Institutional neutrality is the much-invoked principle by which colleges and universities rarely take stands on public issues that don't directly relate to higher education. Presidents -- especially at public institutions -- tend to invoke the principle in various forms with some regularity, trying not to speak out on causes bound to offend someone when they want as much support as possible on college budgets or other measures.
It's that background that explains why many long-time followers of higher education and politics were stunned to learn that Bernie Machen, president of the University of Florida, has endorsed Sen. John McCain's presidential bid. While the endorsement, released by the McCain campaign, included the expected "should in no way be construed as an endorsement by the University of Florida" line at the end of the announcement, the headline was pretty clear: "University of Florida President Bernie Machen Endorses John McCain for President."
The lead paragraph of the release noted that Machen "has held leadership positions at some of America's most prominent institutions of higher learning over two decades" and the announcement went on to note his previous positions as president of the University of Utah and an administrator at the Universities of Michigan and North Carolina. In addition to quoting Machen's praise for McCain, the announcement quoted McCain praising Machen as "one of America's most distinguished leaders in education."
Sheldon E. Steinbach, a lawyer in the postsecondary education practice of the Washington law firm Dow Lohnes, said he was "stunned" by the endorsement. In Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign and Bob Dole's 1996 campaign, Steinbach was in charge of recruiting college presidents to serve on education task forces for the two Republican nominees. Even at points much later in the campaign year, post-nomination, Steinbach said that he could not recruit a single public university president, even though plenty supported the respective candidates privately.
"Public university presidents specifically expressed the fact that although they'd like to participate, it would be inimical to the best interests of the institutions for them to engage in overtly partisan political activity, since it is likely to cause dramatic friction with state legislators and governors," Steinbach said.
With private universities, he said, most also avoid public endorsements, although there is more wiggle room in some cases. He said that private college presidents who want to make an endorsement generally go to their board leadership and only endorse with such approval.
This year, Hillary Clinton has the endorsement of another president in Florida: Donna E. Shalala of the University of Miami, a private institution. Unlike Machen's endorsement, however, Shalala's move is hardly a surprise given that she held a Cabinet position in the Clinton Administration and has long worked with Hillary Clinton. (You can watch Shalala endorsing Clinton on The Colbert Report.)
Shalala's endorsement is also typical of one situation where observers are less surprised by a president taking a stand: cases where a president happens to have worked closely with a candidate over a period of years. For example, Lu Hardin of the University of Central Arkansas has endorsed and campaigned on behalf of Mike Huckabee.
And this weekend, Clinton received the endorsement of Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, but the significance of the endorsement wasn't that he's president of the State University of New York College at Old Westbury, but that he is pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, one of the most influential black churches in the United States. The endorsement from Butts referenced his church, but not the university.
Religious presidents have actually been center stage in several of this year's primary season endorsements -- some of which have become controversial. Mitt Romney, when he was trying to demonstrate evangelical support last year, boasted about backing from Bob Jones III, chancellor of Bob Jones University. The institution was concerned enough about the implication that it was being tied to the endorsement that it released a statement -- still on the university's home page -- noting that "contrary to potential misinterpretations that could possibly arise from a recent statement from the Romney campaign," the university had not endorsed anyone, and that its chancellor's action was "as a private citizen."
At Liberty University, an endorsement of Huckabee by Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. has led Americans United for Separation of Church and State to demand a federal investigation of whether the university violated federal tax laws in backing a partisan campaign.
Even those who oppose presidents making endorsements say that it is legal to do so -- if certain rules are followed. An American Council on Education booklet on colleges and elections, summarizing legal cases and interpretations, says such endorsements are allowed when "the institutional official clearly indicates that his or her comments are personal and not intended to represent the views of the institution."
Machen declined to be interviewed for this article or to respond to specific questions about McCain's positions, some of which have worried college leaders. McCain has not spoken out much on education and his Web site features a fairly minimal platform on the topic.
He has strongly opposed Congressional earmarks (some of which have benefited the University of Florida) and his budget positions generally call for tax cuts large enough that most federal discretionary spending (the programs on which colleges depend) would probably face reductions. McCain's previous backing of reforming immigration laws won him praise from academic leaders because the plan was expected to include measures to help students who attended high school in the United States, but who were not legal residents of the country. But with conservative leaders opposing him and his poll numbers dropping last year, McCain not only withdrew support for broad immigration reform, but went out of his way in a briefing for conservative bloggers to say that he opposed the measures to help undocumented students.
Claire Van Ummersen, vice president of the American Council on Education for its Center for Effective Leadership, said that this year's endorsements may suggest more involvement by presidents earlier in campaign seasons. In a few presidential election campaigns in the past, such as prior to Bill Clinton's 1992 election, groups of presidents have issued endorsements -- as they did for Clinton that year.
The activity this year strikes her as coming "extremely early," which adds to the risks, she said. "Higher education depends on bipartisan support," said Van Ummersen. She said that when she was president of Cleveland State University and chancellor of the University System of New Hampshire, she did not endorse anyone. "I think you have to use caution," she said.
Many presidents provide informal advice to candidates, but strive to avoid any hint of favoring someone, to preserve maximum support for their institutions, she said. Even when presidents include a line about how they are not speaking on behalf of their institutions, Van Ummersen questioned whether that would be understood. "Part of the danger is the way an endorsement is interpreted," she said.
Even if the last line of the McCain press release is a statement that Machen wasn't speaking for his university, "who reads to the end?" Van Ummersen asked.
The student newspaper isn't buying the argument that Machen can make endorsements that don't reflect on the university. An editorial in today's Independent Florida Alligator, called the endorsement "irresponsible" and "bad for UF." The student editorial did not take issue with whom Machen backed, but the fact that he backed someone in a public way.
"As students and Floridians, we think that public universities are supposed to serve all residents of a state, and a president of such a university should not show even a hint of political partisanship for a few reasons.... [T]hose who do not share his political views -- namely faculty and students -- may be angered by what normally would and should be the president's private choice," the editorial said.
It continued: "Also, the mere appearance of partisanship by someone who represents the university may inadvertently cause damage to the university's reputation. Who's to say that fellow state leaders within the Republican Party won't completely disagree with Machen's choice for presidential candidate? This may cause an acrimonious situation that is completely unnecessary. Machen has a responsibility as president not to behave in ways that create risks -- especially political -- to the university he serves. He should realize that his job may sometimes have to be the top priority."