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University Presidents—Speak Out! | The Nation

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University Presidents—Speak Out!

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The timidity of presidents is particularly striking in the context of diminishing public funds for higher education. Andrew Delbanco, in his book College, notes that the University of Virginia “now receives a mere 8% of its funding from the state of Virginia, down from nearly 30% a quarter century ago.” One of the few leaders to respond forcefully is Jonathan Cole. In 2009 Cole, a sociologist who served as provost at Columbia from 1989 to 2003 (during which time he defended the academic freedom of Edward Said), published a valuable book, The Great American University, which focuses on the top research universities. How they developed historically, how they achieved great things in the sciences and social sciences, and how they are under threat are the matters that preoccupy Cole.  

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?

Chief among the threats are politically motivated interventions from outsiders, which proliferated in the Bush era. Among many examples, Cole cites government pressure on the peer review system at the National Institutes of Health and sweeping assaults on Columbia professors who study the Middle East. (Not mentioned by Cole is that Columbia’s president, Bollinger, was dismayingly silent in the face of those attacks, by pro-Israel activists and journalists, at his own institution [see Sherman, “The Mideast Comes to Columbia University,” April 4, 2005].) The other central issue for Cole is the massive loss of dollars for those institutions that rely on public funds. Near the top of his list is UC Berkeley, which is being “bled by the state.” 

Cole’s book evinces a yearning for presidents like Robert Hutchins, who implemented a bold vision for higher education at the University of Chicago and tenaciously defended his institution in difficult times. Cole makes a powerful case that higher education leaders have failed to defend their own institutions with a Hutchins-like intensity. He includes himself in the indictment: “I consider myself as having failed at this, until I wrote this book.” 

“Presidents have done a very, very poor job of using the bully pulpit for higher education,” he says. “They have done particularly poorly at educating the American people about the value of the university—its centrality to the future welfare of this country. They have done abysmally on the humanities, failing to educate the public about why the humanities are central to the university, and why they are even central to the sciences in the future.” For Cole, it comes down to guns or butter. Presidents “have failed to explain why the public ought to be supporting the universities as a nondiscretionary item in the budget. You can train three or four students at Berkeley for what it costs to incarcerate a prisoner in California.” 

In light of the austerity that has been imposed on so many public colleges and universities, Cole wonders why more presidents don’t resign. “There should be a strong enough view, articulated clearly to governors, legislators and to regents, which says, ‘Here is the value of UCLA, Berkeley, of San Diego, of the community colleges of California. If we disrupt this, we are killing the state. And if you are going to continue to just strangle us, here are the consequences of that for the state of California and the nation, and you will have my resignation.’ And elected officials would probably take the resignation. But the presidents would be taking a stand.” 

When Cole scans the corridors of power in higher education, he’s not too pleased with what he sees: “There aren’t many presidents who are fighting against the powers that be.” 

* * *

Was there truly a “golden age” of engaged college and university presidents who “sculpted” society? How relevant is that tradition in our time? Cole notes that many past presidents were “Janus-faced.” Nicholas Murray Butler, who led Columbia from 1902 to 1945, won the Nobel Peace Prize, but he also fired professors who opposed US entry into World War I. Conant, according to his biographer James Hershberg, was both progressive and staunchly pro-establishment in his views. Kerr was an educational visionary and a law-and-order administrator who clashed with student protesters he didn’t understand—a set of mistakes he owned up to in his memoir, The Gold and the Blue. “I don’t know that there was a golden age,” says Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, “but these were people who did at least mount the public stage and try to say something that wouldn’t just be relevant to their campuses.” 

Let us also remember that, at their best, those “golden-era men” were very good indeed. Consider the remarkable career of Hutchins. According to his biographer Mary Ann Dzuback, he stood up to his McCarthy-era detractors at public hearings in Illinois, helped educate the public on the peaceful uses of atomic energy, launched the Great Books program and chaired the Commission on the Freedom of the Press (which called for nonprofit media ventures and tighter regulation of media monopolies and drew applause from Walter Lippmann and A.J. Liebling). 

Scanning the résumés of two newly appointed Ivy League presidents—Yale’s Peter Salovey and Dartmouth’s Philip Hanlon, who will replace an activist president, Jim Yong Kim—one notices that their entire careers have been spent in academia. The most distinguished presidents of the past had more varied and intriguing backgrounds. As a student at Swarthmore, Kerr volunteered in the ghettos of Philadelphia. During the 1933 cotton pickers’ strike in the San Joaquin Valley—which he called “the biggest and bloodiest rural strike in American history”—Kerr went there to interview sheriffs, strikers and farmers. In 1945, Kerr became the director of the Institute of Industrial Relations at Berkeley and arbitrated the ferocious class warfare that erupted on the California waterfront. 

Those endeavors helped to prepare Kerr for the task of building and leading the University of California in the ’50s and ’60s, where he found himself under attack from powerful forces. In 1952, an initiative to add a loyalty oath requirement to the state constitution was put before the voters of California. A group of Bay Area Quakers asked Kerr to join them in resisting it, and he did so in public pronouncements. As he related in his memoir: 

I knew the possible consequences and they came quickly, including several from regents. The most dramatic was at the next meeting of the board. The chair of the board (Edward Dickson) came to my office and seized me by the coat lapels. He said I was being viewed as the “Red Chancellor” of the “Red Campus,” and he wanted me to retract what I had done. I refused. I said that I had acted as a citizen in an off-campus context; that I had not given up my rights as an American citizen when I became chancellor; that I never would; and that the regents should know this. Regent Dickson turned his back to me and walked away. 

Entreaties for presidential courage have tended to come from outside critics and writers; but occasionally presidents themselves, including Theodore Hesburgh of the University of Notre Dame, have urged their colleagues to rouse themselves. Hesburgh, 95, no longer gives interviews. But his staff referred me to an essay he wrote in 2001 for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Where Are College Presidents’ Voices on Important Public Issues?” “Today’s college presidents,” Hesburgh wrote, “appear to have taken Voltaire’s advice to cultivate their own gardens—and…they are doing that very well.” Hesburgh’s conclusion remains pertinent: “We cannot urge students to have the courage to speak out unless we are willing to do so ourselves.” (On the theme of presidential courage, note the recent example of Karen Gould of Brooklyn College, who stood up to outside critics demanding the cancellation of a February 7 panel discussion on Israel.) 

Leon Botstein of Bard, who has drawn fire for a joint venture the college established with Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, makes a similar argument. In 1996, in response to a questionnaire from Rita Bornstein, former president of Rollins College, Botstein wrote, “A college president has an obligation to be more outspoken than the average citizen…. Failure to be in a leadership role on matters of public policy…is an act of cowardice and an avoidance of responsibility. We need to teach our students that the civilized assertion of one’s beliefs is an obligation, an honor, and a pleasure.” Does Botstein feel the same way sixteen years later? He replies, “I would only strengthen the sentiment.”

On April 20 of last year, Jon Wiener reported that the president of the
University of California issued a warning: “avoid all protests.”

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