When is the right time for college presidents to speak the truth?
The “bully pulpit” affords college and university presidents a unique platform to teach and to lead … and more often than not, an opportunity to tout the merits of their institutions. But that dais is also the place where they can speak the truth on topics that affect their campuses and issues that impact the nation—if they dare.
The past two years have highlighted just how delicate the balancing act can be of grabbing a microphone or posting on social media about fact vs. fiction, polarized political ideologies, the COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice or bans on free speech. Joey King paid a deep price to speak about hate that he said exists outside the walls of Lyon College in Arkansas. He resigned last August.
“What I had to say about protecting diversity and inclusion in an age of political extremism and white supremacy, particularly in areas like the Ozarks and Appalachia, where I’ve worked for the past six or seven years, I stand behind those comments,” King said during a panel session on Speaking the Truth at the American Association of Colleges & Universities’ annual meeting. “I don’t think it always ends the way it ended with me. Presidents can bend, but there are times when they have to break. We have to take positions that are unpopular.”
Three other current presidents—Wayne Frederick at Howard University, Eduardo Ochoa at the California State University at Monterey Bay and Patricia McGuire at Trinity Washington University—all have had to deal with crisis moments and potential backlash during the past two charged years in America. At various times, some more often than others, they have made the difficult decision to face a potential firestorm head-on. They often do it for their students, their universities and their communities. “Presidents need to model the kind of free speech that we expect our students to learn to exercise,” McGuire said. “I get asked a lot, why aren’t presidents more vocal? All presidents should be more vocal. We’re not just serving tea in the afternoon. We’re here for a purpose. We face tremendous threats to academic freedom, and presidents have to get out of their comfort zones. …I don’t think we push back hard enough sometimes on the threats to the academic freedom of the academy.”
McGuire and Frederick highlighted critical race theory, climate change and the denouncing of scientific facts around the pandemic as possible times for presidents to use that pulpit. Maguire admitted to being bolder than others about addressing issues but also pointed out that “as a president of a relatively small private university, I’m in a very different position than a president of a large public institution.” Frederick and Ochoa have taken more calculated approaches.
“You have to be mindful of the fact that you are an institution that serves all Californians,” Ochoa says. “You want to be sure that not to be perceived as partisan on political issues. But where I draw the line is where the fundamental values of the institution are being attacked. There have been some national events like the 2016 election and the Insurrection, where the community really wanted me to address the issue. You have to be very thoughtful about how you communicate our affirmation of values and rejection of anti-democratic practices without alienating people.”
At Howard University, located in the epicenter of politicking in Washington, DC, and with an admitted friend and alum in Vice President Kamala Harris, Frederick has said that using the pulpit can be challenging and depends on the situation. “Speaking to that truth is extremely important,” said Frederick, who as a practicing surgeon has addressed questions of vaccines and masking around COVID-19. “But the presidency is not just about telling the truth, it’s also about managing people’s reaction to the truth. Leadership style should be adapted to the circumstance.”
In 2020, he also responded in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder. “I was particularly concerned when one of the CEOs of a major company spoke about not being able to find black talent because it just didn’t exist. I was appalled by that. Higher ed’s enrollment is down 8%. Howard’s enrollment is up 26%. I found that to be a difficult thing to swallow. So I wrote an op-ed about the fact that if you fish in the same pond with the same type of salmon, that’s what you’re going to catch.”
Frederick said there are three measuring sticks he uses before he thinks about stepping to the pulpit: 1. “The moral compass is the first guide”; 2. How a topic might impact his community; and 3. What impact it may have on the mission of the institution. But one thing he does not do, aside from going on social media (where he hasn’t been in five years), is “impose my own personal politics. My job is to take away all the barriers for everybody else to express themselves.”
Ochoa rarely ever turns to the social media pulpit to discuss hot-button topics. “I use Twitter mostly to tout the accomplishments of our faculty and students on campus,” he says. “In the space of a tweet, all you can do is basically signal your position. You’re not going to persuade anybody.”
McGuire doesn’t mind addressing issues often, even on social media, as she did during the infamous mask-free Rose Garden celebration of Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court. She believes it is a higher education leader’s responsibility to do so. “Whenever there’s a public issue that affects our students, we must stand up and speak on behalf of our students,” she said. “The great example of the last few years has been both racial justice and racial equity, and the situation of DREAMers. We really do have something to say when democracy is threatened or when human values are threatened in the public square, especially by political officials. Higher education is the counterweight to government.”
Simply speaking on a topic, via a live mic, Zoom or on social media, can have an impact, but leaders say there are other opportunities to get messaging and the mission of higher ed out there to communities and the public.
CSU-Monterey Bay has held on-campus panels and gone into neighboring areas to discuss topics that affect them. Ochoa also has done 15-to-30-second radio spots to raise the profile of the institution. Frederick is doing a podcast series that at times will indirectly address some of the more high-profile issues affecting Howard and the country. McGuire hosts regular town halls so students can respond, does monthly surveys and connects every chance she gets with community members. She tells other presidents to accept all invitations that come their way.
While backlash is part of the job, these presidents are managing to hang in there.
Ochoa joked, “it’s been a challenge, but it hasn’t put me in the difficult position of having to choose the hill to die on at this point.”
McGuire retorted: “I’ve been at this for 33 years at Trinity here in Washington, and I haven’t died yet. Although at one point or another, across those three decades, I’ve made just about everybody angry—fortunately, not all at the same time, which is how I think I’ve survived.”