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Illustration by David Regan

[ Also see A "Most Pleasant" Occupation? ]

College and university presidents are increasingly subject to the criticism that they do not use the privilege of their positions to speak out on important issues of the day. In this, the presidents of the present generation are frequently compared unfavorably to those of bygone eras--eras in which, it is said, giants walked the land. "A generation ago...college and university presidents cut striking figures on the public stage," a journalist for the New York Times recently lamented. "They called for the reform of American education, proposed safeguards for democracy, sought to defuse the Cold War, urged moral standards for scientific research, and addressed other important issues of the time. Today, almost no college or university president has spoken out significantly...about dozens of...issues high on the national agenda."

Those titans--or at least some of them--wrote shelves of books, published articles in the Atlantic Monthly and Scribner's Magazine, advised presidents of the United States, and chaired national commissions. Those who served at the most prestigious institutions were members of the country's unofficial House of Lords: of eminent dignity and beyond popular election.

Nicholas Murray Butler, the legendary president of Columbia University from 1902 to 1945, is a good example. Although often derided for his authoritarian style, Butler was praised by many intellectuals--including Henri Bergson, H.G. Wells, and Benjamin N. Cardozo--for his powerful qualities of mind. In his autobiography, Across the Busy Years, Butler described how he managed, for more than four decades, to combine his responsibilities at Columbia with speaking out on domestic issues and playing a significant role in national Republican politics. He advised Presidents Roosevelt, Taft, and Harding, campaigned vigorously for the repeal of Prohibition, and in 1920 was considered a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination (the New York Times endorsed his candidacy).

Butler played an even more prominent role in the discussion of foreign affairs. For the last 20 years of his presidency of Columbia, he served simultaneously as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Before the onset of World War I, he called for the use of military force and economic sanctions against nations that invoked military power. After the war, he spoke out against U.S. participation in the League of Nations on the terms negotiated by Woodrow Wilson. In 1927, he became perhaps the most influential public advocate of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which renounced war as an instrument of international diplomacy. For his efforts on behalf of disarmament, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

The career of A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University from 1909 to 1933, is equally revealing. During his tenure, Lowell favored American participation in the League of Nations and was an outspoken critic of the New Deal and of labor unions. Having been trained as a lawyer, he spoke out against President Wilson's appointment of Harvard Law School graduate Louis D. Brandeis to the United States Supreme Court, ostensibly because he thought Brandeis did not enjoy the confidence of the bar. (Many thought that he opposed the prospective justice's political and social views and his ethnic and religious heritage.)

On some occasions, Lowell entered public controversy even though he clouded Harvard's reputation by doing so. In 1927 he chaired a three-man committee to review the convictions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who had been sentenced to death for the murder of two men during a payroll robbery. Having examined the transcript of the trial and the evidence presented--including the fact that the presiding judge had publicly boasted of having convicted "those anarchist bastards"--the committee concluded that both men had received a fair trial. Controversy about Sacco and Vanzetti's execution followed Lowell for the rest of his life.

Lowell also became immersed in an ugly public controversy because of his attempt, in 1922, to institute quotas for Jewish students at Harvard, who then constituted 21 percent of the student body. Lowell believed, as Henry Aaron Yeomans has written, that the presence of too many Jewish students would erode Harvard's "character as a democratic, national university, drawing from all classes of the community and promoting a sympathetic understanding among them." The presence of too many Jews--whom he linked with African Americans, Asian Americans, French Canadians, and others "if they did not speak English and kept themselves apart"--would invite separatism rather than assimilation, Lowell argued. Although the issue of college admissions was more directly educational than many that Lowell addressed in public debate, the policy implications of adopting religious quotas at the nation's most respected university radiated beyond Harvard, affecting our whole democratic society.

The assurance that Lowell felt in inviting notoriety by his outspoken participation in public affairs doubtless derived in part from the self-confidence he enjoyed as a member of Boston's Brahmin elite; he did not, as one historian has written, shy away from the personal pronoun. But it also derived from the public expectation that the presidents of leading colleges would act in their capacities as citizens quite apart from their capacities as educators.

Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1945, played an equally prominent public role. He testified before Congress against universal military service and in favor of loosening security restrictions on atomic research. He spoke out against the Cold War policies of the Truman administration and served as president of the Committee to Frame a World Constitution. Indeed, Hutchins became such a well-known public figure that newspapers speculated that he would be appointed to a seat on the Supreme Court.

To a greater degree than Butler and Lowell, Hutchins attracted public attention because of his views as an educator, which he expressed passionately and disseminated widely. He radically transformed the University of Chicago, emphasizing undergraduate education as its central mission. In league with the philosopher Mortimer Adler, he envisioned a required interdisciplinary curriculum that would offer undergraduates a liberal education organized around the "Great Books."

Describing himself proudly as the "worst kind of troublemaker"--"the man who insists upon asking about first principles"--Hutchins was not diffident in criticizing American higher education, which he regarded as not only "unintellectual but anti-intellectual as well." Having once declared that there were only two ways for a university to be great--"It must either have a great football team or a great president"--he abolished the University of Chicago's intercollegiate football program.

From 1944 to 1947, Hutchins headed the Commission on Freedom of the Press, which issued a scathing report that criticized the journalistic enterprise. Yet, for all his contempt for the professional standards of the press, Hutchins did not hesitate to cultivate newspaper coverage of his activities, and regularly addressed national radio audiences. During his tenure as president, he wrote three books and delivered nearly 800 public addresses, occupying the public stage as few other college presidents have.

College presidents like Butler, Lowell, and Hutchins were significant public figures even if they did not always speak wisely or temperately. They were muscular intellectuals, in the mold of Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson, himself a former college president, and they made their voices heard. The fact that they occupied prominent academic positions lent weight to their mandarin views. Respect for their office made their public roles seem a part of the natural order of things.

Not every college president, of course, was as gifted, or as bold, or as effective as these three. Giving grudging praise to Butler, H.L. Mencken wrote of college presidents, "As a class, they are platitudinous and nonsensical enough, God knows."

When my former colleagues and I encounter unfavorable comparisons to these presidents, our first reaction is to protest that we hold more difficult jobs than they did, that we serve in a period in which campus availability, consultation, and visibility have become more demanding measures of our performance, that we preside over institutions that are more complex and more publicly accountable, that we are obliged to pay considerably more attention to a larger set of constituencies: faculty, students, staff, alumni; federal, state, and local governments; the media and foundations.

We add that we must spend significantly more time raising money. Most presidents estimate that they spend one-third of their time on fundraising--conducting themselves, one wag has said, as "members of the mendicant class."

Illustration by David Regan Illustration by David Regan

No president wants to make new enemies for his college, especially in a period of what seem to be perpetual capital campaigns. Many presidents believe that they must be especially careful not to alienate the college's most important constituencies because the price to be paid by their institutions--for what sometimes seems to be the indulgence of stating their personal convictions--is simply too high. "Every idea," as Justice Holmes once said, "is an incitement." A president who speaks out on public issues may be respected for his courage by those who agree with him, but his college may well lose the support of many who do not.

For the presidents of public institutions, there are issues of professional protocol as well. One of the nation's most respected students of higher education, Martin Trow, has suggested that it is not appropriate for college presidents to advocate publicly academic policies that their boards of regents formally oppose. He had in mind statements that the chancellors of the University of California campuses made in support of affirmative action after the state's Board of Regents had prohibited the practice.

"Like civil servants everywhere," Trow wrote, "university administrators have the right, and indeed the obligation, to present their views on any issues to their superiors...in private, and even to press their opinions vigorously. But when they announce their views publicly, they enter a political realm in which they have no special authority or standing."

Many of the presidents I know best quietly bemoan the moral hypocrisy that governs their professional lives. Even the honorable and vigorous Vartan Gregorian noted, upon his retirement as president of Brown University in 1997, "I can't express my opinion on important issues without fear of alienating segments of the faculty, students, and alumni. It burns me up, because I am highly political."

