Why Presidents Say What They Say

College presidents issued statements both bland and blistering after last week's storming of the U.S. Capitol. Examining the thought process used to craft their words offers understanding into their true values.

January 14, 2021
 
Al Drago/Stringer/Getty Images
A campaign sign for U.S. president Donald Trump lies beneath water in the Capitol Reflecting Pool, on Capitol Hill on Jan. 9, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

A once-rapid flow of statements from higher education leaders has slowed in the days since President Trump’s followers rioted in the U.S. Capitol last week.

The statements started with college presidents sharing short bursts of horror on Twitter when the violent crowd overran the seat of American democracy. As the National Guard arrived and the building was cleared, more and more statements went out by email or appeared on university websites. Higher ed’s lobbying associations joined in the chorus. By this week, the communiqués had grown longer and sometimes came from large groups of the kind that take time to mobilize, like the American Political Science Association or a set of 157 law school deans.

Some of the statements specifically named Trump or his supporters. Many others, including from institutions with the deepest reserves of wealth, white privilege and right-wing goodwill, did not. In a few cases, leaders and groups found themselves accused of false balance or both-sides-ism, as evidenced by sharp critiques that led the American Political Science Association to update a statement lauding an “agreement by both sides to do better and work together to dismantle the system and structures that lead to the harm.”

The parsing can continue as higher education leaders keep deciding whether they’re willing to publicly stand against a particular person and political movement or if they’d rather eschew specificity in favor of more esoteric support for traditional democratic norms. But in moments like this, it’s helpful to understand the thought process that many higher education leaders follow when deciding whether to issue a statement on current events -- and how they decide what to say.

Whether you think the bulk of college presidents’ words were mealymouthed or insightful, understanding the steps they took when crafting statements can shed light on what role the sector will play in this time of societal disruption.

This exercise isn’t useful only because of last week’s events. The attack on the Capitol was the second time in less than a year that many college and university leaders felt compelled to speak out on a national event. The first came last spring, when the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis, sparked nationwide protests. Then, too, college and university leaders often issued milquetoast statements.

Communications professionals counsel leaders to ask a series of questions when deciding whether to issue a statement. Why should a higher education leader and his or her institution contribute to the conversation? What is the goal of issuing a statement? What are those who see their statements supposed to do with the words? Could a statement damage an institution or its leader, either in reputation or financial standing?

Leaders also might consider if their institution is in a unique position to comment for one reason or another. Is it known for a specific area of expertise that applies to the crisis at hand? Does it have a connection to people who are involved?

Answering these questions can cool the urge to speak, although they aren’t necessarily intended to stop leaders from addressing important issues. Instead, they drive home the fact that words matter. Statements can’t be taken back once they’re out in the world. If they don’t hit the mark, they’ll invite their own scrutiny and controversy.

“If the decision has been made that you’re going to say something, your words need to be powerful enough that it’s clear what you’re saying but also constructed with such great care that you’re not creating unintended controversy,” said Chris Duffy, vice president of public relations and a principal at Goff Public, a public relations, government relations and crisis management firm based in St. Paul. “That’s one of the things we comb through as we’re putting together statements and editing statements before they’re made public. Are there any words that will automatically create an emotional response -- that are hot buttons or any phrases that might cause people to lose the original intent of the message?”

That may be one of the reasons naming names is so hard. The words “Donald Trump” are emotionally charged right now, no matter how you feel about politics. Despite the meme that many colleges and universities are bastions of liberalism, most college presidents still have to serve constituencies from across the ideological spectrum as they try to walk a line between board members, faculty members, other employees, students, donors and politicians.

Higher education is also in a uniquely difficult position because it is founded on the idea of exchanging thoughts and ideas. College leaders don’t want to be accused of favoring one political leaning over another, of making students who are members of certain nonextremist political parties feel unwelcome or of squelching free speech. Even if they don’t hold up under scrutiny, accusations of limiting protected speech can be used as a cudgel to undermine a leader’s legitimacy.

Another reason college and university leaders consider their statements carefully is that holding off from commenting on every issue can give words more weight when the time to comment comes.

“Scarcity breeds value, a value that dissipates if presidents jump too frequently to offer vague statements/platitudes in response to events,” said Simon Barker, managing partner at the crisis management firm Blue Moon Consulting Group, in an email. “We’ve counseled various presidents we work with to take time, reflect and if there is something pertinent that needs to be communicated to the campus, related to other issues/priorities, to frame comments very specifically rather than the generic ‘shocked and appalled’-type letter.”

That being said, there can occasionally be power when everyone or almost everyone in a sector issues a statement. Most, if not all of the statements college and university leaders put out in the wake of Floyd’s killing are less memorable individually than is the fact that there were so many.

“There was strength in numbers and in fact a unity in coming together with some shared sentiment,” said Jennifer Hellman, principal and chief operating officer at Goff. “That doesn’t shortcut the strategic decision that each college needs to make about, ‘Why are we chiming in?’ Maybe your answer is that we believe that this is such an important issue that all colleges and universities should be uniting around it, and so we’re going to contribute our voice.”

A note of caution for those who speak: leaders who say they will work to address an issue must make good on the promise. They’ll need to come up with strategies for change, accountability and publicly demonstrating the actions they take.

Think back to statements made after Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter protests last year, Hellman said.

“There was a lot of, ‘Let’s comfort our community and acknowledge where we are falling short as an institution and then here is what we are promising to do,’” Hellman said. “You can’t just send that statement and then say the issue is done. What is the follow-up after it? How are you going back and reporting back to the community?”

People are looking for leaders they can trust in moments like this, Hellman said. College presidents have a unique place in many students' and alumni hearts.

So delivering important words on the right issues can elevate someone from being a college president -- an administrator -- into being widely viewed as a community leader.

It might also require hard choices. Sometimes saying something of substance requires a controversial stance or one that will make some constituencies unhappy. In those times, leaders’ decision to be silent or speak reflects more closely their priorities and what they hold most important.

One of the things that makes the storming of the Capitol so jarring for higher education is that many colleges and universities consider themselves important parts of American democracy. They are the keepers of the flame, the classrooms where citizens learn civics and the grounds where leaders are forged with values.

So some of those same institutions find themselves at a crossroads. What do they actually stand for?

The process of thinking through whether to issue a statement and what to say can’t answer that question. But it can help leaders think about it.

“Oftentimes we tell higher ed institutions to think about your values and draw on that for inspiration,” Duffy said. “Almost always, you’re no longer tongue-tied when you start thinking about what your values are.”

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