WASHINGTON -- “We cannot urge students to have the courage to speak out unless we are willing to do so ourselves.”
Those are the words of the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, invoked Monday by Oglethorpe University President Lawrence M. Schall. Hesburgh was lamenting what he saw as a loss of willingness among college presidents to speak out on important public issues.
Schall agrees, but is leading a charge that bucks that trend. On one issue, at least.
While America’s commander-in-chief was in Minneapolis pushing for stricter gun laws on Monday, Schall and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan -- with the help of two dozen other college presidents -- had him covered in the nation’s capital.
In town for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities annual conference, the presidents stood alongside Duncan to demand that Congress address gun violence, reiterating a message that they and more than 300 other college leaders sent to the nation’s policy makers in an open letter in December.
“I don’t know of a time when so many college and university presidents have spoken collectively with one voice on any issue of such public importance,” said Schall, a co-author of the letter. “On most issues, we wouldn’t agree. But on this one ... we do agree and we have chosen to speak. We believe that more guns make us less safe, not more safe.”
Schall also announced a new “partnership” between his colleagues -- calling themselves College Presidents for Gun Safety -- and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the coalition of nearly 900 city leaders founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to clamp down on gun violence and get like-minded politicians into office.
The presidents endorsed “common-sense reforms” previously reported when Schall’s letter and another one by Emerson College President Lee Pelton circulated throughout academe in December: reinstate the ban on semi-automatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazines; require that every gun purchaser pass a criminal background check; require consumer safety standards for all guns; make gun trafficking a federal crime; and oppose legislation that allows guns on campuses.
The presidents, along with the United States Student Association and the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA), were pushing for tighter regulation for the sake of all young people across the country. But as the letter’s signatories come from more than 40 states, many either have faced or are facing legislation that would allow concealed carry on their campuses.
The Executive Committee of the Association of American Universities issued its own statement recently calling for new steps to prevent gun violence.
While the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus reports that legislation in 14 states either died, stalled or was deferred or vetoed after being introduced in 2012, some recent court rulings – in Colorado, Oregon, Wisconsin and Mississippi – declared that colleges may not regulate firearms on campus.
In interviews after the news conference, presidents scoffed at the assertions by concealed carry advocates that students must have guns to protect themselves on campuses.
In Georgia, where Oglethorpe is located, one 2012 bill that would have allowed concealed carry on campuses died in committee and another was deferred.
“They have no idea what it’s like to manage a campus,” Schall said. “You don’t want guns in the hands of 18-year-olds.”
Beverly Tatum, a signatory of the letter and president of Spelman College, which is also in Atlanta, said the push for concealed campus carry is “terrible.” She added that presidents in Georgia and at Monday’s news conference were completely united in their opposition to it.
“Every single one of them would object to having guns on campus,” she said.
Pelton said the idea that more guns would make campuses safer is “absolutely ridiculous.” But he said the presidents would continue to push against such legislation, and won't let up.
Michael Webster of IACLEA noted that there is no “credible statistical evidence” showing that concealed carry reduces crime, but there are studies suggesting it increases it. For any college president who does find him or herself in a state that prohibits firearms prohibition on campuses, Webster offered up a piece of advice.
“Go back to the legislature to try to carve out an exemption in the legislation.”