The principle that a university president should not speak about his prior political experience to political audiences, lest the public cry out for objectivity, is a strange one.
Even stranger is the idea, aired recently, that a nonpartisan speech by that president to a nonpartisan but activist audience is enough to raise concerns about undue politicization of the president’s office.
These principles are strange because so many university presidents today argue that the life of the mind is no longer enough, since the pressing issues of the real world obligate their universities to be agents of social change.
University presidents regularly speak out on political issues. They sign political statements, testify before public bodies, and make public commitments about “sweatshops,” the world environment, and immigration.
Yet, according to critics, it is dangerous for a university president to give a speech to an organization that expresses political opinions, as though any whiff of politics must sink the objectivity of a president with a political background.
In this case, was it Yale President Peter Salovey, who has officially committed Yale to “immigration reform”?
Was it one of the huge number of presidents who signed the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment?
Was it Syracuse President Nancy Cantor, who celebrated the visit of President Obama to Syracuse and praised a “comprehensive plan that President Obama proposed” as “a real opportunity to bring universities and government together in a strategic and focused way” to serve “the President’s plan” to reform higher education?
No, it was Purdue President Mitch Daniels, who gave a nonpartisan speech in Minnesota about “the centrality of social mobility and opportunity for the yet-to-haves in our society as goals of public policy.”
Political double standards in and regarding academia are well-known. This is just one of the latest examples.