I grew up in the era of remarkable college presidents, individuals who were seen as public intellectuals. These leaders -- Derek Bok, Kingman Brewster Jr., A. Bart Giamatti, the Reverend Theodore Hesburgh -- spoke out on issues that extended far beyond their campuses. As they saw it, contributing to the larger public conversation on critical issues of their time was part and parcel of their role both as college/university presidents and in the years thereafter. Voices like this are disappearing, a point made all the more relevant and poignant with the passing of Father Hesburgh last week at age 97. Today’s educational leaders are vacating the bully lectern -- even on issues related to their own campuses.
With the increased craziness in current events, the void in presidential voice has become increasingly obvious. But the need for it could not be greater. Think: terrorism, young people turning to lives of violence here and abroad, Ebola, cheating in a professional sport, gridlock in government, lack of trust in police, and the beheadings of journalists and relief workers, to name but a few of the issues before us. Where are the voices of presidents of institutions of higher learning who can provide some moral grounding or an intellectual compass?
What accounts for the silence? It is obviously not one reason. One powerful argument is that speaking out on national and international issues is not the role of college and university leaders in the 21st century. The job, instead, is to run a campus as an effective business, keeping our myriad of constituencies (like shareholders) happy.
Speaking out can alienate faculty or students or parents or trustees or community members. It can impair revenue generation. We need to mediate these differing perspectives, regularly smoothing feathers and finding balance among irreconcilable positions. For public institutions, we need to please politicians if we want institutional funding, if we want a workable board, if we want state grants for students.
Adding to all this is the impact of social media; it has transformed the consequences of our speaking out; our words get truncated into short sound bites; our positions take on a life of their own, with little opportunity to clarify or rectify or inform. And even when needed corrections are made, they are hardly noticed.
I get it. It is easier and safer to be silent. The job of a college/university president is hard enough without speaking up and out. We know that even when we speak out on issues related to our institutions, which some presidents are doing, we risk being subjected to considerable criticism (often nasty and mean-spirited) and even termination. And the heat is rising: legislation was just introduced in Kansas that seeks to bar professors (and one assumes presidents) from using the titles they hold at public institutions in any op-eds they write -- quite the silencing device.
Yet, as educational leaders turn inward, we are simultaneously teaching our students the value of multiple perspectives, the importance of rigorous but civil debate, the interrelationship of the disciplines that cannot and should not be cabined into silos in real life. We are encouraging them to deal with new people and new ideas, and encouraging experimentation and innovation and risk taking. We want our students to engage actively in the local community, literally feeling and understanding the value of serving others. We want them to see their obligations to the larger world -- voting, sorting through vast quantities of data in search for truth, among other things. With a degree, we preach, comes responsibility. We argue that problem solving and critical thinking are what we teach across the disciplines, educating the thoughtful leaders of tomorrow. We pay homage to Jefferson’s notion that our democracy depends on an educated populace.
But it’s ironic. As presidents and in our lives thereafter, we are being disingenuous. We are doing one thing and teaching another. We are not acting as role models for our students -- from the top down. What we ask of our students should be the minimum of that which we ask of ourselves. We challenge our students to become their best selves. This means that as presidents and leaders, we have to speak up and out on the critical issues of our day. We may not have some unique lock on wisdom, but we certainly do not have less insight than others who voice their views.
When I was a college president, I had a piece of art by Rachel Kerwin outside my door. Amid a swirl of black and gray and white, the word “SPEAK” appears dead center in capital letters. I always said this was to remind students, faculty and staff to share openly what was on their minds when they came into my office, something that is rarely easy. It also served another purpose: reminding me to speak out, no matter how hard or risky that is. It still does.
Karen Gross is the former president of Southern Vermont College.
