Why College Presidents Don’t Speak Their Minds


In January 2017, just days after the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump, the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville, Ark., announced a new social-media campaign “to celebrate its legacy of being a university that embraces inclusion, equality and justice.”

Richard L. Dunsworth, the president at the university, promoted the hashtag #AllAreWelcomeHere on social media and encouraged staff to do the same. The message was not unusual for the private university, which has a long history of encouraging diversity. It was the first college in Arkansas to admit women, in 1875. Nearly half of current students are from low-income families, and around 30 percent are international.

But within 24 hours, Dunsworth said, he received about two dozen angry emails from across the state telling him he shouldn’t be running a college, “split fairly evenly between people known to me and people who didn’t know me or the University well enough to understand any context,” he said in an email. “Our efforts to support and reassure our students from diverse backgrounds” was perceived as “political, even anti-American,” he told The Chronicle.

Dunsworth is one of more than 150 college presidents who responded to a Chronicle survey on whether campus leaders censor themselves from speaking out on issues that might cause controversy. Respondents were also allowed to comment confidentially; nearly 20 of them, including Dunsworth, also agreed to talk with a reporter.

Now, the president of Ozarks said he is reluctant to post on social media. In conversation, he filters his reactions to things that may lead to disagreements. Instead of taking public stands on important issues, Dunsworth and others say they primarily focus on internal initiatives that reflect their values.

“The political landscape has changed, things are more didactic and divisive, so I’m less likely to take a position on a topic that doesn’t have direct bearing on the institution,” he said.

Dunsworth’s experience, and his reaction, have become common features of the college presidency: Even a seemingly benign statement by a president can unleash a torrent of criticism from alumni, elected officials, faculty, students, members of the governing board, or the public at large.

More than 80 percent of presidents chose national politics as one of eight topics that would cause them to self-censor their public remarks to avoid creating a controversy for themselves or their colleges (respondents could choose as many topics as necessary). Two-thirds of respondents chose state politics. Many also said they self-censor on topics that colleges have often identified as central to their mission and values, such as diversity, equity, and inclusion; gender and sexual identity; and racial justice.

In all, presidents find themselves caught between the competing and sometimes contradictory demands of various constituents, damned if they speak out, damned if they don’t. The difficulty extends to both public and private colleges, rural and urban, faith based and secular. As a result, many college presidents say they have become more cautious about when, why, and how they communicate.

Dunsworth, for his part, blames the “pressure cooker that’s generated by social media and the 24-hour news cycle.”

“It was challenging to choose just ONE reason why I feel I must censor my remarks about these topics,” wrote one president in the confidential comments. “My current students, current employees, alumni, donors, members of the immediate community, governing board members, local, state and national elected officials all contain groups of people who would be offended if I shared my authentic thoughts.”

Offended constituents are not all that is at stake, the same president explained: “It would certainly cause both reputational damage to the institution, to our system and to higher ed in general. It would also impact the funding allocations to our institution.”

Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, president of Oakland University, a public regional institution outside Detroit, said she is not afraid of speaking out on significant issues, but the fear of backlash adds to the financial uncertainty that many colleges are now facing. “It’s a scary time to be a president,” said Pescovitz. “All of us are facing declining enrollment. Any attack makes life unpleasant and uncomfortable, and that makes it challenging to speak your mind.”

Despite the power they wield on their campuses, presidents occupy a unique — and uniquely vulnerable — position, said Sondra N. Barringer, assistant professor of higher-education policy at Southern Methodist University and an expert in higher-education governance. Presidents are both the managers of campus operations and the point of contact for key constituents, such as alumni, athletics boosters, faculty and student leaders, the governing board, and elected officials.

This makes them an easy target for critics.

According to the survey, presidents most often expect criticism from lawmakers. When asked “which group of people is most likely to respond negatively if you were to publicly take a position,” presidents pointed to elected officials for all but one of eight possible topics — state and national politics, but also Covid-19 policy; diversity, equity, and inclusion; free speech; gender and sexual identity; and racial justice. Only academic freedom was deemed relatively safe.

