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Sooner or later, presidents will have to tip their hands.
There was a dry run of all of this after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to overturn Roe v. Wade. Every university — especially those with academic medicine — studies and teaches about abortion. And the social-science and medical-practice research is abundantly clear that access to abortion services is good public-health policy. A procedure taught to medical students to save lives is certainly well within the remit of institutions.
Nevertheless, the statements that came from university presidents in the aftermath of the decision mostly bent over backward to avoid taking a firm position. Presidents said things like, “We know this is a contentious issue” or “We must make space for those who disagree.” Did any of them believe the university should even debate whether to provide access to abortion services for patients and students (much less stop doing so)? Very few. But to come right out and say they disagreed with the decision would create at the least a time-consuming firestorm and at the worst a budget penalty for the university.
One president who spoke her mind directly was Mary Sue Coleman, the longtime president of the University of Michigan who is now serving as interim president in a second stint. “I strongly support access to abortion services, and I will do everything in my power as president to ensure we continue to provide this critically important care,” she said in a letter to the campus. “I am deeply concerned about how prohibiting abortion would affect U-M’s medical teaching, our research, and our service to communities in need.”
Coleman has always spoken her mind more forcefully than most of her colleagues. She’s also leaving in October, so her statement is a good lens for seeing the way presidents would talk if they weren’t under the thumb of political players who prioritize ideology over objective analysis. In a recent survey published by The Chronicle, 83 percent of college presidents said they censor their public remarks about national politics to avoid creating controversy.
This tension has led many universities to adopt the so-called Chicago Principles, which is a mostly innocuous statement by the University of Chicago about welcoming different points of view. But to conservative university stakeholders, it sounds like something that will tamp down the purported liberal bias of the campus and lead to speakers and courses about conservative ideals. This supposedly sets the stage for the administration to try to stay neutral and affirm the ability for the faculty to speak their minds. But as we saw in recent reporting on the University of Florida, the end goal of the politicians is also to silence the faculty.
This neutrality is a gift to forces that seek to undermine science and other objective analysis. The art of “teaching the controversy” is Page 1 in the anti-science playbook. A few rogue experts come in and confuse the public just enough to forestall any policy actions based on established facts. Tobacco, ozone, climate, Covid — it’s always the same story. “We doubt the science, it’s not political,” they say. Whenever someone tells you something isn’t political, it is. It’s just that in such cases facts are in conflict with ideology.
It should be possible for the president to state their views as an individual without reprisal from the board or political leaders.
All of this is about to get a lot more intense as the election approaches. Every political hot potato is going in the air. Critical race theory and the important role that racism and slavery play in American history will probably be the biggest issue. Universities will try to cling to academic freedom, arguing that professors have the ability to teach an honest version of the American story.
But sooner or later, presidents will have to tip their hands. Do the vast majority of them agree with the vast majority of their history colleagues who say that racism and slavery played an important part in the founding and history of the country? Sure — the basic facts are hardly in dispute and there’s a whole museum on the National Mall that honestly lays out the story. Still, most of them will try to avoid making a simple statement that explains their personal views. It’s ironic that the same folks advocating for “viewpoint diversity” are simultaneously muzzling their presidents. The glossy write-ups search firms produce in presidential searches never say anything about the desire for a candidate who is good at hiding their views (spoiler alert: most say the opposite).
Presidents are in an impossible situation, but this presidential squirming is not good for higher education. Faculty, staff, and students know the presidents are human beings who have views on these issues. Many of them knew the president before they got in the role. So, who are they fooling by saying they’re neutral? Nobody. I ought to know. I did a good share of squirming myself, but I always ended up stating my true position. I eventually learned I was better off to go ahead and do so.
There is a solution to this. It should be possible for the president to state their views as an individual without reprisal from the board or political leaders. If the board truly values debate as they say, they should welcome it. Then the president can be authentic with the campus and more able to lead through choppy waters. And if the board decides to fire the president over ideology, it will make it harder for them to try to claim that it wasn’t political.
Elections have gotten consistently bumpier the last 10 years, and this is shaping up to be one of the bumpiest yet, particularly with Republicans looking to make gains in congressional and state races against the backdrop of an activist Supreme Court and a Democratic presidential administration bracing for a hurricane. It’s going to be very hard for administrators to stay neutral amid the coming storm.
Buckle up, everybody.