By Sanford J. Ungar

From The Presidency, Winter 2006

In 1910, Democratic politicians in New Jersey looking for a fresh face to put forward for governor settled on the innovative and outspoken president of Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson. The son of a southern Presbyterian minister, Wilson had attracted widespread attention as a political science professor and had become head of Princeton in 1902. He easily won the gubernatorial election and turned out to be a more independent and progressive leader than his supporters ever intended or imagined. Wilson’s meteoric rise to national attention led the Democrats to nominate him for president of the United States two years later, and he swept to an electoral-vote victory in 1912 in a three-way race with William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt.

In the mid-1940s, Nathan Marsh Pusey, a 37-year-old Harvard-trained historian of ancient times from Council Bluffs, Iowa, became president of Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin. This placed him squarely in confrontation with a rising local politician, one Joseph McCarthy, soon to be a U.S. Senator and the symbol of a mid-century threat to civil discourse and academic freedom in the name of anticommunism. So articulate and forthright was Pusey in opposing McCarthy and defending intellectual integrity during his nine years at Lawrence that he was selected to be president of Harvard in 1953. There he stood for the same values, arguing that “our job is to educate free, independent, and vigorous minds capable of analyzing events, of exercising judgment, of distinguishing facts from propaganda, and truths from half-truths and lies.”

There is room for debate, of course, over the long-term results achieved by these two intellectual giants of the 20th century. Wilson lowered tariffs, obtained a graduated federal income tax, outlawed child labor, and led the nation into World War I. He failed, however, to bring his own country into the League of Nations that he had invented, suffered a stroke, and died a broken man. Pusey presided over an extraordinary growth of facilities and programs at Harvard and brought the university into the modern era, but was remembered at the end of his 18-year term as much for calling police into university buildings to eject antiwar protesters in 1969 as for anything else he did.

But can anyone today imagine that political kingmakers looking for new and inspiring executive leadership at the state or federal level would turn to a college or university president? Or, indeed, that national opposition to demagoguery and intolerance might be credibly rallied by a small-college president, and that he or she would then be rewarded by promotion to one of the most important roles in American higher education?

As likely as not, college and university presidents are in the news now for rather more uncomfortable reasons – for investigations into their seemingly greedy and extravagant ways, for compromising circumstances involving big-time athletic teams and corrupt coaches, for personal scandals, or for attempts to discuss pseudo-academic issues that veer off into controversy, confusion, and even ridicule. Where, many are asking, are the public intellectuals and national leaders of yesteryear?

The Glorious Past

Perhaps it seems unrealistic to expect that the CEOs of educational institutions, with all their other duties and worries, can or should play a central role in the public life of the United States in these troubled times. But over the years, many have.

Consider the extraordinary career of Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University from 1902 to 1945. He was a major player in Republican politics, a delegate to national party conventions from 1888 to 1936, and Taft’s running mate against Wilson and Roosevelt in 1912. A world-renowned figure, Butler crossed the Atlantic at least a hundred times and persuaded Andrew Carnegie to establish the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Then there was Robert Maynard Hutchins, the educational philosopher who was president and later chancellor of the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1951. He enunciated a liberal arts curriculum based on the “Great Books”—a curriculum that many others would emulate—and later founded the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions as a nondogmatic forum to compare political evolution in democratic societies with developments elsewhere.

Other 20th-century figures whose names stir nostalgia for their national leadership include Clark Kerr of the University of California and the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh of the University of Notre Dame. Kerr, who developed the Master Plan for Higher Education and fought against the firing of faculty members who refused to sign loyalty oaths, later saw the Berkeley campus and the university as a whole through turbulent times and became an icon for standing up to expedient politicians. Father Hesburgh, for his part, held dozens of national and international appointments over the years, becoming involved in issues of civil rights, peaceful uses for atomic energy, Third World development, and refugee affairs, among many others. His name is frequently invoked by those working to promote human rights around the world.

