When Presidents Talk Politics

Campus leaders face intense scrutiny for what they say or don’t say in this tense period. Some messages that go over well on campus receive considerable criticism as they spread.

November 30, 2016
 

As student concerns and campus protests play out in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election, college and university presidents grapple with the question of whether they should weigh in -- and what they should say.

Some presidents chose to speak quickly and forcefully, attacking perceived falsehoods from the campaign and assuring students feeling anxiety in the wake of an election that many see as laying bare bigotry, white supremacy and xenophobia in the United States. Take, for example, Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger, who issued a statement the morning after the election calling for freedom of thought, tolerance and reason before later publicly denouncing Trump at an awards dinner.

In language unusually pointed for a sitting college president, Bollinger said of Trump, “The denial of climate change, the rejection of the fact of evolution, the attack on free speech, the dissemination of falsehoods deliberately and intentionally that would make George Orwell seem naïve and unimaginative, the attack on groups that we celebrate at Columbia and embrace as part of our greatness -- these are not political issues. This is where we stand. This is a challenge to what we stand for.”

Principles at Notre Dame

Others waited to speak or tried to address broad principles. The Reverend John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, addressed the election at an interfaith prayer service Nov. 14, laying out his university’s guiding principles, calling for constructive dialogue and trying to assure undocumented students at Notre Dame.

Presidents who issued statements or publicly commented after the election said they felt it was important to proclaim their institution’s values in a world of unsettled political discourse. They also said they felt compelled to update students and faculty members who were looking for leadership in an uncertain time -- or alumni who wanted an update from campuses about which they care. But some remarks that were well received on campuses have been attacked and mocked in publications sympathetic to the president-elect.

Communications experts, meanwhile, cautioned college and university presidents to speak with care, especially in the current highly charged political climate. Speaking quickly or frequently is no substitute for leading by action and example, they said. Leaders who react too quickly risk trapping their campuses in a media maelstrom, disaffecting key constituencies or eroding the power of their own words.

Such concerns played heavily in the mind of Notre Dame's president, Father Jenkins, as he prepared his remarks for the Nov. 14 prayer service. University presidents must be careful not to take political stances, Father Jenkins said in an interview this week. At the same time, the president must fulfill a role of articulating the values of the larger institution.

When he wrote his remarks, Father Jenkins tried to consider students and faculty members who might have voted for different sides, he said. Would they take his words as not respecting their views?

“You have an obligation not to say things that are going to more deeply divide people and to understand that you’re part of a community where people have different views,” Father Jenkins said.

In his prayer service remarks, which were picked up by outlets including the New York Daily News, Father Jenkins called for a “respectful, constructive dialogue that is so critical for a democracy.” He called for listening “most attentively to those who do not share our views.” Then he directly addressed undocumented students at Notre Dame, calling them part of the university’s family and pledging to “spare no effort” to support them.

Father Jenkins could have stuck solely to the institutional values his speech emphasized -- human dignity, the common good and solidarity among people. Asked why he decided to address undocumented students directly, the president replied that they feel particularly vulnerable at this moment in time.

Rev. John I. Jenkins“We’re going to support them, and they’re extraordinarily valuable for this country,” he said. “I have spoken on that before, and I think that is appropriate. And, frankly, I don’t think my articulation of that is particularly partisan. It just seems like part of the values of this institution and part of the values of our country.”

Earlier this year, Father Jenkins denounced venom directed by Americans toward Mexicans, calling it “churlish, insulting political theater.” Father Jenkins delivered those remarks while speaking in Mexico City, where Notre Dame was opening an office. He did not name a political candidate.

Notre Dame has traditionally invited new U.S. presidents to speak at its spring commencement ceremony. Father Jenkins was not prepared to say whether he would extend such an invitation to Trump.

When President Obama spoke at the university’s commencement in 2009, the appearance was controversial, marked by outcry and protests from anti-abortion groups. It became a political circus, Father Jenkins said. While he wants to recognize the country’s elected leadership, he also wants to be mindful of families’ and graduates’ experiences.

“What is the most constructive thing to do?” he said. “It’s just something I’m reflecting on now.”

Father Jenkins reported receiving positive feedback to his remarks on the election. Not every president can say the same, however.

Scrutiny of a Letter From Vassar

Jonathan L. Chenette, interim president at Vassar College, was one of more than 100 college and university presidents who signed a letter calling on Trump to condemn hate speech and acts of violence across the country. Chenette also signed a statement that called on Trump’s incoming officials to support the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. And he signed a letter from presidents at the historically women’s colleges known as the Seven Sisters addressed to Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s campaign CEO and pick for senior counselor and chief White House strategist, that objected to comments Bannon made maligning alumnae of the Seven Sisters, among others.

