A friend recently sent me an article entitled “University
Presidents – Speak Out!” published in The
Nation, a periodical I mostly avoid.
In the article, author Scott Sherman laments that university
presidents don’t air their views more often on the “big issues.” His idea of an
estimable college leader is someone like Lee Bollinger of Columbia (because he
“spearheaded the fight for affirmative action in college admissions” while he
was at the University of Michigan) or Ruth Simmons (because she initiated an
investigation into Brown University’s “historic connection to slavery”). Both
of them later disappointed Sherman, but that’s beside the point.
Sherman writes with evident enthusiasm about Goucher
College’s Sanford Ungar, who declares that “almost any issue is fair game” for
a college president. For example, he has stated, “Global warming…is a matter of
science versus ignorance.”
The trouble with that, of course, is that the non-scientist
Ungar (you can read about his background here) has no business
making pronouncements on matters where scientists disagree greatly. I’ll bet
that Sherman wouldn’t have put Ungar on a pedestal if he had instead said
something like, “Whether global warming is mainly due to human activity or
other causes, and what if any cost-effective measures we should take are
matters for continuing research and debate.”
It certainly doesn’t seem to me that college presidents have
gone mute. Recently, for example, many have eagerly spoken out in favor of
additional gun control laws. If there is a single college president who has
spoken against the conventional wisdom about gun control, arguing that it’s
ineffective or even counter-productive, he or she must have whispered it.
Sherman’s piece does, however, include a sharp contrarian
view by former Princeton president William Bowen, who said, “The job of the
college president is not to pronounce on the big public issue of today.
The job of the president is to pronounce on educational issues and to lead the
academy. It’s a mistaken conception to think of the president of any of these
places as a surrogate for the governor of the state, the senator or the
College presidents are not all-wise, all-knowing beings.
They may have important things to say about education — although that
should not be presumed. It makes sense for them to offer their views on
educational issue and the country would be better off if more would honestly do
Imagine the attention that would be focused on our higher
education system if a university president were to say that many students waste
great amounts of time and money in the course of their college experiences, but
learn little of lasting benefit. Or if a president were to admit that many
faculty members absorb a lot of money while producing negligible value in teaching
or research. Americans would take note of such admissions against interest.
Speaking out like that actually would take courage, unlike
simply repeating leftist bromides.