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University Presidents—Speak Out! | The Nation

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University Presidents—Speak Out!

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That view is echoed by distinguished experts on the college presidency. William Bowen was the president of Princeton from 1972 to 1988, after which he spent eighteen years as head of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Bowen, 79, is the opposite of a university bureaucrat: for decades he has used quantitative data and calm, diplomatic reasoning to advocate for affirmative action in admissions and for the reform of college athletics. One of the central arguments Bowen imparts in his recent book, Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President, is this: be careful. “It is, I think, quite remarkable how willing public bodies in this country, and alumni, have been to tolerate the criticism and dissension that emerge from campus communities,” Bowen writes. “This willingness to accept the vigorous exercise of academic freedom is dependent on evidence of institutional restraint on the part of universities and their presidents.”

Richard Kreitner contributed research to this article.

About the Author

Scott Sherman
Scott Sherman (scottgsherman.com) is a contributing writer to The Nation.

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In mid-December, the Main Library’s celebrated stacks were booked for demolition.

Why did one of the world’s greatest libraries adopt a $300 million transformation without any real public debate?

Restraint was the theme of our recent conversation at the Mellon Foundation. When I asked Bowen to respond to Hacker and Dreifus’s declaration about campus leaders, he swatted it away like a gnat. “The job of the president is not to pronounce on the big public issues of today,” Bowen says. “The job of the president is to pronounce on educational issues and to lead the academy. It’s a mistaken conception to think of the president of any of these places as a surrogate for the governor of the state, the senator or the president. That only causes trouble and does damage, because what it does is impose a seeming orthodoxy on an institution that ought to be the home of the unorthodox.” Bowen insists that presidents should measure every word they utter in public: “You ought to have the brain and the judgment to keep your mouth shut when you don’t know anything about the issue.” 

Fair enough—but aren’t those views somewhat timorous and risk-averse, especially in light of the manifold pressures on higher education? Bowen replies that for a president to defend, say, affirmative action in a politically divided society is hardly risk-averse. But isn’t affirmative action a prevailing ideology in higher education? “In many educational settings,” says Bowen, “the key constituents—alumni, faculty, students, as well as trustees and in some cases legislators—are overwhelmingly in favor of aggressive pursuit of diversity and of affirmative action. But in other educational contexts, where key constituencies are more conservative, being vocally in favor of affirmative action can take courage.” 

The way Bowen frames the issue of presidential engagement does not satisfy everyone I talked with. “I think almost any issue is fair game,” says Sanford Ungar, president of Goucher College, who has urged his peers to “abandon blandness” and stand up for “empiricism, reason, and calm debate.” “Global warming, for instance, is a matter of science versus ignorance,” says Ungar. “If a president is intimidated out of standing up for science against ignorance, that’s pretty sad.” 

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A few presidents have a grittier and more expansive view of their job. I recently met Nancy Cantor, the departing chancellor of Syracuse University, in an elegant brownstone the university owns, donated by a philanthropist, on the edge of New York’s Central Park. Cantor has staked her reputation on a bold and unusual plan she spearheaded called the Near Westside Initiative to transform decaying sections of Syracuse. According to a recent article in the Syracuse New Times, “by constructing new homes, renovating buildings and attracting businesses like ProLiteracy, the NWSI has made halting but noticeable progress.” 

Moreover, Cantor has encouraged the revision of tenure requirements so that faculty members can work on community-oriented projects. She calls it “public scholarship,” and notes by way of example that “at Syracuse, the geography department collaborated with a local coalition on a project to ‘map’ hunger.” On top of this, Cantor hasn’t neglected the cash register—Syracuse has raised more than $1 billion under her leadership. 

Does Cantor see herself in the tradition of Conant, Hutchins and Kerr, whom she refers to as “golden-era men”? She thinks highly of them, but sees presidential activism today as inseparable from a “boots on the ground” orientation: “Today you don’t do that from a bully pulpit,” she says. “You do that rolling up your sleeves and being out there.” Her brand of activism, undertaken with many partners, has garnered bruises and setbacks. U.S. News & World Report has downgraded Syracuse University in its college rankings, and Cantor has been accused of neglecting the institution’s academic function. “Our primary mission is not managing cities,” one Syracuse professor tartly informed Robin Wilson of The Chronicle of Higher Education. To which Cantor replied that the university “should have an impact on our democracy and do work that addresses pressing issues in the world.” 

Cantor’s willingness to be outspoken and aggressive is refreshing. But where are the other risk-taking presidents? I asked Rawlings to compile a list of those who have demonstrated courage (in contrast to decency and competence) in recent years. He quickly cited the president of the University of Texas at Austin, William Powers Jr., who is in “a pitched battle” against a Republican governor, Rick Perry, whose
higher education policies are “anti-intellectual” and “vocational.” Rawlings added that higher education leaders in Florida have firmly resisted a proposal (from the conservative governor’s task force on higher education) to charge higher tuition rates to liberal arts majors—an effort to bolster what are seen as job-friendly degrees in science, healthcare and technology at the expense of degrees in the humanities. 

In an e-mail a few days later, Rawlings augmented his list of courageous presidents: “Lee Bollinger, who led the fight to defend affirmative action at a time when that was not a popular position in that state or nationally…. Scott Cowen, who as president of Tulane when Katrina hit, not only helped bring the university and the community through the crisis, but took the opportunity to transform Tulane’s undergraduate program into the nation’s most service-oriented program among major universities…. Wallace Loh, of the University of Maryland…who has used…his own history to be a leader in support of the Dream Act…. Bob Birgeneau of Berkeley has been an ardent and very public advocate for the Dream Act in California…. Gene Block, who has been outspoken in combating animal rights activists who have used terror tactics against UCLA and its faculty.” His final example: “Myles Brand’s firing of [basketball coach] Bob Knight at Indiana, which was an extremely courageous act and occasioned much opposition, some of it violent and threatening.” 

The limited scope of Rawlings’s list ought to inspire soul-searching among higher education leaders. Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, says, “When you are talking about major institutions in American society, at some point their leaders have to be part of the problem and part of the solution. We might ask them to put themselves at risk a little more than they do.” 

In the wake of the Newtown massacre, leadership (and some risk-taking) has come from the presidents of small colleges. Three hundred and sixty presidents have signed a letter—
written by Lawrence Schall, president of Oglethorpe University, and Elizabeth Kiss, president of Agnes Scott College—pushing a legislative agenda for gun regulation. But only about thirty presidents (from places such as Brenau University, Spelman College and Loras College) appeared at a February 4 press conference in Washington to publicize those demands. No Ivy League presidents were present; and no Ivy League presidents, thus far, have signed the Schall/Kiss letter. 

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