If College Presidents Won’t Speak Out, Who Will?

This hit the Chronicle of Higher Education this week


If College Presidents Won’t Speak Out, Who Will?

The Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, who served the University of Notre Dame as its president for 35 years, wrote an article in 2001 titled “Where are College Presidents’ Voices on Important Public Issues?http://newsinfo.nd.edu/news/9201-where-are-college-presidents-voices-on-important-public-issues/” He began this way: “When I was a college president, I often spoke out on national issues, even when they didn’t pertain to academic life. Yet, nowadays, I don’t find many college presidents commenting on such issues.”

I will suggest that the silence has grown even more deafening in the decade since Father Hesburgh penned those words. This month, the silence was broken. Over 330 college and university presidents signed a letter, which I penned together with my colleague Elizabeth Kiss at Agnes Scott College, calling for the adoption of rational gun-safety legislation in our country. The letter and the names of all the presidents are posted on the Web site College Presidents for Gun Safety. Additional presidents are signing on every day, and other similar letters have been drafted by such prominent organizations as the Association of American Universities, which includes virtually every leading public and private research university in the country. Yes, the silence has been broken.

Father Hesburgh shared that back in 1957, he and one other president, John Hannah from Michigan State University, were members of the five-person U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He wrote about the angry letters he received for his public service and public stances, including when he was named to serve on President Ford’s Presidential Clemency Board at a time when draft dodgers and deserters from the Vietnam War were being considered for pardons. He wrote: “Painful as those days were, however, they taught a powerful lesson. We cannot urge students to have the courage to speak out unless we are willing to do so ourselves.”

I am incredibly proud that so many presidents have spoken out on the appalling level of gun violence in America today. There is no simple solution, but we all believe that part of the answer lies in requiring gun owners to be subject to background checks before they can acquire guns and that there needs to be reasonable limits on high-capacity guns and magazines. We also shared our collective opinion, based on the experience of managing hundreds of college campuses, that permitting faculty members and students to arm themselves on our campuses will make us all less safe-not more safe.

James O. Freedman, former president of Dartmouth College and past dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, my alma mater, authored an article soon after he left Dartmouth on why college presidents have removed themselves from the public stage (“Getting College Presidents Back on the Public Stage,” Harvard Magazine). He reminisced about the day when such presidents as Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia University from 1902 to 1945, played a significant role on the national political stage, among other things campaigning for the repeal of Prohibition. He cites A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University from 1909 to 1933, arguing for America’s participation in the League of Nations. We also had Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1945, speaking out against the Cold War policies of the Truman Administration.

And then Dr. Freedman speaks to today and the silence that comes from our offices. Presidents have plenty of critics, he shares, and who needs more of them, especially when so much of our job these days is raising funds from constituents? He quotes Justice Holmes: “Every idea is an incitement.” How true that is. He aptly notes the issue of length of tenure. The presidents cited above all enjoyed decades-long tenures. Today, college presidents serve an average six or seven years. Longevity does indeed provide some cover and certainly newly minted presidents might rightfully lack the confidence to survive an onslaught of criticism. All that said, I come back to Father Hesburgh’s challenge: How can we urge students to have the courage to speak out unless we are willing to do so ourselves?

I don’t suspect that the call to action on gun safety is the start of presidents speaking out on every issue the country faces. In fact, on most of those issues, I am pretty certain we wouldn’t agree. But on this one, in the face of the massacre in Sandy Hook and in the face of the countless deaths by gun violence across America every day, we do agree and we have chosen to speak.

Lawrence M. Schall
Oglethorpe University

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10 Responses to If College Presidents Won’t Speak Out, Who Will?

  1. Ginger O'Neill says:

    Hi Larry,

    Such a powerful message from the appropriate bully pulpit. Hope more presidents sign up. America has been silent for too long on this issue. The war on terrorism should start at home.

    Congrats to your and Elizabeth for taking the first important steps!


  2. A call to action is never more needed than now, while coverage for one’s job is nice to have it really doesn’t exist. One upset donor or corporate sponsor can send even the most entrenched leader packing. Corporate America, including Academia, doesn’t like lone voices, so polls must be taken and analyzed, policys reviewed, support generated and then action can be taken. Perhaps it’s the right way because there is always the bigger picture, but it doesn’t feel right. Speaking out on even the most moral of issues has cost jobs. It may not be safe but your letter has gained momentum and it could and should be the start of a different action plan for university leadership. FOX news and it’s follower’s aren’t going to rally to your defense, not right away, but like the GOP has learned “stuck on stupid” isn’t a winning strategy. Discussion, defused of fear, will carry the day. How we manage to lose the fear is something University President’s must help achieve, because while I might be an optimist, overcoming “stuck on stupid” is not a skill most of us have mastered. Good luck I’m beside you 100%.
    Jody Davis

  3. Ember says:


  4. Bill says:

    As You Say !

  5. Paul Chen says:

    Been some time since I’ve visited your blog; my loss. Great job on the petition, Larry: 300+ is very impressive. And kudos for continuing to speak out despite the potential impact on funding. I trust, of course, that the large number of nay-sayers that contribute comments on Maureen Downey’s column this morning are not your target audience. Let me add, however, that my very bright #1 son has done some research – as he is always driven to do – and found at least one study that says there was no decrease in violence after the assault weapons ban went into effect in the 90s. That said, I haven’t read it, and as we all know, research studies are often like minefields; gotta evaluate methodologies and results very carefully. My son is all for reducing gun violence, but he’s also very practical, and it’s interesting to me that his conclusion was that a ban on assault weapons wouldn’t help.

    • Bill says:

      Thoughtful comment. However, it might bear reminding here that logically, and scientifically, the absence of something can never be used to prove anything, even if the devil in the details can be eliminated. As a published behavioral scientist, I would like to get a reference to (or copy of link to) the study (and any similar) to examine and critique. Thanks for coming back to Larry’s blog. Broad discussion is the heart of the matter.

    • Bill says:

      Paul, I was very much looking forward to the reference to the study (and any other similar) that you mentioned a couple of days ago that your son found regarding the effectiveness of assault weapon bans. Any chance of my seeing that? I would appreciate it. Thanks.

  6. M. Joey Bernard says:

    My daughter is a current Freshman at Oglethorpe. We have been extremely pleased and impressed with the academic and social atmosphere of the university and its focus not only on academics but also on community service and engagement. In the short time our daughter has attended Oglethorpe we have seen her mature academically, socially and perhaps most significantly, in her capacity to think beyond her immediate “community”. This is certainly one of the many reasons she chose to attend Oglethorpe.

    I was extremely pleased to read your very thoughtful commentary on an extremely important and current issue. It has been way too long since University and campus leaders have publicly spoken out on important issues of the day. After reading your post, I came across an article in The Nation discussing the tradition of presidential engagement with and debate on issues impacting not only education but society and the global community. The tug of war between presidential engagement and the risk averse views of university governing bodies. I thought it might present an interesting read. The link below should take you to the article.


    Keep up the good work and fight the good fight! Much appreciated.

    M. Joey Bernard

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