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In recent years this presumption has become far less strong, as college leaders have taken visible positions on a range of social and moral issues in particular, and as the claim that neutrality is even possible has become less tenable. Yet the remaining line that is almost never crossed is the one separating the university from electoral politics. Presidents, chancellors, and boards of trustees simply do not openly endorse or oppose candidates for elected office (though it seems only fair to note that Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, last year very publicly endorsed Michael Bennet, the U.S. Senator from Colorado, for president of the United States).
The easiest and most compelling explanation for this electoral neutrality lies within the Internal Revenue Code, which states definitively that “all section 501(c)(3) organizations” — the category into which nonprofit colleges fall — “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. … Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.” Presidential support for or opposition to particular candidates runs the very real risk of punishment by the IRS, though the unpunished actions of Jerry Falwell Jr., Paul LeBlanc, and numerous leaders of religious nonprofits in particular suggest that it is possible to distinguish the views of the president from the official views of the institution.
All of this raises an important question: Does a college leader have a sound and intellectually defensible basis for openly opposing the re-election of Donald J. Trump? Many of those leaders have spoken strongly in opposition to particular policies of the Trump administration — regarding immigration, DACA, racial justice, international students, and a host of other subjects — but few if any have spoken directly to the question of whether the creator of those policies should remain in office.
If there is typically a glass barrier between the university and politics, this might be described as a “break glass in case of emergency” scenario.
In Bowen’s essay, he defines three sets of situations in which the presumption of neutrality might be overcome. Two of these are not especially uncommon: when the issue at hand touches directly upon the ability of the college to carry out its educational mission — affirmative action is often cited here as an example — and when the issue requires action by the college as an employer or a member of a municipality (zoning regulations, for instance, or the right to unionize). The third set, Bowen acknowledges, “should be recognized conceptually even though they occur exceedingly infrequently” and comprises “potential threats to the fabric of the entire society that are so serious that if the ‘wrong’ outcome occurs, the survival of the University itself would be threatened — or, in the most extreme situations, would not even matter.” If there is typically a glass barrier between the university and politics, this might be described as a “break glass in case of emergency” scenario.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether the re-election of Donald Trump is a threat to the social fabric sufficiently dire to justify the abandonment of neutrality, even if such abandonment comes with risk. But this strikes me as a perfectly appropriate question to ask — indeed, it seems at the moment irresponsible not to ask it — a fact that in itself reveals how extraordinary our present circumstances have become.
A credible case can be made that the re-election of Donald Trump poses all three of these risks.
- The evidence that Trump’s actions and inaction since the start of the coronavirus pandemic have cost tens of thousands of lives is at this point incontrovertible. He continues to flout and mock sensible public-health guidelines, up to and including breaking the law, and has politicized and corrupted once reliable federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. His re-election would almost certainly cause the impact of the pandemic on the United States to continue to be distinctively severe and would lead to many more preventable deaths.
- One could write many books (just check the best-seller lists) on the extent to which Trump has undermined the norms of a democracy and attempted to use everything from the U.S. Justice Department to voter suppression to armed agents to unapologetic racism to impose a much more authoritarian system of government on the United States. Such systems are typically incompatible with the effective functioning of colleges as we currently imagine them.
- Trump is the most influential climate-change denier on the planet, and, as the cataclysmic fires on the West Coast painfully reveal, continued failure to meaningfully address climate change could indeed leave us with a world so altered that the existence of the university would, in Bowen’s words, “not even matter.” It is difficult to attend college when one is fleeing a conflagration or unable to breath the air.
Layered over all of this is the fact that Trump is a kind of epistemological hand grenade. In The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman argues that a university provides a person with “a clear, conscious view of their own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought to detect what is sophistical and to discard what is irrelevant.” Trump is, in some way that is difficult to fully capture, the fundamental negation of this idea and thus, one could argue, a challenge to the existence of the university itself.
My point is not that every college leader can or should openly oppose Trump, but rather that one cannot casually dismiss the rightness of that opposition. Clearly, the presidents of public institutions, beholden to state legislatures and, often, to politically appointed boards of regents, have little freedom to step into electoral politics. Many presidents, even some who strenuously oppose Trump’s policies, will not want to alienate donors and other alumni, and many will not want to add to an already formidable list of daily challenges. Some simply support Trump or judge him to be less threatening than I have described. My point, rather, is that there is a strong case to be made that the re-election of Trump falls into the category of profoundly threatening external issues on which it is appropriate for a college president to take a public position. Such issues come along only rarely — but so, fortunately, do existential questions raised by the election of someone like Donald Trump.
I think it is fair for college presidents to ask themselves whether it is time to break the glass.