College presidents like Butler, Lowell, and Hutchins served at a time when the "public" was largely synonymous with college-educated white men. They could speak on a national stage as if they were addressing an especially large alumni reception, rather than the heterogeneous publics--plural--that college presidents are obliged to engage today.

Finally, there is almost certainly a relationship between the relatively brief average tenure of college presidents--five or six years--and the extent of their participation in national policy discussions. Two-thirds of the presidents of the 31 private institutions that comprise the Consortium on the Financing of Higher Education (COFHE) typically have taken office within the last five years. For many presidents today the jobs are simply too demanding to sustain for an extended period of years. These presidents conclude after a few years of service that their constituencies are routinely mutinous, their hold on power insufficiently secure, and their daily satisfactions depressingly few to justify the burdens and frustrations of office.

Those who accept the presidencies of institutions not their own are likely to arrive as virtual strangers, knowing few members of the faculty or administration, lacking local guides against the pitfalls that the personnel and culture of the institution will inevitably throw in their path. We need to recognize that these leaders will not feel confident in taking a role in public debate beyond their institutions until they first feel confident of their standing within them. Too often, their tenure in office concludes just at the point when they might be expected to have gained such confidence.

Is it any wonder that college presidents wince when critics assert that they do not speak out on public issues as readily as their predecessors did?

Still, presidential self-pity is not an attractive trait. And in fact, many contemporary college presidents have been exemplary in writing books on issues of public import, providing expert advice to federal decision-makers, and speaking out on issues of national policy--especially on such matters as affirmative action, ethical issues in biomedical research, the relevance of basic science to the nation's welfare, and the role of the federal government in higher education. I think specifically of Presidents Hesburgh of Notre Dame, Giamatti of Yale, Kennedy of Stanford, and Bok of Harvard, to mention only four not now serving. In listing them, I am struck by how we resonate to these leaders' public contributions--and by the sense that our society loses when there are so few such voices.

Given that they are confined more tightly to campus governance than their predecessors, many college presidents have chosen to speak out primarily on academic and moral issues that affect the daily life of their institutions--issues involving academic freedom, curricular content, interdisciplinary initiatives, racial diversity, sexual harassment, and tenure. Fortunately, there remain occasions--inaugural speeches, annual state-of-the college addresses, commencement valedictories, and legislative hearings--at which the moral voice of presidents can be heard.

How, then, ought we evaluate the criticism that college presidents are less engaged in the nation's public-policy debates than once was the case? In part, the portrayal reflects the changed terms of civic discourse: in an age of celebrity, college presidents must compete with many other public figures for the limited space available on newspaper op-ed pages and the limited time offered by the electronic media. In part, the portrayal reflects the changed terms of college governance: presidents today face many more administrative responsibilities, and must carry them out in the face of pressures by many more constituencies for participation and consultation.

Presidents Butler, Lowell, and Hutchins were, no doubt, men of extraordinary brilliance and energy. But they also served at a time when the circumstances of American academic life were more relaxed and the professional demands upon a college president less taxing than they are today. Butler, for example, could sail to England on Memorial Day to spend a summer full of reading and reflection before returning to New York on Labor Day. Of course he had time to think extensively about public affairs, to maneuver through the thickets of domestic and international politics, and to write more than a dozen books and 3,000 articles.

Although college presidents are ostensibly chosen for their academic leadership capacities, their intellectual achievements, and their educational vision--every board of trustees hopes that, in appointing a president, it has found another John Dewey or Alfred North Whitehead--the responsibilities that consume their days, evenings, and weekends in today's campus cultures give them too few opportunities to display these credentials. Once they take office, many presidents soon find that they are spending far more time on fundraising, alumni relations, and ceremonial activities than they had anticipated or would like. (All of us who have been presidents find that the most likely places to renew our acquaintance with other presidents are the lounges at La Guardia, O'Hare, and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airports.)

Still, for all the campus demands they face, most college presidents appreciate that the privilege of holding a position of leadership in higher education imposes the responsibility of speaking out on public issues, especially those affecting higher education. Despite the risk of offending one or another of their many constituencies, many dearly want to seize opportunities to venture onto the public stage and conscientiously advance their views for public consideration.

