Students, faculty, and communities have long looked to colleges and universities for perspective and leadership regarding matters of the day. In a perhaps romanticized view of college and university presidents of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, these straight white men were often seen as the “sculptors of society.” By the 1980s, this role of president as vocal community leader had changed. In 2001, the president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, Theodore Hesburgh, wrote, “Today’s college presidents appear to have taken Voltaire’s advice to cultivate their own gardens— and … they are doing that very well.”
Today we seem to be entering a new cycle for the voice of higher education presidents, and I do not believe it is partisan to observe that this is a function of the drumbeat sounding from Washington, D.C. Over the past year, 200 college and university presidents signed a letter asking the Trump administration to speak out against harassment, bullying, and violence; 235 presidents signed a letter regarding climate action; and more than 700 presidents signed a letter in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and undocumented immigrant students. In the past year, I’ve read more opinion essays written by college and university presidents about social issues than I’ve read over the past several. Most conversations with my peers include discussion of the pressure we now receive from students and faculty to communicate with the campus about the day’s social issues and crises—and to go beyond formal or even empathic statements.
How do presidents, and indeed boards, decide when and how to speak with our campus communities about issues of social justice?
I believe our standard regarding presidents’ public roles is evolving in response to contemporary challenges to human rights. I believe, too, that our public statements should be governed by the restraint that our great privilege as leaders and educators demands, as well as by the purpose of higher education to advance conversation that is civil and informed by evidence. Our statements and action should be guided by our institutions’ unique missions, cultures, and legacies, and perhaps most importantly, by the challenges and work of our students and faculty.
This year, I decided to speak with my community at Adler University and to write in the popular press about my experience acquiring HIV in the 1980s in the midst of government- sanctioned indifference, hatred, and oppression. I hoped the successes and failures that my community forged in the 1980s would have relevance for marginalized groups today who feel abandoned by the state.
I thought about my university and my role before I made such a personal and political disclosure. I discussed the merits of this disclosure with our board leadership. Ultimately, I decided with our board chair that my advocacy was congruent and necessary for the president of Adler University, an institution explicitly focused on social justice. Because we expect our students to advance social justice, I agreed with Hesburgh’s words: “We cannot urge students to have the courage to speak out unless we are willing to do so ourselves.”
Our trustees also decided to speak out. Their statement to the university community said, in part: “We support our entire community—students, alumni, faculty, staff, and trustees—to reflect, acknowledge, discuss, and appropriately take action when our leaders and policy makers create and promote policies that are discriminatory, that negatively impact the most vulnerable, that are designed to strengthen the business community at the expense of society at large, and that are not based on fact.” (See adler.edu/BoardStatement.)
This was admittedly an unusual step for a board to take, but given Adler’s mission and legacy, the action was congruent and necessary. Our community’s reaction is instructive for any higher education board. Our students and faculty reported that they felt “seen” by a board that appreciated and honored their challenges and ongoing work.