In the Crosshairs or On the Mark?

February 15, 2013

This morning’s Inside Higher Ed has a piece on the heat being put on some college and universities presidents for failing to sign a letter to President Obama in support of stronger gun control legislation. The initiative for such a letter came from Lee Pelton, President of Emerson College in Boston.

Signing such a letter may seem like a no-brainer to some, but I want to make the case against signing it. The text of the letter is here.

I remember seeing the text of the letter and the request to presidents to sign it wink up on my e-mail on December 17, shortly after the Newtown shootings. And I remember thinking uh-oh; I don’t think this is such a good idea.

Why not? Because colleges and universities have to be places of broad-ranging, spirited, reasoned debate. When colleges and universities take stands on public policy issues, they move away from their mission to support honest truth-seeking and become platforms for advocacy. And that is a role they should rarely play.

If presidents of colleges and universities should sign this letter, why shouldn’t they sign a letter calling for aiding the Syrian rebels? For increasing the minimum wage? for enacting universal pre-school? for opposing Chuck Hagel’s nomination? for bombing Iran? for supporting the BDS campaign against Israel? Etc.

While I was president of Earlham, students would regularly seek Earlham support for one or another policy position about which they had passionate beliefs. I refused the imprimatur of the institution while encouraging them to give their own best efforts to the issue they cared about. That is a stance I believe presidents should take consistently, across nearly the whole range of public policy issues.

Why do I say “nearly” and earlier “rarely”? Because I think it is appropriate for college and university presidents to speak out on public policy issues that address the core mission functioning of colleges and universities. They should be policy advocates for the conditions that allow institutions of higher education to thrive. They should especially speak out against measures that would injure higher education.

I could imagine signing a president gun-related letter that spoke to keeping guns off of college and university campuses. But this letter is much, much broader. I don’t think presidents should sign it.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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