met and shouted grievances are often rebuffed."

I don't advocate that my fellow presidents take the kinds of outrageous positions we might hear on the political circuit. I do advocate, however, that we encourage debate, discussion and discourse as necessary steps in becoming educated. Although the outcome might be distasteful or troubling, presidents' voices, on balance, are influential and necessary. Especially today.

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Dr. Scott D. Miller is President of Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk/Virginia Beach. Previously, Dr. Miller served as President at Bethany College in West Virginia (2007-15), Wesley College in Delaware (1997-2007) and Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee (1991-97).

He wrote this for the December 13 issue of The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA).