Compelling Higher Ed Leadership Voices 2018

Julie and I carefully monitor trends in higher education media coverage, and we continue to be impressed with the way in which college and university leaders use their bully pulpits to address not only institutional and sector challenges but also issues of deep societal concern — in their own strong and authentic voices.

The last few years have seen a growing number of presidents and chancellors speak out forcefully across an ever-wider array of media outlets and channels, using everything from their own institutional statements, tweets and blogs, to media interviews and self-authored opinion pieces.

Whether they are standing up for principles they believe in deeply or personally apologizing when something has gone terribly wrong, here are some higher education leadership voices we think stood out in 2018.

Speaking out on national and world events

 Amy Gutmann, University of Pennsylvania: For Democracy to Flourish, We Must Fight the Assault on Free Press

In this op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Gutmann weighed in on impact of a “free and robust press under assault”:

“I am a moral and political philosopher and an educator, by passion as well as profession. I have devoted my life’s work to better understanding — and strengthening — the groundwork of both American democracy and education. For any democracy to survive and flourish, no single principle is more fundamental than the free and robust exchange of ideas — especially when we disagree… This is not just a university issue, this is a universal issue.”

Michael Roth, Wesleyan University: When I Heard the News about Pittsburgh

After a gunman killed 11 people at a Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, Roth responded in the Washington Post with a deeply personal reflection of studying the Hebrew bible at his shul:

“Throughout these chapters of Genesis, we are asked to consider the relation of hospitality and foreignness, of moral codes and the wilderness. Who can one count on, and whom should one be afraid of?”

L. Rafael Reif, Massachussets Institute of Technology: China’s Challenge is America’s Opportunity

In a compelling piece for the New York Times, Reif argued that America’s defensive-only posture toward trade policies with China are not enough to put America in a long-term technological leadership position:

“As a nation, the United States needs to change its focus from merely reacting to China’s actions to building a farsighted national strategy for sustaining American leadership in science and innovation. If all we do in response to China’s ambition is to try to double-lock all our doors, I believe we will lock ourselves into mediocrity. But if we in the United States respect China as a rising competitor with many strengths we can learn from, that view will inspire America to be its incomparable best.”

Ana Mari Cauce, The University of Washington: Separating Children from their Families is Cruel: The Evidence is Clear.

 Speaking as a trained child clinical psychologist, Cauce cited decades of research about the trauma induced as a consequence of parent-child separation. In a presidential statement, she called on the country’s leaders to stop the practice of separating children from their asylum-seeking parents at the border:

“This cruel and inhumane new standard policy of enforcement at our borders should be swiftly rescinded or legislatively corrected. And I urge our lawmakers to pass legislation preventing this cruel practice from ever happening to children and families again. As educators, our obligations are to the future, and there is no question that if we allow this practice to continue, we will find ourselves on the wrong side of history. The time to speak and act is now.”

John Hurley, Canisius College: Letter on the Catholic Church clergy abuse scandal

In a strongly worded letter to the Jesuit college campus and its alumni, Hurley spoke out against the Catholic Church’s handling of the clergy abuse scandal and its marginalization of women. He called for transparency and vigilance, justice and care.

“It is clear that the path forward for the Church must include women in real, significant and substantial positions of leadership…Fully repairing the pain that so many have endured may never be possible, but we must continuously love, comfort and protect the students, faculty, staff and alumni of Canisius, resolve to seek justice, and care for one another, especially the oppressed, and victims of abuse and neglect.”

Mary Sue Coleman, Association of American Universities: International Talent is Vital to America’s Science and Technology Leadership Role

Coleman, representing the leading research universities in the country, used her blog to highlight examples of substantial scientific discovery and technological advances driven by international researchers on AAU campuses.

“This exchange is a good thing, a very good thing... It is critical that U.S. lawmakers enact policies that continue to attract and embrace the best and brightest from around the world. The long-term viability of our unique government-university research partnership and its future contributions to our nation’s prosperity and security depend on it.”

Discussing higher education challenges, issues and opportunities

Ronald Crutcher, University of Richmond: Defending the “Right to Be Here” on Campus

Writing an opinion piece in the Hechinger Report, Crutcher modeled civil discourse and the importance of diversity of viewpoint as he described a speaker series presenting competing views that, in the course of the year, included both journalist Jose Antonio Vargas and political strategist Karl Rove.

“Anyone with a voice and an opinion can shout down a speaker. But listening requires patience, empathy and intellect — the building blocks of civility. If we hope to compromise, we need both sides of each argument to find common ground, and to respect the diversity of perspectives and backgrounds that color these opinions.”

Eric Barron, Penn State University, and Jim Piazza: After a Fraternity Death, a Grieving Father and Penn State’s President Call for National Action

In a powerful and unusual co-authored op-ed for the Washington Post, Barron teamed with a parent after Piazza’s son died due to fraternity hazing.

“One more name connected to one more hazing tragedy is one too many. There must be an end to the senseless deaths occurring in fraternities across America. The memory of Timothy Piazza — and far too many others — deserves nothing less. And that’s why we’re calling for the creation of a national database to put a spotlight on what’s really happening inside many Greek-letter organizations.”

Nancy Cantor, Rutgers University-Newark, and Gordon Gee, West Virginia University: How Colleges Must Collaborate to Lift Up the Communities Just Outside their Door

 Cantor and Gee wrote together for The Conversation U.S., a platform we especially like for its thoughtful topics and wide reach into mainstream media.

From Nancy Cantor: “Our university’s motto is that we are not just ‘in Newark but of Newark,’ which is why this next data point hits home particularly hard. Despite having six institutions of higher education in or bordering the city, only 17 percent of Newark residents have post-secondary degrees. What we as a university should do to change the map of access and opportunity is not a rhetorical question.”

Eloy Ortiz Oakley, California Community Colleges:  We Serve the Top 100 Percent’: California Community College Chief Responds to Trump

Ortiz Oakley sat down with Washington Post editor Nick Anderson to discuss the role of community colleges in the national higher education landscape. He responded to criticism by President Trump with a set of powerful facts and sharp messages.

“First and foremost, reminding our policymakers and leaders in D.C. that what happens here affects millions of Americans…If people are serious about working to rebuild the middle class, you cannot do that without community colleges.” 

Seth Bodnar, University of Montana: Response Regarding a Controversial Speaker

Many university leaders across the country have written to their communities in advance of controversial speakers. In a campus message, Bodnar addressed the tension between the core principles of free speech and inclusion:

“The solution to this tension, however, does not lie in censorship. Once we begin to pick and choose on the basis of which speech may occur, we open the gates to having our own voices silenced — yours, mine, and all those who do not voice majority opinions. Allowing someone to speak on our campus is not an endorsement of his or her views, nor do we condone speech that is hateful or targets people based on their identities. What a speaker says may define him or her, but it does not define us. It is possible for us to stand firmly in support of free speech while also standing firm in our values.”

Kent Fuchs, University of Florida: A Personal Apology

When a university official rushed students off the stage and physically restrained them as they approached to receive their diplomas during a commencement ceremony, many campus leaders were watching nearby – including the president. Fuchs issued a rare video apology in which he detailed what happened in an upfront manner, apologized personally, and outlined steps that the University would take moving forward.

“We failed. The University of Florida and I failed…and I am communicating with you to apologize personally, and secondly to apologize on behalf of the University of Florida.”

Greg Fenves, University of Texas at Austin: Today’s Trial Verdict

Fenves sent a touching and sensitive university-wide message the day a trial verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity was issued after the murder of a student on campus.

“May 1, 2017, was one of the darkest days in the history of our university. Four students were attacked without reason in the middle of the afternoon. Three of them bravely battled back from their injuries to return to UT, but they lost the sense of safety and well-being that should be the foundation of the college experience. And the Browns lost a beloved son and brother — the energetic heartbeat at the center of their family in Graham, Texas. There is no greater tragedy.

“When I think back on that day, I am filled with sadness. But I also remember the outpouring of compassion that came afterward. And it was inspired by Harrison. The memories his family and friends had of him. His sincerity. His singing. The lives he touched. The legacy of kindness he left behind.”

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