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Prepared Remarks for Southern University Conference: "President as Public Intellectual and Personal Role Model"

April 9, 2016

The theme for this annual meeting is “Rekindling the Promise and Purpose of the Presidency.” For all of the hard-working presidents and chancellors gathered this weekend, this theme can serve as an inspirational rallying cry.

But to say that the university presidency needs “rekindling” is to imply something else — that some of the fire may have gone out of higher education leadership in America.

Is this true? And if it is true, what could be the cause?

The presidency may have lost some of its fire because we’ve lost some of the ground that university presidents used to hold in an earlier era — an era when presidents in higher education served as the nation’s most highly regarded public intellectuals and revered thought-leaders.

Several presidents of a bygone time — I’m thinking of the early to mid-20th century — stepped boldly onto the public stage and used their positions of prominence to speak out on the critical and often controversial issues of the day. College presidents today have mostly surrendered this ground to politicians, corporate titans, TV pundits, and other media celebrities.

When we accept the top leadership position in higher education, we are making several promises: A promise to serve our institutions to the best of our ability … A promise to be engaged with the governing boards to whom we answer … A promise of support to our faculty and staff … A promise to our students and their parents to provide an excellent education …

I believe we also make another promise: to be exemplars of critical thinking and reasoned debate, and to take action when we see wrongs that need to be righted.

This evening I’ll talk about how we can keep those promises, even as we carry out the increasingly complex duties that demand so much time and energy of presidents in our era.

President as Public Intellectual

I’m not the first university president — and I won’t be the last — to comment on this topic. Shortly after he left the presidency of Dartmouth in 1998, James Freedman wrote an article in Harvard Magazine titled “Getting College Presidents Back on the Public Stage.”   He opened with an excerpt from the New York Times that featured the following lament:

“A generation ago ... college and university presidents cut striking figures on the public stage. 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.”

While invoking the outspoken leaders of a bygone era, Freedman pointed to presidents such as Nicholas Murray Butler, who led Columbia from 1902 to 1945. Butler advised U.S. Presidents Roosevelt, Taft, and Harding; spoke out on foreign affairs and domestic issues; actively pushed for the repeal of Prohibition; and won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

And there was Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1945, who testified before Congress against universal military service and spoke out in favor of loosening security restrictions on atomic research. President Hutchins regularly gave national radio talks, with Americans across the country tuning in, and he delivered nearly 800 public addresses in his time.

Hutchins was bold in taking public stances on controversial issues — too bold for some of his critics. He described himself as the “worst kind of troublemaker, the man who insists upon asking about first principles.”

In one famous example, he declared that there are only two ways for a university to be great. “It must either have a great football team,” he said, “or a great president.” Having issued this declaration, he abolished the University of Chicago’s football program, leaving himself as the only avatar of greatness at Chicago.

Presidents like Butler and Hutchins were not always “politically correct,” but they were more than willing to use their positions of leadership as bully pulpits.

Later in the 20th century, other university presidents stepped forward to play prominent roles in the public life of our country. I’m thinking of presidents of bold vision and integrity, such as Clark Kerr of California and Reverend Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame.

As many of you may know, Clark Kerr served as the first Chancellor of UC-Berkeley from 1952 to 1958, and as president of the University of California from ’58 to ’67. As president, he conceived the Master Plan for Higher Education that gave California — and many other states — a blueprint for what modern public higher education should look like.

The Master Plan made public higher education in California accessible to more students and outlined the relationships and roles of the UC campuses, California State University, and the state’s system of community colleges. The plan became a model for higher education planning around the world.

Kerr was outspoken in his belief that college education should be available to all students who were academically qualified, regardless of their financial situations. Because of his national leadership on this issue, he is credited with laying the foundation for need-based federal support for students that became the Pell Grant program.

Kerr exhibited strong leadership even before he assumed a top position at his university. During the Cold War, when the University of California’s Board of Regents threatened to fire any professor who refused to sign a loyalty oath, Kerr was a junior member of the Academic Senate Committee on Privilege and Tenure. He stood up to the Board of Regents and argued the case for faculty members who refused to sign the oaths.

In his 1963 book “The Uses of the University,” Kerr laid out a vision for the modern university, or “multiversity,” as he called it. He believed that the 20th-century university had to function as an integrated element of society, not as an Ivory Tower for isolated scholars. This was in many ways a prescient view of higher education’s role in society today, as it now serves as an engine of economic development, a source of job creation, an incubator for public-private partnerships, and so on.

After Kerr’s death in 2003, David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, said: “Every student and every campus leader alive today owes Clark Kerr a great debt of gratitude – for it was his vision and his bold determination that helped create the modern university, and the idea that students from all walks of life should have access to college.” 

