Pressuring College Presidents
April 25, 2005
The cover story of this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education is an article entitled “Controversy at Warp Speed“ (link only good for 5 days for non-subscribers) which reports the fact that college and university presidents frequently find themselves on the “hot seat” when controversial protests and other events happen on their campuses. Chronicle writer Jeffrey Selingo wrote:
Among college leaders, [San Francisco State University’s president] Mr. Corrigan is hardly alone in his frustration. It used to take days or weeks, if ever, for an incident simmering on a campus to ignite into a full-fledged controversy. But now, thanks to e-mail—and, more recently, blogs—news about even minor campus dust-ups is disseminated much more quickly, and well beyond the bounds of the college or local community. The president, as the institution’s public face, must deal with the resulting flood of interest in his campus’s doings….
Conflicts on campuses are nothing new, of course. But colleges today are no longer viewed as ivory towers. Institutions of all sizes and types are under greater scrutiny than ever before from lawmakers, parents, taxpayers, students, alumni, and especially political partisans. Empowered by their position or by the fact that they sign the tuition checks, they do not hesitate to use any available forum to complain about what is happening at a particular institution.
Generally, the article reads as a lament that controversies on campus are attracting outside attention, and features a number of quotes from administrators who seem like they are getting tired of the public nosing about in their business. Particularly emphasized in the article is the dismay of college presidents and other administrators who receive emails from dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of members of the public who have either complaints or suggestions that they want to make.
What struck me in this article is the seeming desire on the part of college and university administrators to return to the days when public accountability for their actions was sorely lacking. It’s a cliché today to think of academia as an “ivory tower” where normal rules do not apply, and, to a large extent, this was true in the past. Yet such an environment can exist only where there is an implicit trust among parents, students, faculty, and administrators that the university would be a just place where students would be treated fairly and equitably with the goal of creating an environment where education could flourish.
Administrative carelessness and corruption have undermined this trust. Because they emanate from those in authority, they have been highly destructive to the idea that America can trust its colleges and universities. When I say carelessness, I am referring to things like the speech codes that flourished on campuses in the 1980s and 1990s—codes that were clearly contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment, but which were adopted anyway because administrators found it less trouble to bow to the prevailing campus ideology. And when I say corruption, I am referring to the shocking and often intentional disregard for individual rights and/or due process that we find at Occidental College, Indian River Community College, the University of Oklahoma, UMass Amherst, Rhode Island College, the University of New Hampshire—the list goes on and on.
This carelessness and corruption has undermined the credibility of college and university administrators in the eyes of the public. Lamenting the loss of this credibility will do no good—the only way to regain it is to actually become credible again. Administrators must hold themselves to a high standard of fairness and justice, and must take responsibility for learning what is necessary to adequately perform their jobs. For instance, many need to learn the difference between unprotected harassment and the protected exercise of speech. FIRE does its best to educate, but frankly, some application of common sense on the part of administrators would eliminate a large portion of FIRE’s cases. Another step many administrators need to take is to actually read and consistently apply their written policies rather than making arbitrary or emotion-driven decisions.
Bemoaning the email problems of college presidents will accomplish nothing. If college and university administrators want to see a return to public deference, they will need to work a lot harder to ensure that they are people to whom it’s worth deferring.