Adjunct faculty members at Bentley University in Massachusetts voted to form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union following an earlier, narrow vote against unionization, they announced Thursday. Adjuncts approved the bid by a 2-to-1 margin; their new bargaining unit of 220 adjuncts joins four other SEIU part-time-faculty unions in the Boston area: those at Boston, Lesley, Northeastern and Tufts universities. (Note: This sentence has been updated from an earlier version to include Boston University.) Organizers at Bentley attributed their about-face since the last Bentley union vote in 2013 in part to seeing adjuncts on other campuses form unions and, in the case of Tufts, gain wins in their contract. Bentley released a statement about the vote saying that while it “consistently stated its belief that having a union is not in the best interest of the faculty or the university, the university will, of course, bargain in good faith over the terms and conditions of employment for unit members."
An Eastern Kentucky University student, responding to quite a bit of snow in the area last week, sent President Michael Benson this message on Twitter:
Much to the student's surprise, the president sent a message to ask his address. And then Benson stopped by, with a shovel. At Eastern Kentucky, the president does what it takes to get students to class.
Submitted by Jake New on February 26, 2015 - 3:00am
The dismissal of a Baylor University football player who was homeless a year ago prompted widespread outrage directed at the National Collegiate Athletic Association Wednesday after the player tweeted that the N.C.A.A. declared him ineligible for accepting help from a family friend. But the N.C.A.A. did not rule the student ineligible, and the association even allows for universities to apply for waivers for homeless students in need of assistance.
"In 2014, I was just a kid who [couch] surfed and took classes at a community college, but I had a dream to play college football," the player, Silas Nacita, said in a tweet that was shared more than 18,000 times. "However a few months before [I enrolled at Baylor], a close family friend approached me and said they didn't want me sleeping on floors and wondering how I was going to eat the next meal, so they insisted on putting me in an apartment and helping out with those living expenses." Because he accepted that offer "instead of choosing to be homeless," Nacita said, the N.C.A.A. declared him ineligible to play football.
The N.C.A.A. said on Wednesday that it did not declare Nacita ineligible and that Baylor has not requested a waiver for him. Baylor confirmed later that day that it was the university that declared Silas ineligible, not the N.C.A.A. "There was some misinformation on Twitter that caused that confusion," said Nicholas Joos, Baylor's executive associate athletic director of external affairs. Joos did not say why Nacita was dismissed or whether it would apply for the N.C.A.A.'s waiver. Nacita will reportedly remain a student at Baylor, and is there on academic -- not athletic -- scholarships.
Submitted by Jake New on February 26, 2015 - 3:00am
Student presidents from 76 universities sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education this week opposing the Office for Civil Rights' recommendation that students should not be permitted to serve on panels adjudicating campus sexual assault cases.
"While we understand and support the good spirit of the recommendation -- to ensure well-trained and unbiased participation -- we strongly feel that it has significant unintended consequences," the letter reads. "Students provide valuable perspective as peers that faculty and staff cannot. They relate to the student experience directly and provide insight during questioning and discussion, enhancing the quality of hearings."
The letter, which was also sent to senators from 25 states, was written by Celia Wright, student president at Ohio State University. "A reasonable alternative would require adoption of baseline standards for training and confidentiality expectations for all members of conduct hearing boards," Wright wrote.
Submitted by Jake New on February 26, 2015 - 3:00am
A female student is suing the State University of New York at Stony Brook, saying that the university required her to "prosecute" and cross-examine the student she accused of assaulting her. The female student had to create exhibits, write an opening statement and pursue witness testimony, she told The Journal News. The preparation, she said, took 60 hours and the hearing lasted 5 hours. In the end, the accused student was found not responsible for sexual misconduct. The lawsuit is seeking monetary damages and a court order banning the practice of requiring sexual assault victims to "prosecute their own cases and to cross-examine and be cross-examined by their assailants."
The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has urged colleges to not allow such a practice. Stony Brook is one of two SUNY institutions under pending Title IX investigations by the office. In October, months after the student's assault, all 64 SUNY campuses adopted a new systemwide sexual assault policy, including agreeing to use a uniform definition of consent and to provide victims with a bill of rights. The new policy does not mention whether students should be required to cross-examine their alleged attackers.