Why?

It’s been a few days since I, along with over 300 college and university presidents, shared an open letter on the issue of gun safety in America. Here’s the link to the story on HuffPost. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/20/college-presidents-gun-control_n_2338557.html It’s received a lot of attention. The purpose of this post is not to defend the statement or delve into the substance of the issue. I am glad to have started his project and grateful to over 300 colleagues who joined me. Instead, here, I’d like to share a little bit about the conversations that I have been privy to (I assume there are lots in which I have not participated) around the “why” question. Why did I feel compelled to write what I did, to ask others to join in, and didn’t I know I might offend some people?

Those are good and fair questions. I can answer them only for myself, of course. In some ways the answer is very simple. I believe this is an issue on which we can come together, act rationally, and as a result save lives. As the President said Sunday night, “We can do better, America.” I believe we can as well. I wrote the first draft after watching the service in Connecticut that evening. I got into bed and just could not fall asleep. IT often helps me to write down what I was feeling and that’s what I did. The next morning I decided to share it with a few friends who are also college presidents. They liked what they read, had a host of suggestions to make it better (as did my wife), and one particular president, Elizabeth Kiss at Agnes Scott College, decided to take the chance and send the new draft to a few more presidents. From there, it just exploded and as of this minute, we have over 300 signed on.

Almost all of what I had received by way of feedback has been gratifying, immensely so. But not all. I didn’t seek approval from my Board, although I did inform my Board Chair of the plan. He was fully supportive. The letter is a personal one. I don’t imagine from the speed of people’s responses that any president had their Board vote or approve. Nevertheless, when we speak, we do so with the influence of the position behind us and people will associate what we say with the school. That’s a given. It’s one reason, I suspect, we almost never speak out on issues of public importance. Anything important we say can and will offend someone and what if, God forbid, that person is or could be a donor? So, for the most part, we stay quiet, each focused on the work of our own schools. This was not always the case. A century ago, college presidents spoke out all the time on the issues of the day and sometimes people even listened to us. But when colleges began to look more like businesses and so dependent on money, we collectively retreated. I think that’s one reason why all the conversation one reads about higher education these days is about cost and student debt. Heck, if we aren’t thinking about anything grander than that, then why not?

I do blog regularly (http://www.myownstormypetrelwords.wordpress.com) and if you read through some of my posts, you will see I am not shy, at least in that forum. This time, though, it felt like blogging to myself was not enough. And despite the risks, it was time to go bigger. Apparently, lots of my colleagues decided the same thing.

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3 Responses to Why?

  1. Nancy says:

    I’m so proud of you! Well done.

  2. Bill Aitken '64 says:

    When you first shared your idea with me (asking for some potentially useful information) it never even occurred to me to ask “why”. It just needed to be done, and you were moved to do it, in consultation with your colleagues (Presidents of colleges and universities). Of course there is a
    likelihood of arousing displeasure, and perhaps cost donors, but children and other learners are FAR MORE IMPORTANT than that. What all of you ask is not in any way radical, or extremist, but rather commonsense, reasoned, and logical requests to solve a problem that we as a nation have been unwilling to face for a long time. It is appropriate that such an effort originate from the leadership of our great centers of learning (colleges and universities), although other centers of leadership (like legislators, clergy, and other professional groups) could have done so as well (BUT DIDN’T). I’m proud that this effort grew out of your and your Presidential colleague’s moral indignation, and desire and determination to take on a problem to which you think you see a solution, or at least part of a solution. Isn’t that what a liberal arts education aims to equip the educated individual for? There are many who will fight such an attempt, and others who will turn a deaf ear. After all we do have the best government money (particularly the NRA’s) can buy. But your attempt is right and fitting of the situation. Again, protecting children and other learners is much more important. Congratulations, to all of you!! Let’s hope you gain some traction—it looks like you just might. We can all hope and support.

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