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Over the last several months, American higher education has been a mess. We’ve seen mass protests against the war on Gaza, accompanied at times by antisemitism and destruction of university property: the attempted murder of three Muslim college students in Burlington, Vermont; controversial police arrests of students and visitors on campus; embarrassing Congressional hearings; the firing of several high-profile presidents; a handful of bruising faculty “no-confidence” votes; and at least one staff strike. Fortunately, summer is coming, giving everyone in higher education a chance to cool down, reset and reboot.

As we seek to restore trust and a positive learning environment on campus, college and university trustees have an important, though often overlooked, role to play. Trustees, not presidents, faculty or alumni, are the ultimate legal authority on campus. They are the long-term stewards of the university’s values and finances. And when a campus experiences turmoil, they are well-positioned to help restore wise and calm governance. So what can trustees do to help? Here are three pieces of advice:

Support Your President

This has been a really tough year for presidents. They are held responsible for their campuses but, under our model of shared governance, they possess much less effective power than other CEOs, which limits their ability to respond. Right now, presidents are getting attacked on all sides, by students, faculty, donors, alumni, the press and political leaders. And though they may not say it publicly, they are experiencing immense stress that makes it even harder for them to guide their communities forward. No president, no matter how talented or experienced, can make good decisions when she feels under siege or that her job is at risk.

At this tense moment, presidents need to know that the board is in their corner. The board chair should publicly endorse the president and thank her for her work. And if the board holds a meeting, that meeting should conclude with release of a public statement endorsing the president and expressing the board’s trust. These expressions of confidence will help the president maintain his or her confidence and boost the president’s ability to manage tension on campus.

Perhaps even more important, board members should reach out and do something kind for their president. Send a nice email; call and offer to help; send flowers, a good book or a supportive card. Right now, in higher education, as in American public life generally, graceful gestures are in short supply. Kindness is badly needed. Believe me, it will be deeply appreciated.

But what if the board has concerns about the president’s performance? What should board members do then? If you have already decided to replace your president, do it now, in early summer, instead of waiting for fall.& But if, as in most cases, you are going to retain your president, then keep your criticisms private, shared with the president and other board members alone. Being a university president is already hard enough as it is. Taking your criticisms public will only make matters worse.

Adopt Ideological Neutrality

Should a university be publicly engaged in the major controversies of the day, issuing statements relating to wars, social movements and perceived human rights issues? Or should the school adopt a position of institutional neutrality instead? This question goes to the heart of the university’s purpose, identity and values. For that reason, the question of the institution’s ideological orientation is the responsibility of the board, and not the president, faculty, alumni or students. These important constituencies should be consulted as the board considers this question, and alignment with the president is, of course, essential on such a basic principle. But at the end of the day, the question of engagement versus neutrality is for the board and the board alone to decide.

For me, the events of the last few months have demonstrated, if nothing else, the vital importance of institutional neutrality as defined, for example, by the University of Chicago’s time-tested Kalven Report. The value of neutrality is, I think, two-fold. On the one hand, it supports academic and intellectual freedom. Our universities must be places where all sides of important public questions can be debated openly, honestly and fearlessly. When the university chooses sides, instead of creating an open forum, it sends an unequivocal and deeply damaging message to students, faculty and scholars that some ideas and values are not open to disagreement. That approach is not consistent with a free university. As the Kalven Report observed, “The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints. And this neutrality as an institution has its complement in the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest. It finds its complement, too, in the obligation of the university to provide a forum for the most searching and candid discussion of public issues.”

Adopting engaged stances on political and social issues, even uncontroversial ones, is also unwise as a practical matter. Expressing your values might feel good in the short term. Flying a Ukrainian flag, for example, seems like a harmless way to “be on the right side.” But long term, taking sides in public debates is highly destructive to the university. If you do it once, you are going to be asked to do it again, over and over, and when you say no, it may tear your community apart. Better to adopt, ab initio, a position of neutrality. This may disappoint some advocates and activists, but not as much as deciding to endorse some causes but not others.

Universities can and should make exceptions on questions directly related to their existence as educational institutions. The university may, for example, call for expanding Pell grants, maintaining tax-exempt status for colleges and universities, or passing immigration or civil rights policies that allow it to recruit the students, faculty and staff it wants as members of its community. And some religious institutions cannot adopt neutrality and remain true to their missions, which often require commitment to certain substantive ethical, religious and political goals. But aside from those exceptions, neutrality is by far the wisest course to adopt.

Activists and advocates may object that institutional neutrality is not neutral in impact, and that is perfectly true. By choosing not to weigh in—to decline to pick sides in public disputes—the university is forgoing an opportunity to influence the world in a particular direction. By staying neutral in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, the university loses the opportunity to advance the cause of one side or the other. But the purpose of the university is not to define and fight for a particular vision of a just world. It is to offer a forum for free inquiry.

Adopt Clear Divestment Standards

Another major lesson from these past few months is that universities need clear processes and standards that can be used to consider demands that it divest institutional funds from a particular nation, economic sector or company. That way, when students, alumni or faculty propose divestment, the university possesses a clear and orderly process for adjudicating the claim. Possessing such standards is of immense help to embattled presidents. Instead of refusing to even consider such a demand, the president can, instead, simply refer the matter to the appropriate committee. The existence of this procedural avenue may not eliminate protests, but it will probably channel them in a more useful direction.

Is creation and application of appropriate divestment processes and standards a question for the board or the president? For me, the answer is clear. The board possesses a fiduciary duty to maintain the university’s long-term financial stability. That duty includes oversight of the endowment, to include investment decisions, risk assessment and drawing percentage. Given those responsibilities, I think decisions about divestment fall clearly within the board’s purview.

Should an ideologically neutral university, committed to academic freedom, ever divest? Some trustees may think the answer is no, but I think that position is ethically untenable. As the Kalven Report noted, there may be some extraordinary moral or political circumstances that require an extraordinary institutional response. A university should not, for example, invest in companies employing enslaved labor. And if Nazi Germany existed today, I would recommend that the university divest from German companies and German government bonds.

Divestment, under this approach, always requires an exercise in judgment. So what standard should the board apply in making those determinations? For me, the only standard that can be applied consistently with the university’s commitment to academic freedom is the Princeton requirement of consensus.

The university community consists of faculty, staff, alumni, administration and students. When faced with a proposed divestment, the appropriate committee of the board should call for input from all those major stakeholders. In some cases, there may exist a very strong consensus in favor of divestment, with no significant exceptions. In those relatively rare cases, the university may cut ties with a nation, sector or company. But where, as in most cases, a genuine disagreement exists among community members about the wisdom or justice of a divestment decision, that university must put its fiduciary responsibility to maximize investment returns above the desires of a subset of stakeholders for a more activist position. This is not, as some activists might insist, a case of ethical blindness. It is a recognition that for a university, the board’s moral obligation is to invest the endowment so as to generate the maximum financial support for students, teachers and research. Absent consensus, that moral commitment to education outweighs other concerns.

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