Speak for My University? It’s Complicated

March 19, 2017

Art Valero for The Chronicle
As I am sure is true of most of my presidential colleagues, rarely does a week go by when I am not asked to commit the institution to a position on some public issue beyond our campus. The requests come from alumni, parents, students, faculty members, other academics, and outside organizations. Each wants the public support of my institution, Saint John’s University, on a particular issue, believing that to have this support will somehow strengthen the cause.

These issues generally have two characteristics. They are complicated and multidimensional — no one asks us to support motherhood and apple pie — and they are emotional — the individuals requesting support typically feel strongly about the issue, as do those on the other side. The current polarized political environment has increased the number of requests and raised the emotional intensity of those asking for support. We were recently asked, for example, to take a public position on President Trump’s executive order on immigration.

These requests are a natural part of a college president’s job, and it is understandable that individuals and groups would want the public backing of a respected institution like a college or university. As these requests started coming in more often, I decided it was important to have some general guidelines and not respond on a case-by-case basis.

I am in a privileged position to be able to make, with input from colleagues, such judgments; however, it is also a position that I approach with great care. I rarely want others to speak for me, and I assume that desire is shared by those who are part of my university community.

So I now approach these issues by asking three questions.

The first is, "Who is Saint John’s?" As an institution, we represent many constituencies, and what with our founding monks, employees, students, and alumni, Saint John’s is more than 25,000 individuals. If you include parents and friends, the number approaches 40,000. We are a diverse community, which is a tremendous strength in educating our students and engaging alumni. But our demographics do not lend themselves to homogeneity of thought.

So I am very, very hesitant to offer an "institutional" position on any political or social issue because in virtually every case there will be significant disagreement within the community. Institutions don’t ordinarily have opinions or positions — individuals do — and I do not feel it is my right or the university’s right to speak for those individuals about political or social issues on which they naturally should and do have their own views, and on which thoughtful, well-intentioned people are likely to disagree.

The second question I consider is about exceptions to the general guideline above. Does the issue at hand directly and significantly affect our students and our educational mission? For example, there is a continuing debate around Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a law that, under certain conditions, prevents the deportation of undocumented students who came to the United States as children.

This issue clearly has a direct impact on some of our current and future students, and Saint John’s University did choose to take a public stance this fall in support of the continuation of DACA. Because the law has a direct impact on some students and our mission of educating them, I felt it was appropriate to express and defend an institutional position, even as I know there are some in the Saint John’s community who would disagree.

The third question I consider when asked to take a position is that of the impact on education. Is the issue at hand likely to come up in classrooms, dormitories, or other public settings? If the political or social issue is part of an active public debate and is not directly about educational policy, not taking an institutional position is usually the right choice for the education of our students.

When Saint John’s takes an institutional position on any issue, we run the risk of stifling debate on campus and within our community. If there is the perception that there is an orthodox or "correct" view on an issue, faculty and staff members and especially students may feel that they are not able to express their disagreement or even debate the merits of alternative positions. This is particularly relevant in the classroom and is a position I have come to from over 25 years as a professor, before becoming an administrator.

There can be no action at an educational institution more harmful than to do something that limits, or even risks limiting, the freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas. That, of course, is what academic freedom and education are all about.

As educators, we are not in the business of telling students what to believe. We want, expect, and encourage our students to form their own thoughtful views on complicated and emotional social and political issues. We also want them to develop the willingness and skills to listen respectfully to alternative views, both as a necessary part of civil public discourse and as a way of challenging and nuancing their positions. Graduating students with thoughtful personal views and the ability to listen carefully to others is surely an outcome that all educators and the public can agree on.

As an institution, we will certainly help our students in almost any way we can to pursue and achieve their educational dreams, but only in rare circumstances does this include the university’s taking a public and official stance on a matter of policy or politics. Sometimes no institutional position is truly the best position.

Michael Hemesath is president of Saint John’s University, in Collegeville, Minn.