Chenette addressed the issues in letter distributed before Thanksgiving break.

Jonathan L. Chenette, interim president at Vassar College“Now, as the next chapter in our country’s history takes shape, many of our students, faculty and staff have concerns and questions about the course the nation will be taking,” he wrote. “And they worry about actions threatened, particularly against people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ communities and others. In this context, academic work and extracurricular projects have been infused with new meaning and energy, as you who know the college well would expect. But there is also confusion and anxiety, mirroring moods pervasive throughout our country.”

Chenette went on to write that he believes people from all backgrounds and circumstances belong at Vassar, pledging to support students at a time when some in the country “seem to be calling into question the rights of some groups to full dignity and respect.”

The pre-Thanksgiving letter, which did not mention Trump or Bannon by name, drew quick outrage from conservative blogs. Legal Insurrection quoted an unhappy Vassar alumna and Trump voter who questioned what actions have been threatened against LGBTQ communities and people of color and who said the Chenette’s message inspired fearmongering. The Daily Caller falsely claimed that Chenette closed his letter by indicating he was thankful for anti-Trump protests on campus -- even though that line does not appear in the letter.

Chenette and the Vassar administration had sent emails to campus on the day after the election. Chenette had even talked to the parent of a student who supported Trump and felt that his communications hadn’t made room for those happy about the election results. But the Vassar president felt it was important to send the pre-Thanksgiving letter to communicate with different constituencies after he’d signed on to the letters on hate speech, DACA and Bannon. He wanted to describe campus life in the wake of the election, he said.

“The Thanksgiving letter, the one that went out widely, was intended to convey the texture of campus life in the week after the election,” Chenette said. “I think it does it pretty honestly. There were no obvious Trump supporter parties on campus, or I would have reported that. There may have been some private ones -- I assume there were. But I tried to give the most honest impression I could.”

Chenette wanted to look forward and help those who were having trouble moving past the election, he said. He also wanted to talk about Vassar’s values when he saw ideas counter to those values being discussed.

Although Chenette considered not sending the Thanksgiving statement, Vassar graduates were asking about what was happening on campus after the election, he said. He does not regret the message.

“I know it’s not going to please everybody,” he said. “There was blowback. I don’t enjoy some of the emails I got, but I learned from that.”

Chenette has tried to talk to his thoughtful critics, he said. He added that he wants to find ways to make marginalized voices in the community more visible and able to contribute to debate respectfully.

One frequent criticism levied at college and university presidents assuring students in the wake of the election is that they would not have issued similar statements had Democrat Hillary Clinton won the election. Chenette said he would not have put out as many statements in that case.

“It was not the outcome that many members of our community expected,” he said. “It is the outcome that some members of our extended community wanted, but [that] the majority of our community felt, I believe, was not in line with the values that we hold dear. And it was a big enough shock that it threatened to potentially disrupt the educational process, which is the core of what we’re about. So our goal is to turn it back into an educational opportunity and say, ‘Look, this is democracy in action, and there are ways to respond that will be good for you, good for the world.’”

The Flag and Its Meanings

Vassar was far from the only institution to find itself in the spotlight for postelection actions. Hampshire College, a private liberal arts institution in Amherst, Mass., found itself in the spotlight after veterans' groups protested a recent decision it made not to fly the U.S. flag on its main flagpole. The flag has been a point of debate at postelection protests across the country and at Hampshire, where students lowered the U.S. flag the day after the election.

The next day, Nov. 10, Hampshire decided to keep the flag at half-staff, a move it said was intended start a campus dialogue and honor students’ reaction to the election’s negative tone and reports of violence and harassment across the country. Hampshire further explained the move by saying its Board of Trustees had adopted a policy over the last year of flying the flag at half-staff from time to time in order to “mourn deaths from violence in the U.S. and around the world.”

But overnight between Nov. 10 and Nov. 11 -- Veterans Day -- someone burned the flag. Hampshire does not know who burned the flag. The college flew a new flag at full staff on Veterans Day, then trustees voted Nov. 12 to fly the flag at half-staff to prompt dialogue. Six days later, President Jonathan Lash emailed an apology for flying the flag at half-staff and causing distress for veterans.

“Some have perceived the action of lowering the flag as a commentary on the results of the presidential election,” Lash wrote. “This, unequivocally, was not our intent.”

The president went on to announce that the college would not fly the flag on its campus flagpole so it could focus on “addressing racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and behaviors.” The college said no campuswide ban was in place and that individuals on campus and campus offices were free to display their own flags.

Lash was not available for comment, according to a campus spokesman who said the president is meeting with students and employees as part of the announced talks on the flag. Lash met with those who organized the veterans who protested, said the spokesman, John Courtmanche.