But they also appreciate the virtual impossibility of doing so wisely and deliberatively when the time available for reflection and reading is demonstrably inadequate to the responsibility. They recognize that they are academic leaders, and therefore men and women from whom meticulous standards of argument are expected; they are not elected officials who may be excused for substituting righteous indignation and superficial generalizations for reason and measured analysis.

In a culture already too greatly dominated by a rhetoric of slogans and sound bites, college presidents ought to represent different values. They ought to remind us of the essential nature of idealism. They ought to stand firm against the corrosive forces of a market culture. They ought to use their professional stature to bring fresh and independent insights to the unhurried consideration of large questions of public policy.

If college presidents are to take a larger role in making thoughtful contributions to that discourse, what they will need most is time--time to read, time to reflect, time to ruminate, time to test their thoughts by the discipline of writing. These activities cannot be crammed into odd moments between attendance at fundraising dinners in distant cities, cultivation calls upon affluent alumni, athletic contests, festival rites, ceremonial duties, and other nonacademic activities that disproportionately command a president's calendar and conduce to a short attention span.

A case can be made that a president's attendance at such events carries an essential symbolic significance, and so it does. But those who press these institutional demands on their present scale fail to appreciate sufficiently that the quality of presidential leadership and the power of presidential pronouncements may carry even greater significance, and that these would be strengthened if presidents were able to arrange their schedules to claim fuller, more extended opportunities to simply think and write about significant subjects.

My training as a lawyer inevitably leads me to draw a comparison to Supreme Court justices, who are often criticized for the intellectual deficiencies of their written opinions. In a famous article published in 1959, Harvard Law School professor Henry L. Hart argued that the cause of those deficiencies was that the justices did not have sufficient time for the "maturing of collective thought." Hart encouraged the justices to reduce their workload so that they could devote more time to developing and articulating the rationale for their decisions. What goes for Supreme Court justices goes for college presidents as well. (It is interesting to note, 40 years later, that the Court has in the last five to six years slowly reduced the number of cases it accepts for decision annually from approximately 160 to 175 to approximately 90 to 100.)

It is, of course, more difficult for college presidents than it is for Supreme Court justices unilaterally to reduce the range of their activities. But it is well to ask whether structural solutions are possible. An increasing number of museums of art have devised organizational arrangements in which the president is, in effect, the chief fundraiser, while the director is the chief art historian and curator. British universities have separated the ceremonial role of head of state, who is the chancellor, from that of the chief educational officer, who is the vice-chancellor; typically, the chancellor is a public figure--like the Duke of Edinburgh at Cambridge University or Lord Jenkins at Oxford--while the vice-chancellor is chosen from the university's academic ranks.

In a world addicted to instant analysis and fast-paced rhetorical responses, the disciplined insights and deliberative approaches that college presidents might bring to public discussion are hardly democratic luxuries. And so my conclusion is a simple one. If college presidents are to be effective intellectuals, participating in national policy debates in a visible way, they must be permitted to carve out more time to read and think and reflect. They must be permitted to liberate themselves from a multitude of tasks only tangentially related to the central goals of higher education.

Indeed, the participation of college presidents in public life would serve to underscore that society means the positions they hold to embrace intellectual leadership. Unless we enable such participation, we could well end up selecting presidents from a class distinguished more by its managerial competence and fundraising skills than by its academic and intellectual distinction. As Lord Jenkins has written, "It is not desirable that fundraising ability, which while highly useful is not the highest of intellectual arts, should become the major qualification of high academic office."

Would the quality of democratic discourse be enriched by an enlarged participation of college presidents? Although their contributions might not be notably wiser than those of other public figures, they are hardly likely to be less wise, and they would be made from a perspective--higher education--that goes to the heart of the nation's future. Moreover, a greater freedom to address the American public just might make college presidencies more satisfying and attractive, and therefore more stable.

James O. Freedman '57 served as dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School from 1979 to 1982 and as president of the University of Iowa from 1982 to 1987. He is the author of Idealism and Liberal Education, which he wrote--following his own precepts--during his tenure as president of Dartmouth College from 1987 to 1998.

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