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In the Crosshairs

February 15, 2013

In the two months since a couple of college presidents launched a campaign urging swift legislative action to prevent gun violence, the spotlight has been on the more than 370 top administrators who signed a letter demanding specific changes by policymakers. But now, some of the focus is starting to shift – to those who have not added their names to the list.

Some students and newspaper columnists are calling out their local presidents for not signing the open letter, which was made public just before Christmas and re-pitched in a press conference last week in Washington. Articles -- like this one at the University of Richmond -- report on what presidents haven't done.

Although some presidents targeted in those articles – including those at Harvard and Yale Universities and the Universities of Richmond and Virginia -- have endorsed a more general gun safety statement by the Association of American Universities, they have stayed mum about the more pointed (and potentially controversial) letter from the group calling itself College Presidents for Gun Safety.

The latter presidents endorsed “common-sense reforms” including: reinstating the ban on semiautomatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazines; requiring that every gun purchaser pass a criminal background check; requiring consumer safety standards for all guns; making gun trafficking a federal crime; and opposing legislation that allows guns on campuses.

The AAU statement urges Congress to “work with the administration to apply honest and open scrutiny to identifying and implementing meaningful, consequential actions now.” To do so will require addressing gun control, care of the mentally ill, and the culture of contemporary media, the statement says.

Lawrence M. Schall, the Oglethorpe University president who conceived of and co-authored the letter, has repeatedly said he could think of no other issue on which so many college leaders could agree, much less speak out about. And while he acknowledged this week that some presidents might not support the letter’s demands or haven't gotten their hands on the document,  he posited that in some cases, other, more political reasoning might be at play.

Schall said that “many” presidents had called him to express their solidarity and assure him they wanted to sign, but their governing boards forbade them from doing so. Two other presidents signed onto the letter initially, but then asked to have their names removed after board members protested.

“It boils down to, it’s a risky thing to sign,” Schall said. “I’m comfortable saying we’re speaking with one voice…. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be critical of any president for not signing, whether he or she had a different point of view or whether he or she weren’t prepared to go there.”

Kurt Mueller, acting director of public relations at Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, said it’s not surprising that for the hundreds of colleges who signed the letter, there are thousands who haven’t.

“There is no group of people of any significant size that is 100 percent about anything, and for a group as large and diverse as this one, that goes double,” he said.

For this article, Inside Higher Ed contacted more than a dozen colleges and universities to speak to their presidents – some AAU Executive Committee members who endorsed that statement but not the letter, some presidents who were singled out in newspaper editorials, and some who actually did sign the letter – nearly all of whom either declined to comment, issued brief statements or did not respond to multiple queries.

However, a few who signed the letter explained why they did and why others might not have. David Wilson, president of Morgan State University, said signing was "an easy decision." A student at Morgan State, an urban institution in Maryland, was shot on campus in December.

"I can understand how some public university presidents would be hesitant because the politics, of course, differ from one state to another," he said. "Quite frankly, at the end of the day, I have to think about the safety and security issues of my community at Morgan and what I think is in the best interest of my community."

The vast majority of the letter’s signatories run small private colleges – not particularly surprising, given that the letter’s authors come from institutions with similar profiles, and circulated the letter (initially, at least) almost exclusively among their peer institutions. However, some larger campuses, such as the University of Arkansas and Ball State University, are among those listed on the letter, and a handful of community colleges have signed on, too. Only about two dozen public university presidents have signed the letter, Schall said, none of which are AAU institutions.

Schall speculated that not having the letter sent straight to their inbox may be keeping some presidents from signing; after all, they have no shortage of work to do and seeking out the letter online may not be a high priority. That’s why Schall hopes to use the American Council on Education listserv to send the letter to 1,800 more institutions next week.

Christopher C. Dahl, president of the State University of New York at Geneseo, said he only got the letter because another president in the tightly knit Rochester-area college network sent it around. He would have signed it anyway, Dahl said, but definitely not as quickly.

"I am of the opinion that it is good for college presidents to speak out on important issues of the day," Dahl said, "and I do not see why public college presidents -- unless they are in opposition to state law or state policy -- shouldn't speak out on issues of moral import."

But AAU President Hunter Rawlings III speculated (while not claiming to know for sure) that the presidents of that association may have felt their group endorsement of gun safety was sufficient. In fact, he doubts that many AAU presidents have even studied the letter to decide whether they agree with it.

“They’re just having the AAU statement sign for them,” Rawlings said. “It doesn’t surprise me that they would not then go on and sign a letter written by some other presidents, but that’s just a natural thing to me.”

That was the case for Cornell President David Skorton. A Cornell spokeswoman responded to an interview request with this statement: “President Skorton has chosen to be active on this issue through the AAU, of which he is an executive member.”

At the press conference last week, Rawlings joined College Presidents for Gun Safety and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to call for better research and support Vice President Joe Biden’s efforts to address gun violence, but the AAU did not officially endorse the presidents’ letter.

While the presidents’ letter flat-out opposes campus carry and sales of some weaponry, the AAU does not. “Progress in all three of these domains is made difficult by the need to balance liberty and safety,” the statement says. “We are particularly sensitive to this difficulty because our universities hold freedom of inquiry as a core value.”

Students at the University of Minnesota, an AAU member, said its president should sign the letter to endorse stronger gun safety measures without opposing gun ownership. (In a statement sent to Inside Higher Ed, a Minnesota spokeswoman did not address the letter but noted that the university has supported "effective meaningful action" through the AAU, a roundtable meeting with President Obama and volunteering faculty expertise to Biden.)

“The University of Minnesota has one of the largest campuses in the nation, located in a dense urban area, and the university can’t shield its students from all the dangers that come with living in a large city,” reads an editorial in the student newspaper, The Minnesota Daily. “However, university officials can take steps to support measures that would keep risks down."

A columnist at The Providence Journal, meanwhile, asked all the college presidents in New England who haven’t signed the letter should do so.

“There is a piece of me that is sympathetic to the political tightrope folks who have earned the title of college president believe they must walk,” the column reads. “But, there are times, there are events, that blow up the encyclopedia of excuses.”

Virginia students were slightly more understanding of President Teresa Sullivan's neglecting to sign the letter, but not entirely forgiving. They contrasted her decision with that of Wallace Loh, president of the University of Maryland at College Park, whom they praised for being one of the few public university presidents to sign the letter. (Virginia did not respond to interview requests.)

"We cannot fault Sullivan too much for not going out on a limb to support gun-control measures.... Indeed, she might have hurt the school by making herself vulnerable to attacks by gun-rights advocates or donors who would threaten to withhold gifts," wrote The Cavalier Daily editorial board. "In light of Tuesday's shooting and other high-profile gun-related tragedies, however, the university should continue to take pains to maximize the safety and security of its students, patients, faculty and staff by standing by its commitment to a gun-free grounds."

 

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