The role of college president is a difficult one at the best of times. But with an increasingly volatile political landscape in the U.S., now is an especially hard time to please all constituencies. Equally, however, stepping into a university leadership position in America in 2022 carries a responsibility to publicly reaffirm the social role and value of higher education in the face of mounting skepticism. And one way presidents can do this is by engaging in thought leadership—especially on contentious topics.
The overly cautious approach to external communications that many presidents currently adopt is understandable. Our divisive national discourse and the state of our society mean that presidents who speak out as individuals always run the risk of being canceled.
Yet it is not enough to lament our lack of civil discourse. Higher education leaders have opportunities to model thoughtful, respectful disagreement and bridge divisions in ideologies. They just need the courage to grasp those opportunities.
Those who speak out on critical issues, including the value of science and objective analysis, are doing more than just building a personal brand or raising their professional or institutional profiles. They are also embracing what higher education asks of faculty and students in classrooms, labs and libraries. They are taking calculated intellectual risks by willingly engaging with difficult topics and complex ideas. They are demonstrating how to convey their values and views while still upholding the dignity of those with whom they do not agree. They are truly modeling what it means to be vulnerable and open while still being responsible and accountable for choices.
As the U.S. becomes more intellectually gridlocked, with tensions high on so many topics, that skill of respectful conversation and disagreement will become even more valuable. And at a time when more and more people are questioning the value of college, presidents can reaffirm to wider society that campuses are places for productive public discourse on tough topics.
Before rushing to write something, there are several steps presidents should take. Most importantly, they must confirm with their board that they have the support to take bold stances on topical content. The positions that leaders take won’t please everyone, so they should also consider how to deal with the inevitable pushback and criticism that will follow—both from internal and external audiences.
Presidents should also pick their battles carefully. It is essential to strategically think through which topics should and could be discussed, the intended and unintended audiences, and the timing. Institutional missions and value statements can be a helpful lens for identifying when taking a bold stance makes sense. Presidents should consider a topic’s impact on their campus and community; if there is none, it might be best to skip that topic.
Making such judgments is difficult, but presidents should not just throw up their hands in despair and move on to the next item on their endless to-do lists. When they participate in thought leadership, the habit is likely to trickle down to faculty and staff. It underlines that public scholarship is something their institution values and throws its weight behind.
We need academic expertise to be shared with the world. If the faculty feels supported by the president to participate in media outreach, they may feel more willing to engage. Plus, presidential thought leadership allows faculty and staff to see in real time the safeguards that institutions have in place to protect them from trolls should their opinions attract criticism.
We in higher education market the opportunity for students to define their values, offer their opinions with supporting evidence and engage in respectful discourse with their peers and communities—and we mean this to be a lifelong practice. Now more than ever, higher education leaders must also live that practice. Presidential thought leadership is necessary to carry conversations on tough topics beyond the campus gates. It is a calculated risk that is well worth taking.
Teresa Valerio Parrot is founder and principal and Ali Lincoln is director of thought leadership at TVP Communications, a U.S. communications and leadership agency focused solely on higher education. This article first appeared in Times Higher Education.