In “The Silent Treatment:  Why College Presidents Don’t Speak Out” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 26, 2022), Eric Kelderman bases much of his analysis on a recent survey of college presidents.  The article reads as an objective observation of the facts before us:  current higher education leadership rarely comments on any controversial topics.  But it is more than that:  it is a damning revelation of the state of discourse in our country and particularly on our college campuses.

Let’s begin with some results from the survey.  More than 80% of current presidents of institutions of higher education are unwilling to comment on such topics as national politics, state politics, gender/sexual identity issues, or racial justice.  When asked why, the presidential responses ranged from concern about not being able to satisfy all stakeholder groups to worry about negative response from politicians and alumni to feeling overwhelmed by the tsunami of social media reactions—particularly the negative ones.

I am trying very hard to be sympathetic with my colleagues on these stressors.  It is quite likely that the tenor of the reactions they receive from those who disagree with them has changed since 2018 when I was still a college president and wrote about topics like gun control, immigration, managing controversial speakers, and racial justice.  I was fortunate to work with an exceptional Board of Trustees who individually might not have agreed with every stance I took but who supported the notion that as a college president I was supposed to take stances on issues of public policy, issues important to the mission of the institution I served. The rhetoric of public discourse has changed since then and many board members have become less supportive of this role for higher education leadership.

But assuming the support of the trustees, I remain unconvinced of the rationale of current college presidents for remaining silent.  I appreciate the care needed (particularly for presidents of public institutions) on obviously partisan political issues, but no matter what some on the radical right or the radical left say, not all issues are rooted in partisan politics.  They become partisan if we allow the political elite to say they are so. Some are moral issues that should be at the heart of what we are supposed to be espousing in higher education.  How is it that a college president does not have a responsibility to opine on racial justice or gender equality and sexual identity?

I can hear the complaints—I do not know what it is like to sit in the seat in 2022.  But I did know what it was like to sit in that seat from 1999-2018 and I believe that if more of us spoke out about the things that really mattered—in a rational, deliberate, non-accusatory or dismissive fashion, it would lead to more productive discourse and it would feel more like 2018.  Simply by more voices speaking and speaking civilly and respectfully—that could be the kind of backward look that suggests a way forward.