College leaders are too shy about their political opinions, says former president

Calls on today's presidents to 'regain our public voice'

College and university leaders need to speak out more often and restore public discourse, former Drake University president David Maxwell wrote in a Huffington Post op-ed last month. 

Leaders today hesitate to speak their mind about politics, says Maxwell. He identifies two reasons for their caution:

1. "Sensationalist media and politicians" casting presidents as "over-paid villains;" and

2. "They’re legitimately afraid that those who disagree with them will punish the school by not sending their children or their dollars to the institution."

To some degree, leaders' restraint is justified, Maxwell writes. Speaking out can put the school—and leaders' own careers—at risk.   

Maxwell argues that today's norm of "screaming, yelling, interrupting, and name-calling" are "in direct opposition to one of the core values of higher education—the importance of civil and respectful disagreement in search of the truth."

This is particularly visible in Donald Trump's presidential campaign, Maxwell says.

He cites Trump's "flagrant disregard for the truth, his cavalier debunking of the validity of scientific fact, and his racist and xenophobic outbursts" as incompatible with higher ed's commitment to diversity, inclusion, and global education.

In an interview with the Press-Citizen, Maxwell stressed he was not encouraging presidents to get involved with partisan politics and issues—but rather to begin a conversation about how higher education can help "regain our public voice" in this campaign cycle.

A study led by Cassie Barnhardt, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa's College of Education, examined the correlation between campus leaders' advocacy and campus environment.

Also see: Today's presidents may need a new set of skills

In an analysis of data from the Association of American Colleges and Universities' Core Commitment project, Barnhardt's team discovered that when leaders speak up, the entire campus may benefit. Institutions with more vocal leaders were also places where the faculty emphasized diverse points of view, community members felt more comfortable with "unpopular" opinions, students were more respectful in controversial discussions, and the campus community was more aware of economic, political, and social issues (Charis-Carlson, Press-Citizen, 7/27; Maxwell, "The Blog," Huffington Post, 7/22). 

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