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Can a college president remain neutral about candidate Donald Trump? (essay)

Donald Trump, as the likely nominee of a major political party for the presidency of the United States, raises questions heretofore unimagined. Among them is the question of how and to what degree a college or university president should react to his candidacy.

If any doubt exists about the fact that the Trump situation is unusual, consider that some students viewed the recent chalkings of “Trump 2016” on the Emory University campus -- absent any other language -- as an act of intimidation. And the university’s president, James W. Wagner, observed that “the students with whom I spoke heard a message, not about political process or candidate choice, but instead about values regarding diversity and respect that clash with Emory’s own.” That is, some people considered Trump’s mere name as equivalent to an offensive epithet.

While such sensitivity might in part be a sign of the times in which we live, it is nonetheless true that Trump is more or less a walking violation of the mission statements and codes of conduct at most American colleges. Were he a student at Emory who engaged in some of his characteristic behaviors in a classroom or residence hall, he would likely face severe criticism and even disciplinary action. Few college presidents would hesitate to condemn a member of their community who, for example, clearly appeared to mock a person with a physical disability, insulted more than one religious and ethnic group en masse, and habitually belittled women.

The question, then, is whether Trump’s status as a leading presidential candidate inoculates him against such condemnation. How does an academic leader balance the responsibility to remain “neutral” against the duty to speak in defense of the values that are most central to a place of learning?

Nonprofit colleges and universities are prohibited by law from officially endorsing or opposing particular political candidates; they are compelled by mission to be places where a wide range of views, even those that are unpopular and provocative, can be expressed. For those reasons, college presidents typically, and wisely, steer clear of politics. Although they are, of course, free to speak and act as individual citizens, their leadership roles can blur the line between personal and institutional agency.

The exception, however, is when political matters bear directly upon the work of higher education. Thus, presidents will not hesitate to speak out on such issues as the funding of Pell Grants or the importance of affirmative action, despite the fact that such issues have clear political dimensions. Typically college presidents will be careful to support or oppose a policy and not a person, though it would be disingenuous to insist that their positions have no implications for the candidates and political parties they do or do not endorse.

Trump presents a special challenge because the policies and the personality seem so deeply interwoven and because both the policies and the manner in which they are expressed represent such a clear challenge to the work of higher education. Banning the entry of all Muslims into the United States, for instance, would have a direct impact on many international students and faculty members on campuses across the country. Forced deportation of undocumented residents would remove many students from those same campuses. I might go further and argue that the incitement to violence and the encouragement of fear and anger also undermine the academy’s commitment to civility and rational discourse. Trump is far from the first politician to engage in such tactics, but he is the first, I would argue, to stand so close to the highest office in the republic.

So what, if anything, is a college leader to say about a candidate like Trump? While speaking out about a presidential election can be difficult, for me remaining silent in the face of so much behavior and proposed policy that is antithetical to the mission of higher education is infinitely more difficult and ultimately more dangerous. A higher education president who opposes some of the offensive behavior that Trump engages in or the policies he promotes might run the risk of being too outspoken. But passively observing Trump creates a risk that is in my view much greater: that of failing to speak when the values most important to the institution within one’s care are imperiled.

Brian Rosenberg is president of Macalester College.

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Executive officer

Date Announced: 
Wed, 03/30/2016

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