Over the past decade, Republican state lawmakers, in particular, have taken a more adversarial stance toward higher education. As president, Trump pushed measures that restricted international students from enrolling and threatened to remove federal student-aid eligibility for colleges that didn’t adhere to certain free-speech standards. More recently, conservative lawmakers have sought to limit how colleges and universities train employees on diversity and inclusion and restrict what faculty members teach about race.

“As if the job wasn’t hard enough, now the Republican Party is making it impossible to have open dialogues in the university,” a president of a small, private college in the Midwest wrote in the survey’s comments section. “It is all based on not knowing what is really going on in colleges, and anecdotal evidence.”

Next to politicians, alumni are the group that presidents worry about most. “They have a fond memory for what their institution was, but the institution keeps changing,” said Bryon L. Grigsby, president of Moravian University in Pennsylvania. Grigsby is also an alumnus, so he understands that tendency, but also knows that Moravian “can’t keep doing what it did from 1986 to 1990 when I was a student.” People also tend to become more conservative as they get older, Grigsby added. “No one likes change, and they want this to be a place that doesn’t change.”

Faculty are the group respondents most expect to respond negatively to public statements on academic freedom, according to the survey results, and finish just behind politicians on the topics of Covid-19 policy and free speech.

Comments from some presidents suggest that the intensity of faculty responses stand out. “Faculty are often more aggressive than the public, media, or the legislature,” one president wrote in the comments section. “They are willing to throw their institutions to the wolves over issues of personal conviction rather than allow the institution to navigate sensitive issues quietly as we protect the institution as a whole.”

One thing presidents do not appear worried about is that their comments will cost them donations. “In my experience, the people who play the I’m-not-giving-anymore card aren’t giving anyway,” said Walter M. Kimbrough, previously president at Dillard University in New Orleans. “I’m petty enough to check,” said Kimbrough, who was recently named an executive in residence at the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center. “If a serious donor has a concern, they’ll approach it a different way.”

How do presidents manage the challenge of speaking out? Several of them describe saying less and saying it more cautiously to preserve the authority of their position or avoid being drawn into partisan political fights.

“There is always pressure for ‘the institution’ to respond to political or social events,” Brian Lenzmeier, president of Buena Vista University, in Iowa, wrote in the comments section of the survey. “Presidents could spend all day every day writing institutional responses to events, but once you start, where do you draw a line?”

“Taking positions on social and political events, during this time of great political divisiveness, reduces a president’s ability to do the work that needs to be done right now,” Lenzmeier continued, “which is to show humility and empathy around these topics, and to bring people from differing sides together to broker productive conversations, the type of conversations that lead to greater understanding and helps to find common ground.”

Caution about a president speaking on social and political issues has become an important facet of managing a college’s reputation. Teresa Valerio Parrot, a communications professional, said that presidents need to be strategic about when and how they speak publicly, evaluating where the pressure is coming from. “Presidents are inundated with requests from small groups to weigh in,” she said, and they need to ask, “Is this a sample size that really needs to be responded to?”

For many presidents, weighing in on any topic comes with the danger of being seen as taking a political stance.

“It’s a dangerous situation for the president to become political or to be perceived as political,” said Margaret H. Venable, president of Dalton State College in Georgia. “If I make a public statement that I like cats better than dogs, that creates unhappiness with the institution.”

Venable said she has personal and professional values that she is willing to stand up for, such as free speech and academic freedom. But because Dalton State is a public college, she can’t afford to tick off state officials who appropriate money. So she avoids weighing in even on some state laws that affect her campus, such as a 2017 Georgia law that allowed concealed carry of firearms on public college campuses.

“We are funded by the state legislature, so why would I refuse to cooperate with any of these people?” she said, “My job is to win friends and influence people. It’s crazy to think I would pick and choose who I would be nice to based on their political views.”

Some issues, though, become controversial no matter what position the president takes.

“Some of the strongest responses have come in response to Covid,” said Pescovitz, who is also a medical doctor and pressed for Oakland University to adopt a vaccine mandate despite pushback from some parents and state legislators. “Factual information is being presented, but people respond in a partisan way,” she said.

Some presidents stress that although they may avoid taking public stands, they are trying to do more to address issues on campus, especially for minority or disadvantaged groups.