Reverend Theodore Hesburgh led Notre Dame for 35 years, pursuing his vision to create what he called a “Catholic Princeton” in Indiana. As he worked to fulfill this vision, he was also an outspoken leader on civil rights and other human rights issues, and U.S. presidents called upon him for his counsel and leadership.

President Eisenhower appointed Father Hesburgh to the Civil Rights Commission when it was launched in 1957, and he held the position for 15 years, fighting against racial discrimination. Later, President Ford appointed him to a board that reviewed clemency proposals for draft dodgers and deserters during the Vietnam War.

In 1987, when Father Hesburgh stepped down from the presidency, Derek C. Bok, who was then president of Harvard, said that Father Hesburgh “succeeded not only in strengthening Notre Dame academically, but in teaching audiences everywhere about the values that matter in our society.”

Years later, Father Hesburgh wrote an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled, “Where are College Presidents’ Voices on Important Public Issues?”  Here is an excerpt:

“Once upon a time, chief executives in higher education talked to the press about military policy in the same breath as the Constitutional amendment for the 18-year-old vote, but I wonder whether we’d hear them taking stands on similar topics now. Where we once had a fellowship of public intellectuals, do we now have insulated chief executives intent on keeping the complicated machinery of American higher education running smoothly?”

The Changing Nature of the University Presidency

By posing that closing question, Father Hesburgh makes an important point, perhaps unintentionally. It’s a point about the changing nature of the university presidency.

Keeping the “complicated machinery of higher education running smoothly,” to use his phrase, has become abundantly more complicated than it was 100 years ago, or even 20 years ago — and more time-consuming, and more fraught with jeopardies and land-mines. The job of being a university president in the 21 st century is qualitatively and quantitatively different than it was in the early or mid-20th century.

When Dartmouth’s James Freedman wrote his article in Harvard Magazine, the increasingly difficult role of the president was on his mind. He pointed to the growing complexity of higher education institutions and the increasing demand for accountability, and the significant amount of time that presidents now spend on fundraising for their institutions. He mentioned the larger number of constituents that presidents must consider in our era — including faculty, students, parents, alumni, legislators, and others — and he noted the high price that presidents can pay if, by speaking out, they offend one or more of those constituent groups.

Before serving as president of Dartmouth, Freedman was president of the University of Iowa, and in his article he spoke about the particular set of protocols that presidents of public universities must follow, as leaders of state agencies.

It’s also true that we do our jobs in a viciously partisan era — an increasingly divisive era, as we are reminded in this election season. If we speak out on public issues from one side of the partisan divide, we risk enraging an entire segment of the population on the other side.

When discussing the absence of university presidents from the public stage, Freedman also pointed to the dwindling average tenure of the university president. Consider the astounding fact that Nicholas Butler, whom I mentioned earlier, was Columbia’s president for 43 years. Robert Hutchins was Chicago’s president for 16 years. My predecessor at UVA, John Casteen, served two full decades in the president’s office.

The marathon presidential tenure is increasingly a thing of the past. A 2012 survey of presidents by the American Council on Education found the average tenure of a college president was seven years, down from 8.5 years in 2006.   Freedman suggests that the relatively brief tenure of the average university president may constrain his or her ability to lead sustained discussions on national issues. There just isn’t enough time in office to become established as a voice of authority on the public stage.

Remember that Freedman wrote these things about the growing complexity of higher education leadership in 1998 — nearly 20 years ago, and those of us who serve in the job today know that the work of the president continues to become more complex and multi-faceted all the time.

In the 2012 survey of presidents that I cited a moment ago, presidents were asked how they spend their time. They said they spent the majority of their time on four things: fundraising, budgeting, community relations, and planning. When asked about the greatest challenges they face, they named relationships with faculty, legislators, and governing boards.

To that list of duties on the president’s to-do list, I would add working on compliance with accrediting agencies and state and federal agencies; creating new global programs to keep pace with today’s global society; keeping an eye on research funding, and wooing corporate partners to make up for lost research funding; anticipating the technology needs of our institutions; working on cost-controls and creating efficiencies; recruiting administrative and faculty personnel, and retaining them when they get recruited elsewhere.

For those of us who oversee universities with medical centers, you can add a whole additional list of duties related to the many safety and compliance issues that come with that territory.

Beyond these everyday duties, as presidents we spend many hours addressing pervasive problems such as the excessive use of alcohol by our students and the dangers that come with that behavior; sexual violence on our campuses, and the legal complexities related to reporting, responding, and adjudication when violence occurs; as well as other thorny issues.

Considering all these demands, when does a 21st-century university president have the time to be a public intellectual? As CEOs working in a 24/7 news cycle, we enter the spotlight mainly for unwelcome reasons now — when trouble or controversy strikes our campuses, and the cameras and microphones suddenly descend on us.

