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A landscape drawing of three green rolling hills.

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“On what hill are you willing to die?”

This question regarding the higher principles and values on which one is willing to stake one’s career, and sometimes even one’s life, has long been a way to winnow leaders. Indeed, I was asked versions of the question during my 40-plus-year career in higher education, and, when I served as chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, the Board of Governors and I used it as a key filter for hiring presidents. (Interestingly, more than half of the presidential finalists did not have an answer.)

In the world of higher education that I inhabited, the hills typically were institutional integrity, financial propriety, educational mission, compliance with the law and the like. The higher principles and values providing the uplift to create the hills included a raft of characteristics such as honesty, transparency, willingness to question, deep listening and so on.

Claiming that one has principles and values is easily done. Applying them, especially when the likely consequences for doing so are high and dangerous, is another matter. What does one do when the state Legislature or the governor propose slashing the budget by more than half just because they can? When powerful individuals offer a set of “agreements and arrangements” that are of questionable legality? When legislatures decide to ban books, dictate specific curricula, take over hiring and performance evaluation, redefine freedom of expression, and declare illegal the discussion of certain topics? When governors and legislatures target efforts to ensure a diverse talent pipeline, one that is being demanded by employers?

I and many of my colleagues in higher ed have faced situations like these, imposed from all points along the political spectrum, for decades. I know what it feels like to head up that hill, along with other presidential colleagues, and to hold public press conferences to stand against proposed budget cuts, calls to ban speakers and bills that intrude into curriculum.

In years past, a president was reasonably likely to have company on the hill. It was not unusual for a group of presidents to travel around Florida, for instance, and be joined by business leaders to stand against proposed legislative intrusion and funding cuts.

Not so much anymore.

The hills on which leaders were once willing to die are less defended now. This is a serious problem: lack of public leadership is easily claimed as capitulation by those whose aim is to remake higher education in their image. My concern is not unique; others, such as Brian Rosenberg, president emeritus of Macalester College, express similar concerns.

I get it. Speaking truth to powerful elected officials, über-rich donors and others is exceedingly perilous. It is scary to watch one’s email inbox scroll so fast with vitriol and death threats that one cannot even keep up with the headers. It is scary to be asked to leave one’s office and be taken to a safe location due to credible threats of individuals who may be armed who are heading your way. It is disheartening (at the very least) to be told that unless one plays along with a legislative scheme, that communications will be cut off and key needs not supported. It is draining to continually confront powerful others who use their positions to intimidate and bully because they are not getting their way when and how they want.

I have also known what it feels like to have board chairs guard my back and support my decision to speak up for the institution and its students, faculty and staff. They and I understood that presidents are hired to do that, especially when it is uncomfortable to do so. Board chairs (and board members) need to support such action, as it is their duty to defend the institution they each swore to support.

When senior leaders choose not to speak out publicly, vulnerable institutions are left relying on faculty, staff and students to testify at hearings and make public statements. PEN America has also organized past presidents like me to speak up. These individuals are demonstrating that standing on and for principles and values isn’t really, really dead. Yet.

However, there is no substitute for a senior leader picking a hill and defending it. Even corporate CEOs understand this. If senior higher education leaders remain publicly silent when course content, forms of expression and personnel hiring and evaluation are attacked, and budgets are used as weapons, then that silence will undoubtedly be interpreted as quiet resignation at best, and tacit complicity at worst. To the attackers, it is a license to up the ante.

Presidents and chancellors are entrusted with defending their institutions when their core existence (i.e., their mission and values) is threatened. It comes with the territory. Claiming that actions on other fronts (e.g., increasing enrollment and community engagement), as important and critical as those are, constitute equivalent priorities, is merely a deflection. Action on other fronts is not an excuse for remaining totally silent and being nowhere to be found on one of the hills. It does not demonstrate to students, faculty or staff that they have a leader who is willing to support them.

It is essential to understand that silence by institutional leaders is a response. Silence reflects a decision. To be sure, at times silence is an extremely powerful statement. When the attack is institutional, though, silence likely won’t work. Silence is especially risky when factless allegations and assertions are made and left unchallenged by anyone with titular authority. Over time, silence can even become interpreted as a sign of cowardice.

Many will claim that entering the fray, particularly ones that are politically motivated, should be avoided to show neutrality. I argue that responding to factless claims is not, inherently, political. Neither is responding to calls to ignore the issue or to delay doing anything. Arguably, those are the precise moments when it is most important to choose one’s hill.

Serving as a senior higher education leader is certainly not easy. None of us responds perfectly all the time. The pressures come from all sides, and the complex problems senior leaders confront require thoughtful consideration in a world that demands responses and decisions in milliseconds. Nevertheless, it is essential that leaders be quite clear about whether they have a hill on which they are willing to die, and, when the time comes, whether they will show up.

John C. Cavanaugh is former president of the University of West Florida, chancellor emeritus of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and former president and CEO of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area.

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