College Presidents Debate When to Speak Out — and When to Keep Quiet
Since then, leaders have been simultaneously criticized for being too supportive of Israel or not supportive enough; for ignoring the estimated 10,000 Palestinian people who have died during Israel’s military response; for taking any stance on the Israel-Hamas war; and for saying nothing at all.l.
With pressures closing in from all sides, how does a college president decide when to comment on world events? And when they do make a statement, what should be said?
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College presidents were inundated with demands last month that they make a statement after Hamas attacked Israel and killed 1,200 people — and then Israel retaliated. But there seemed to be no right way to do it.
Since then, the leaders have been simultaneously criticized for being too supportive of Israel or not supportive enough; for ignoring the estimated 10,000 Palestinian people who have died in Israel’s military response; for taking any stance on the Israel-Hamas war; and for saying nothing at all.
With pressures on all sides, how do college presidents decide when to comment on world events? And when they do make a statement, what should they say?
“We know we can’t make everybody happy in these circumstances,” said Jonathan R. Alger, president of James Madison University, “and that can’t be the goal.”
Alger and three other college presidents — Lori S. White of DePauw University, Jonathan J. Sanford of the University of Dallas, and Ana Mari Cauce of the University of Washington — convened on Thursday at a virtual panel hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit advocacy group, to discuss how college presidents should walk the tightrope of responding publicly, or not, to political and world events.
The more that you put out statements, the more it waters the others down. You really do want to be very cognizant of when you’re going to say something.
When Cauce drafts a public statement, she said, it’s usually for one of four reasons: The matter at hand affects a large part of the campus community, influences college operations, deals with the death or serious injury of a campus-community member, or is creating high stress on campus. But, she said, “it’s still a bit of an art.”
Unless the situation directly affects their college, panelists said, they often err on the side of caution and, as Sanford put it, “resist the temptation” to comment on current events. Part of that approach, Cauce said, is to preserve the influence of a president’s voice.
“The more that you put out statements, the more it waters the others down,” Cauce said. “You really do want to be very cognizant of when you’re going to say something.”
At DePauw, a liberal-arts college in Indiana, White posted an online message outlining her criteria for making a statement. She shares Cauce’s guiding principles but broadens the scope, including comments on matters related to DePauw’s “core mission of teaching and scholarship” as well as “significant” national and world events like the September 11 attacks and the death of George Floyd.
When commenting on national and world events, especially in the political realm, things can get messy fast. The college presidents said they tend to stay neutral in such cases. For example, Cauce said, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in admissions, she released a statement talking not about the issue but about how it’d affect the university.
“I made a very clear statement that we were still very much focused on our values of inclusivity and access, et cetera, but never actually taking a position one way or another,” Cauce said.
Several panelists said they follow guidance from the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report, which promotes institutional neutrality in order to maintain campus free speech and expression. But there are moments of historical significance, like the September 11 attacks, that they said call for more nuance.
The panelists also drew a distinction between large public colleges, like Washington and James Madison, which Alger emphasized must remain nonpartisan to protect individual rights to free expression, and small private colleges like DePauw and Dallas. Although they do have more leeway on what they can say, White and Sanford said they also try to avoid getting swept up in politics in favor of promoting civil discourse.
Sanford said he made his statement in hopes of “articulating principles that can help guide reflection,” as he would in a classroom.
“I was hoping then,” Sanford said, “that our students, our faculty, our staff, others in our community would wrestle with those principles in a way that led them to their own political conclusions. But I didn’t see it as my role to do that.”