And yet we have a responsibility — a promise — to serve as standard-bearers for rationality, reason, and the old bi-partisan obligation to do the right thing. How can we continue to keep that promise, considering the always-growing demands of the presidency in our century?

President as Adult Role Model

If the demands and complexities of our jobs constrain us from entering the public stage and speaking out on major issues as much as presidents of the past century did, I believe we can still serve as exemplars simply by serving as adult role models — by leading by example with our deeds.

I will give you one example that’s relatively inconsequential, and another that’s enormously consequential.

At UVA, the president’s house and the president’s office are separated by a busy road that leads to our main Grounds and classroom buildings. Every weekday during the academic year, thousands of students walk up and down the sidewalk along this road, getting to and from their classes. I frequently cross the road on foot, often several times a day, getting back and forth between my house and my office.

There’s a crosswalk and a pedestrian signal at the intersection where I cross paths with the students, but it’s tempting just to jaywalk across that road, rather than patiently waiting for the right-of-way and using the crosswalk.

Jaywalking is illegal, however, and I don’t want thousands of UVA students to see their university president breaking the law right in front of their eyes … so I go to the crosswalk, and stand there, and I wait.

This may seem trivial, but setting a good example matters, even when you’re setting an example for something as pedestrian —pardon the pun — as crossing the street.

Now let’s turn to a more consequential example. This is the Southern University Conference; we lead universities all over the southern United States, some of them established prior to Emancipation. Many other colleges and universities across the country were founded in the era of slavery, and many relied on slave labor for construction and other work in their early days — including the University of Virginia.

Enslaved African-Americans helped to build UVA’s original buildings and served in various capacities for its first 50 years of existence. Rather than white-washing this painful part of UVA’s history, we are confronting it. Three years ago, I formed a President’s Commission on Slavery to explore UVA’s historical relationship with slavery. In one recent measure, we named a new dormitory in honor of a married couple who were enslaved at UVA and, after they were emancipated, became leaders in the African-American community.

We also established the consortium “Universities Studying Slavery”  to support collaborative research on the history of slavery at colleges and universities. The second annual meeting of this group was held just yesterday at Washington and Lee University. So far, the consortium includes mostly schools in Virginia; however, the University of South Carolina and Clemson University joined this year.

I know that many of you, and many of our peers across the country, are taking similar steps to acknowledge elements of history that may be difficult to confront. Our task as leaders is to study this history with scrutiny and impartiality, and to give an account as a lesson for current and future generations.

In the process, we are serving as role models. We hope that our students will learn from our example — that they will learn to engage with difficult topics in respectful, civil, and analytic ways, not glossing over the discomfort they may feel, but not letting it derail their conversations either.

In this kind of leadership work, we may not stand on a public stage and shout through a megaphone. We may not give national radio addresses, as Robert Hutchins did many years ago. But by quietly confronting difficult issues head-on and working to effect meaningful change, we send a clear message about doing the right thing, and we set an example that students and others can follow.

Clifton Wharton as Role Model

When I think of university presidents who have served as role models, I think of Clifton Wharton, who became the first African-American president of a major, Research 1 university when he was elected president of Michigan State in 1970.

This appointment came during a period of student protests against the escalating war in Vietnam. When the U.S. military invaded Cambodia in April 1970, Wharton addressed a group of angry student protesters, and offered personally to carry their petitions against the war to Michigan’s congressional delegation in Washington, D.C.

He took a major stand on that issue … but it was a personal gesture by Dr. Wharton that has stayed with me over the years. I was an undergraduate student at Michigan State when he was president, and he invited me — a white student who had grown up in the still-largely segregated South of Little Rock, Arkansas and Jackson, Mississippi — to serve as an intern in his office.

When I was young, Cliff Wharton set a strong example of uncompromising, ethical leadership for me — and how to be generous in offering opportunities to others — and he became a life-long role model, mentor, and friend. Still today, I look to him as a model of what a strong university president and a wise leader should be. In fact, next month, Dr. Wharton is coming to Charlottesville to join me for a discussion about the value of mentorship for an audience of leaders at UVA.

Closing – Models for Future Leaders

Fellow presidents and chancellors: when we walk across our campuses today, with our students streaming around us, it’s exciting to ask ourselves: Who will these young people become?

Which one of these students rushing to class today, backpack in tow and earbuds plugged-in, is a future Secretary of State, or a governor or senator?

Which ones will become Fortune 500 CEOs, or prominent civic leaders? Which ones will assume positions of great power and authority, exerting influence over thousands of people?

We can even wonder, as perhaps Cliff Wharton did: Which one could become a university president herself someday?

Because we don’t know the answers to these questions, our responsibility — our promise — is to set a strong example and to be a model of leadership that they will choose to emulate … because the students who observe our actions today will become leaders in their own right tomorrow.

If we keep that promise, we are indeed rekindling the purpose of the presidency in a vital way. Thank you.