You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

A graphic of a hand holding up a bullhorn emitting an empty white speech bubble, against a black background.

Christian Horz/Getty Images

College and university presidents are seemingly now expected by their many constituents to take positions on world events and unfolding crises, whether or not the proclamations would make any difference to what is happening on the ground. As parents, alumni and even politicians have exerted great pressure on higher education leaders to explicitly comment on the Hamas terrorist attack, the resulting military strikes by Israel in Gaza and the long-standing struggle for Palestinian self-determination, campus leaders often find themselves making many people unhappy. We are viewed as cowards if we stay silent and criticized for supporting the “wrong side” or being too neutral if we speak up.

How did we find ourselves here? Why is this demand to speak—and to speak in very specific ways—made of college presidents but not corporate CEOs, high school principals or celebrity chefs? What is it about the academic presidency that makes people feel there is a duty to opine? And, having helped create this situation for ourselves, is it possible to untrain our constituents who have come to expect us to proclaim?

This expectation of college presidents, I believe, is the result of a confluence of two phenomena that arose in 2020: the COVID pandemic and the civil rights crisis that followed George Floyd’s murder by police.

Prior to COVID, when tragedy struck in the U.S. or around the world, campus leaders could offer support and something like pastoral care to their campus communities in person. It was possible to arrange a town hall–style gathering in an auditorium or chapel. Presidents could attend silent vigils and worship services. They could offer hugs and make eye contact. Their presence at official functions and events conferred a kind of official institutional imprimatur that signified, “I am with you,” and provided opportunities to communicate care, provide instructions or clarify misunderstandings.

When the pandemic reached its emergency phase and students at most higher education institutions were sent home, campus leaders began—out of necessity—to use electronic tools like email, social media and Zoom as the primary forms of communication. At first, the creation of long written messages, FAQ webpages and webinars was focused on pragmatic concerns, like how classes would be moved online, who would be eligible to return to on-campus housing and what COVID testing regimes would be imposed when they eventually returned.

These communications were directed not only at students, but also at their parents and at alumni donors who wanted to be kept abreast of management decisions about how to operate their alma maters during an unprecedented global health disaster. Because it was not possible to reach all these audiences quickly and efficiently any other way, many presidents who previously had not leaned into social media began that spring to routinely disseminate updates via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Some even experimented with TikTok videos to boost morale and foster a sense of community online.

Then, on May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. Silence in response to his tragic killing did not feel like an option. As leaders, we felt responsible for the safety and care of students who were on the front lines of protests and at risk of contracting a lethal virus for which—at that time—there was no treatment or vaccine. The stakes were enormously high. Campus leadership teams at numerous institutions held war room–like emergency decision-making and communication sessions almost daily. Fears about safety were amplified by a mental health crisis resulting from social distancing and isolation. Constituents needed timely information and engagement. It seemed there was no such thing as too much communication.

For legitimate public health reasons, the only way college and university presidents could quickly and efficiently connect with their campus communities about what was happening during this tumultuous time was online. Making statements felt necessary because it was all we had. And many of us did—in tweets, emails, webinars, open letters and new webpages. Some messages were focused on directing students to mental health and other wellness resources. Some were fiery condemnations of anti-Black racism and social inequality. Some were institutional pledges to do more in the effort to expand opportunity to higher education and to make our campuses safer and more welcoming to people from historically excluded and underserved populations.

This mode of almost exclusively communicating online lasted through the 2020–21 and much of the 2021–22 academic years. During this time, a number of other events seemed to call for more written declarations because we didn’t have good alternatives for communicating: a spate of anti-Asian hate crimes, the police killing of Daunte Wright, the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Which is why, when campus operations returned to something more customary in the fall of 2022, it was hard for presidents to dial back on making statements. Our campus communities had been trained to think that this is what presidents do. When tragedy happens in the world, we must have a tweet or an email or a new webpage immediately. Otherwise, that must mean the president—or worse, the institution—doesn’t care.

And now, even when gathering on campus in response to a world event is possible, alumni, parents and, in some cases, the media still demand to hear directly from a college or university president regarding whatever issue they feel most passionately about.

This is one reason why the campus discord over the Hamas attack and violence by the Israeli state in Gaza has been so challenging to navigate. It’s not just students and other campus constituents demanding that presidents make public declarations. Even elected officials now are criticizing campus leaders for not speaking, not saying enough, not doing so quickly enough or not using the preferred words. A few presidents have issued statements about why they will no longer issue statements, and this, too, has invoked the wrath of critics, who have alleged it’s inconsistent or hypocritical of those who spoke up in 2020.

But it’s not appropriate or fair to compare the domestic events of 2020 that required frequent and explicit communication to various institutional constituencies with the current outbreak of violence in Israel and Gaza. The circumstances are completely different. Nevertheless, out of necessity, colleges created this monster, and now we need to put it out of our misery.

What needs to happen is a recalibration across the whole sector. We must untrain the expectation from students, parents and alumni that an immediate written proclamation is evidence of a leader’s moral character or an institution’s adherence to its own values. One way to do this is for presidents to connect in person as often as possible with constituents affected by tragedies or other significant events. They should focus primarily on showing concern and compassion while connecting members of their communities to appropriate resources. It means much more for a president to attend a vigil or a silent march for peace than it does to fire off a hasty tweet. When communication in writing makes sense, students should hear from campus leaders through established channels like a daily community bulletin, quotes in the campus newspaper or attendance at a student government meeting.

Parents should stop expecting COVID-style communications about their children’s day-to-day lives at college. The habits of enmeshment that were formed and normalized by communicating so frequently with parents from 2020 to 2022 should be unwound. It’s not healthy for young adult college students—or their parents—to expect that presidents are reporting directly to parents on matters as quotidian as dining, residential life or the time and location of an influenza vaccine clinic. The primary responsibility for communication with parents rests with students. Of course, if parents have legitimate health and safety concerns, they should contact the college to alert the relevant personnel—but that doesn’t mean they should excoriate the president for not posting an opinion on social media about a world event.

Alumni should not behave as though their alma mater’s president is a puppet, to be managed by threats of withdrawing support. Of course, alumni are emotionally (and often financially) invested in the success and positive reputation of the institution from which they received a degree. They are lifelong ambassadors and crucial constituents of any college or university. And they should engage deeply in alumni affairs, including through service on committees and participation in events and other mechanisms designed to solicit their input and feedback. But a group of alumni detractors sending threats does not represent the views of all graduates of an institution. And vocal alumni critics, and their rancorous campaigns to rescind philanthropic gifts or push for a president’s ouster, do not strengthen beloved institutions.

Finally, presidents should exercise discernment about when and how to use our presidential voices to advance the values of the institutions we serve. We should have the freedom to speak on an issue when it directly affects members of our campus community or when it relates to our institutional mission. But we should not be expected to do so within a few hours of an unfolding event, and we should not be punished if we determine that the presidential voice is not appropriate or helpful in a given circumstance. When we do decide to speak, we must be judicious about the venue or medium, and bear in mind that choosing words about contested situations may create unintentional harms, even when we do so with great care.

Suzanne M. Rivera is the president of Macalester College in St. Paul.

Next Story

More from Views