“Actions speak louder than words,” said Lenzmeier at Buena Vista. For example, the college did not issue a statement denouncing the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Lenzmeier said, but added personnel and programs to the institution’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion. Lenzmeier also spoke with concerned individuals on campus about what the college needed. Those measures “mostly satisfied” people who wanted a public statement, he said.

The University of the Ozarks took a similar approach after Floyd’s murder. Dunsworth, the president, held small meetings for students and others to share their thoughts and experiences. That effort seemed to satisfy his campus, Dunsworth said, but he has continued to reflect on his own silence after students questioned why he hadn’t posted anything on social media.

“Students are watching,” Dunsworth said. “What I say as a university president matters to my students, and I can’t shy away from espousing the values of the institution even though they may cause some controversy.”

The trade-off Dunsworth and other presidents have to consider is whether avoiding a short-term controversy risks alienating students and faculty and others on campus.

Robert T. Palmer, chair and professor in educational leadership and policy studies at Howard University, notes that silence on racial issues may prevent backlash from politicians or others outside the institution, but it sends a message of indifference to students of color.

“I’m troubled,” Palmer said. “We expect students to get an education, but what kind of examples are college leaders setting?” Presidents who tell students they support diversity and inclusion are “hypocritical,” he said, if they don’t have the courage to speak out and raise awareness to the public at large.

Alex C. Lange, assistant professor of higher-education leadership at Colorado State University, said that remaining silent on culture-war issues may keep presidents out of the spotlight, but it also bolsters those who want to undermine inclusion of LGBTQ students and staff.

Extra programs and resources are good, but without a clear statement supporting the LGBTQ community, people wonder how strong support is for those efforts, said Lange. “The message is the floor of support. Without that floor, why would faculty and students believe those programs have any weight or meaning?”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that there is no constitutional right to abortion has provided something of a real-time case study on whether and how presidents speak on important matters. At least one of the presidents interviewed by The Chronicle has issued a public statement responding to the court’s decision.

“Access to equitable and quality reproductive healthcare must be at the heart of our national discussion in the aftermath of today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision,” said a prepared statement from Pescovitz at Oakland University and Duane Mezwa, dean of Oakland’s medical school. The statement included support for the position of the Association of American Medical Colleges, which “strongly opposed” the court’s decision.

Several other presidents indicated they are still wrestling over whether to issue a statement. The summer, with many students and faculty away from campus, has given leaders time to consider speaking out.

At Greensboro College, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, President Lawrence D. Czarda has released statements on other potentially controversial issues, including affirming the college’s commitment to diversity following the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage and ordaining LGBTQ clergy. But Czarda said he does not intend to speak out on the Supreme Court’s ruling, though it “affects every woman here and many men.”

Czarda said the difference in this case is that although the court’s ruling affects the students at Greensboro, it doesn’t necessarily affect the institution. “This is a pure, subjective judgment,” Czarda said about his decision, and because it is summer, he is not feeling pressure from faculty or students to make a statement now.

Ali R. Malekzadeh, president of Roosevelt University in Chicago, said his institution is dedicated to social justice and has been quick to weigh in on issues of race. But the question of abortion rights requires caution, he said, though more than 60 percent of Roosevelt’s undergraduates are women.

“The George Floyd death was so stark that the entire nation recognized it,” he said. But the court’s decision on Dobbs is too new, Malekzadeh told a reporter in late June, and “presidents have to be thoughtful.” The following day, however, Malekzadeh issued a statement in which the university acknowledged “that reproductive freedom is vital, including in some cases for access to higher education.”

Even as they recognize the dilemma, some presidents worry that by constraining their own speech, they are contributing to their own diminished standing and perhaps even undermining the reputation of higher education broadly.

The court’s ruling in Dobbs was a “seismic shift,” said Reggies Wenyika, president of Ottawa University’s campus in Ottawa, Kan., but it’s unlikely he will take a stance. “In the past, some college presidents would come out and write an op-ed to give a calm perspective” on social issues, Wenyika said. But “the college president is somewhat weakened from the president of 20 or 30 years ago,” he added. “Now you have to make sure you don’t ruffle feathers no matter what you feel or what your conscience is dictating.”


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