This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education is full of stories and letters about Penn State (the football scandal) and UC Davis (the pepper spray scandal). The lead story ponders the demise of the ideal of university presidents as examples (or exemplars) of moral authority: How could a president of a leading university, a public one no less, make decisions like the ones these presidents appear to have made? I won’t for a minute pretend that I am better than either of these two leaders. While it’s hard to believe the leadership here, including our trustees, would have made the same mistakes, I have cautioned us all that we ought not to be so certain. I am sure that no one at UC Davis or Penn State imagined in their wildest dreams that anything like this could have happened there.
In my view, there are no evil people here (with the exception of sexual predators), just some really awful decisions being made. And if so, why is that happening? I can find a few possible answers in my first blog, where I attempted to explain what prompted me to start writing. Too often, presidents operate out of an abundance of caution and even fear. We won’t often speak our minds in the anxiety that someone out there might disagree with us and decide not to support our universities financially, or that we might offend someone who will argue that no single person should be able to speak for a university. In the face of that dread, we keep quiet, save for endlessly promoting what a great job each of our schools is doing in educating the next generation of leaders. The way things are going financially, politically and psychologically in Washington, D.C. and in the hinterland, we may not have much of a country left to lead. Yet on really important issues of public policy that could impact our nation’s future, we presidents often stand mute. What I see happening at Penn State and UC Davis is leadership that believes its first and only job is to protect the status quo, and when confronted with something that risks the status quo, resorting to closing ranks and hoping it will all go away.
That’s why I have dipped my toe into the deep end of the blogosphere. I feel an obligation to speak up. I’m not exactly famous out there; I have all of 34 followers and those include several members of my family. I’ve convinced my communications staff to put a link to my blog on Oglethorpe’s website, carefully and appropriately labeled President Schall’s personal blog. I am not intending to speak for the university. I am simply speaking for myself, as President of a one terrific university that is working hard to educate the next generation of leaders. When I speak about our namesake, James Edward Oglethorpe, founder of the colony of Georgia, a man who freed thousands of debtors from British jails, who came to this country and outlawed slavery in his colony, I always remind people he was a man of thought and of action. General Oglethorpe never remained silent, particularly when it came to shaking up and even challenging the status quo. I love that about him.