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Panel: University Presidents Discuss When to Make Statements and Speak Out on Current Affairs

There is no one definitive way to determine when presidents of higher ed institutions should speak out, though there are good general guidelines to follow, according to four university presidents during a panel discussion hosted by think tank Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC).Dr. Ana Mari CauceDr. Ana Mari CauceUniversity of Washington

During Thursday's virtual panel, Politics, Institutional Speech, and the College Campus, several university leaders spoke about their own experiences with making statements amid tense situations and how best to decide when they should weigh in.

"The office of the president has the unique power to embody the mission and values of their school,” said discussion moderator Dr. Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, director of BPC’s Campus Free Expression Project. “When a president speaks, it has particular resonance for the entire campus community and even the wider public."

Higher ed presidents should be “judicious” and “cognizant” in choosing when and which situations to make statements in, the panelists said. That way, the statements that end up being made are taken more seriously instead of being “watered down.”

And it helps to know what to consider when making the decision to speak up. Factors may include whether the situation at hand affects the campus community and whether it will severely impact campus operations, said panelist Dr. Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington.

"I want to be clear. I think that, no matter how specific you are, that there is an art involved,” Cauce said. “But I do think it helps. During a crisis is not the time to be trying to figure these things out."

One example of being prepared for such situations is DePauw University President Dr. Lori S. White’s presidential messages protocol, which helps inform community members on when they can expect her to say something on a matter.

Presidents should use their voices to help care for their communities, which may take the form of public statements or internal communications, said White, who appeared on the panel.

“It's common for me to send notes to students, faculty, and staff if we have a student or beloved faculty member who’s passed away, or even with respect to a current affair that we know is affecting our community,” said panelist Dr. Jonathan J. Sanford, president of University of Dallas. “As a faith-based institution, I can do so in the context of expressions of prayer and support. But that's different than an external statement."

Sanford said he believed that the work of a university is “fundamentally non-political,” and that university presidents should resist temptations to comment on current affairs.

It is not uncommon for presidents to be called on to make statements during stressful times, the presidents said. And there are cases that prove to be exceptions to staying silent, so being flexible is valuable, said panelist Jonathan R. Alger, president of James Madison University.

Exceptions might come up because the topic has to do with concrete facts, such as climate change, Cauce said.

"I do think that we are fact-based organizations,” Cauce said. “And the overwhelming evidence is that there is some human role in climate change. ... We have to use those facts to inform policy.”

Exceptions might also arise because the relevant case may involve a current or former student, such as in the case of the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict and UW graduate Dr. Hayim Katsman, who was “reportedly killed by Hamas gunmen in Kibbutz Holit where he lived,” according to an Oct. 9 statement from Cauce.

"The fact that one speaks out against what was very frankly a very brutal terrorist attack did not feel to me like it was making a political stance in terms of a very long, complicated history that was there,” Cauce said, adding that it was important to be aware of the intergenerational trauma people are bringing to this ongoing crisis situation.

But even when Cauce did make that statement, she received criticism from both sides, she said.

“One principle we have to apply here is we know we can't make everybody happy in these circumstances. That can't be the goal,” Alger said. “Having said that, in this case, this was a major international event. ... The whole idea of terrorism and violence, I think, is antithetical to our educational mission and when we talk about how we solve problems: with debate and civil discourse. I think that's a pretty clear line that can be drawn without being political or partisan in an instance like this."

Alger added that it was important to have accurate and complete facts on a matter, particularly in the current digital age, and that presidential statements should be accompanied with available campus resources or action plans to avoid making the words seem hollow.

Sanford advocated for presidential comments that highlighted or reaffirmed principles to help guide reflection in the campus community, much like in a classroom.

White cited as one of her inspirations the late Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame and famed civil rights activist.

"One of my presidential role models is Father Ted from the University of Notre Dame, who if you will remember, thought it was important to speak out, during the Civil Rights Movement in particular, to use his platform as president of the major Catholic university in the country,” White said. “In my communication protocol, it talks about [how] there are moments when presidents should be using their voices to speak out about issues of importance of the day."

It is unreasonable to expect students – new to campus and from potentially segregated background – to already know how to engage in civil discourse, White said.

"I think most of our students come to our institutions from neighborhoods that are segregated by color, religious tradition, economics, political persuasion,” White said. “And so, to expect young people coming from these homogenous environments to figure out on the first day of their freshman year how to engage in dialogue across difference is really expecting a lot.”

She added:  "Our responsibility is to create an educational experience that really results in teaching our students and giving them the tools to engage in these really difficult conversations in an environment where there are not great role models externally."

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