By Brian C. Rosenberg
There are three important reasons why American college and university presidents keep their distance from the political arena. I describe these as the educational, the legal and the financial.
But enough is enough.
Presidents should not stay silent when politicians actively undermine the core values by which our institutions live.
The first and ultimately most important reason to steer clear from politics is educational.
Colleges are meant to function as places where there can be free and open discourse and sometimes passionate disagreement about a very wide range of issues, including the political. To the extent that the president, as the most visible spokesperson for the university, takes a political stance, she or he runs the risk of biasing or even limiting the expression of views by others on campus.
Legally, nonprofit colleges and universities are bound by the rules of the Internal Revenue Service regarding 501(c)(3) organizations. These rules state that such organizations “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” While there are many ways of engaging in politics short of participating in an actual campaign, the danger of violating the IRS prohibition tends to lead presidents to err on the side of caution.
Finally, college and university presidents are in the business of raising money from donors whose politics cover a pretty wide spectrum. Why run the risk of alienating any portion of this donor base by speaking to issues that are likely to provoke someone’s ire?
This caution is understandable and in most cases wise. Often, when a college president is being pressured by this or that group to take a partisan position, it is also both difficult and exhausting.
But on rare occasions caution can, paradoxically, be dangerous, in the sense that it can establish an unhealthy separation between the values embraced by a college or university, or by the academy more broadly, and the workings of our political system.
It can deprive the public sphere of the voices of those whose positions of leadership carry some civic responsibility.
Maybe most important, it can set the wrong example and send a dispiriting message to the students we are purporting to educate.
I believe that exceptions to this “code of silence” can and should be made only in those cases when statements or proposals in the political realm come into direct conflict with or openly threaten the educational missions of our institutions.
In such cases, silence is not prudence but an avoidance of the risk and responsibility that accompany the acceptance of a college presidency.
All of this brings me to the statements we are hearing, the behavior we are witnessing, and the policy proposals being offered by some candidates for the presidency of the United States.
Perhaps even more disturbing has been the fervor with which these actions have been embraced by a not unsubstantial portion of the electorate and the silence or agreement with which they have been greeted by other candidates.
We have heard the Latina/Latino community, and especially the Mexican-American community, demonized and insulted.
We have heard, in contravention to what I consider the fundamental ethos of our country, that a Muslim American child should not be permitted to aspire to the presidency.
We have heard the most basic rules of civility and honesty dismissed as “political correctness.”
And we have watched as all this has been treated as mere politics, or as an entertaining sideshow, by most in the media.
This is reprehensible. We must, publicly and forcefully, call it as such.
If we fail to do so, how can we speak with any moral authority to our students or our alumni about the educational values of our colleges — about the kinds of individuals we seek to educate and the kinds of communities we seek to create not only on campus, but in the towns and cities into which our graduates will move?
These attacks on the value of equal opportunity, honesty, and evidence-based argumentation pose as much of a threat to the viability of higher education as do any cuts to state or federal funding.
Preaching tolerance and empathy is not enough if we remain mute in the face of the blatant forms of intolerance, xenophobia, racism, and bullying to which we have borne witness in this endless campaign season.
Contrary to what some might believe, my objections are not an example of mere partisanship.
There is a difference — we must insist upon a difference — between advocating for one political party over another and viewing bigotry as just another policy proposal.
I disagree with Bernie Sanders’ advocacy of free college for all just as I disagree with Marco Rubio’s plans to dismantle the higher education “cartel,” but I recognize that both are operating within the bounds of a rational political system.
Claims of partisanship cannot be allowed to shield from criticism candidates whose remarks might result in harassment or hostile environment claims in many American workplaces.
The history of our country is all too rife with examples of inflammatory rhetoric being met by silence and becoming, in ways that seem in retrospect difficult to explain, discriminatory and destructive policies and practices.
Our present world is rife with such examples. I devoutly hope that this is not where we are headed in the present, baffling moment. But we need to do more than hope: we need to speak out in the face of appeals to the worst impulses within us with the goal of inspiring the best.
If we fail to do this, what matters the noble language that rests within the mission statement, and is meant to animate, every college and university in America?