“President Lash acknowledged their right to demonstrate and expressed his regret that a still-unknown person or persons had burned the college's flag overnight before Veterans Day,” Courtmanche said in a statement. “President Lash listened respectfully to the views of the veterans and explained that the Hampshire College community includes a wide range of views including employees and students who have served or are currently serving in the U.S. military. President Lash emphasized that by not flying a flag on our college's flagpole for the time being, the college is seeking to enable a discussion of values among all members of our campus, not make a political statement.”

The debate at Hampshire has inspired calls for federal funding to be cut from the college and for the United States Collegiate Athletic Association to revoke its membership.

Hampshire declined additional comment after Trump weighed in on the issue of flag burning on Twitter Tuesday, setting off another debate.

National conservative media has been closely following the Hampshire developments. But local columnists have been critical as well. Ron Chimelis, columnist for The Republican newspaper, wrote that Hampshire’s administration was out of touch with reality if it thought taking the flag down would end the uproar.

“When people nationwide fumble for a singular example of how disrespect for the values of others is masqueraded as sensitivity, they won't have to go through a checklist to find exhibit A,” he wrote. “When they need one institution to represent a college culture of administrative spinelessness and where crying rooms, coddling rooms and cuddling rooms are taking the place of classrooms, they'll have one.”

‘Words Are More Valuable When They’re Scarce’

Presidents often feel pressure to speak too quickly or too often, said Simon Barker, managing partner of Blue Moon Consulting Group, a reputational risk management and crisis consulting firm with a focus area in higher education.

“Actions speak louder than words, and words are more valuable when they’re scarce,” he said. “When we think about the role of the president, is it really your role to be providing this kind of translating, so to speak, for your campus?”

Presidents need to think about why they are issuing a statement and what they hope to achieve, Barker said. They also must consider the unintended consequences of speaking out on an issue.

Barker likens unnecessary presidential statements -- about all topics, not just the election -- to an epidemic. Many of them would be better coming from a more specialized administrator, like a vice chancellor for student affairs, he said. Failing to think the situation through before speaking can lead to a slippery slope where presidents are suddenly expected to weigh in on every topic, from offensive but obscure social media posts to Halloween costumes. That can lead to their words unintentionally highlighting obscure issues or losing their value over time as people tune out frequent statements.

Presidents clearly continue to feel that they need to talk about an institution’s values in times of uncertainty, though. Another postelection example is University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel. He was named in a student petition claiming the university’s response to the election created a “hateful climate that makes students feel ashamed for voting for Donald Trump.”

Schlissel received particular criticism for comments he made at a postelection vigil, where he said, “Ninety percent of you rejected the kind of hate and the fractiousness and the longing for some sort of idealized version of a nonexistent yesterday.”

The University of Michigan has disputed characterizations of the vigil as an anti-Trump rally. Schlissel was not available for comment on this story, but he discussed the controversy and state of public discourse recently on NPR. He said he did not intend to suggest everyone who voted for Trump is of a hateful or racist mind-set. The event he attended was to support many students who felt threatened, Schlissel said.

“I think they were scared and threatened by a discourse through the election season that involved racism and misogyny and xenophobia, Islamophobia,” he said. “So I really felt my role as the leader of the community was to stand up for our community's values, and I think those values are actually shared by Democrats and Republicans and by people who voted for all different folks in the election.”

An underlying cause of many controversies is that presidents are often making comments and writing statements geared toward the campus constituencies they see, said Teresa Valerio Parrot, principal of national higher ed public relations agency TVP Communications. But in today’s world, their words quickly travel off campus and become national statements on behalf of the intuition. In the process, they can be stripped of context.

As a result, it’s more important for presidents to remember the existence of different groups when they speak. Trustees may view a situation differently than faculty members, who may view it differently than students. Students themselves may be divided. Sometimes there may be no single message that can property address all those people with their different experiences and backgrounds.

“One of the recommendations we’ve been giving to presidents is, when we write these statements, make sure they’re writing to all students,” Valerio Parrot said. “Make sure they’re not disregarding the opposing view or those who may not feel like the majority of their student body.”

A first question to ask is whether something really needs to be said, Valerio Parrot said. Does someone on campus need to hear something, or is a president just sharing his or her personal beliefs?

Still, many think presidents can effectively speak to important issues, if they pick their moments and choose their words carefully.

“One of the key tenets of higher education is based on asking the important questions, and that means we have to be willing to work through the tough discussions to find common ground,” Valerio Parrot said. “I do think this is a place where faculty and administrators can set the stage and bring together the various options across campus and show through their leadership how you agree to disagree and still work together.”

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