He Spoke Out ... and Got a New Presidency

John McCardell, who waited until he was an ex-president to take a controversial stand on the drinking age, is named to lead Sewanee.
January 7, 2010

John McCardell has for the past few years been the poster child for the idea that you can't take controversial public stands and be a college president.

That's because McCardell, who served as president of Middlebury College for 12 years, through 2004, waited until he was out of office to take on an issue that clearly matters a lot to him: the drinking age. McCardell helped create a national debate on the flaws in the drinking age laws, and the way they may impede colleges from teaching students how to be responsible in their drinking.

He kicked off the discussion, shortly after leaving the Middlebury presidency, with an op-ed in The New York Times, and he noted in that article that he has been "as guilty as any of my colleagues [as presidents] of failing to take bold positions on public matters that merit serious debate." Since then, many a college president has said of McCardell's efforts some variation of: "Well that's the kind of thing you can do when you are out of office, never when you are a sitting president."

Maybe not.

On Tuesday, the University of the South named McCardell as its next president -- with the understanding that he would continue to speak out about the drinking age.

McCardell is a natural fit for Sewanee for many reasons. He is Episcopalian, as is the university. He's a historian of the South, and Sewanee takes its Southern roots seriously. Choose Responsibility, the organization McCardell founded, announced that he would step down as president, but would remain active in the group, particularly speaking out on the need for college leaders to talk about these issues and by serving on the board. Sewanee's announcement also indicated that McCardell was not abandoning the movement he helped found.

In an interview Thursday, McCardell said that he told the Sewanee search committee that "I have views and that I'll continue to express them."

He acknowledged that it will be unusual (in today's environment) to be speaking out on an issue beyond those on which most higher education leaders agree (such as the need for more financial aid). "It remains to be seen if a sitting president can do this more effectively, but I may even be more effective as a sitting president," he said.

Asked if he thought his hiring might challenge the idea that sitting presidents need to avoid speaking out on controversial topics, McCardell said "I hope so."


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