Today it is more common for public figures to take on leadership roles in education after they have been in politics: for example, Robert Kerrey, former senator from Nebraska and presidential candidate, at the New School University; Richard Celeste, former Ohio governor and Peace Corps director, at Colorado College; and Thomas Kean, former governor of New Jersey, at Drew University. Others, like Donna Shalala, have returned to the academic sphere after public service (in her case, heading the University of Miami after eight years as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).

Kean, to be sure, achieved unique national attention and influence when he took leave from Drew to come back into public life and chair the federal commission investigating the intelligence failures leading to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and recommending reforms.

But Kean is an unusual case. Except on a few arcane issues that are regarded to be uniquely in their domain (such as illegal online music file-sharing by students), most college and university presidents seem to speak out less now than at any time in decades, for fear of appearing “political” or “partisan” and somehow alienating some of their internal and external constituencies. Their expertise and wisdom are rarely called upon to help address national or international problems, and they are increasingly wary about their contacts with the media. The less they say, the more remote and aloof they seem. Along the way, they have developed an image problem, and they often appear unable or unwilling to do anything about it.

Filling the Void

 It is fair to ask, I suppose, why academic leaders should be regarded as having any special standing or influence with a broad public to talk about the crises and the dilemmas of our time. Perhaps this role is more appropriate for the major players in business, technology, religion, or even the media?

Not so many years ago, Lee Iacocca, having turned around an automobile company, achieved a rare combination of notoriety and popularity; he was even talked about as a potential presidential candidate. George Soros, the often-controversial investment genius and promoter of open societies, appears to have more ideas and spunk than half a dozen Democratic spokespersons put together. And Bill Gates, America’s nerd-in-chief, in a short time has become a world leader on development and health issues.

At the same time, however, the corporate sector has taken a tremendous beating from the scandals at Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, and a host of other corporations. Federal legislation has put business executives under the microscope, and their lobbyists are being watched much more closely than at any other time in recent memory.

Sadly, many people these days might laugh at the notion of depending upon prominent religious leaders for advice on national policy. Whereas people like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once inspired major changes in the country’s direction, the clergy most likely to be widely quoted today are those who promote the confirmation of certain Supreme Court nominees for their loyalty to conservative causes or who recommend the elimination of the leaders of other countries that may be giving the United States a hard time. They threaten rather than inspire.

And while people like Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite had the ability to influence public opinion a few decades ago with an arched eyebrow or a change in tone of voice, it is more common now for listeners and viewers to tune in to those with whom they already know they agree. The days are long gone when people checked out the views of columnist Walter Lippmann (who had influence under every president from Wilson to Lyndon Johnson) before settling on their own. Bill Moyers and Ted Koppel have stepped out of the limelight, shouting is favored over discussion or analysis on television, and newspaper circulation and readership appears to be in steep decline. Reporters, editors, and producers have been backed into corners where they find themselves self-consciously examining their own and each other’s words and phrases for any sign of implicit bias.

Perhaps it is time, after all, for college and university presidents to step forward and fill the vacuum in the public sphere—to stand once more for empiricism, reason, and calm debate; to abandon blandness and be willing to rock a boat now and then, instead of speaking primarily to defend themselves against attack.

It is a truism, of course, that today’s presidents have little time for such high-minded or principled pursuits. One article after another appears in the popular press, mocking higher education leaders for the amount of time they spend raising money, seemingly at the expense of thinking great thoughts. (Indeed, a recent survey done for The Chronicle of Higher Education noted that 53 percent of presidents say they work on fund raising at least daily.) It is also conventional wisdom that trustees, alumni, donors, and elected officials are liable to object to any academic chief executive’s strongly expressed view on any serious subject.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong—and much that is right—with taking the development functions of our jobs seriously. But surely presidents will be less able to engage effectively in the pursuit of financial support for their institutions (or to perform other tasks, whether mundane or sublime) if they do not also have something to say for themselves—if their minds and their words do not seem as impressive as their travel schedules.

“In a culture already too greatly dominated by a rhetoric of slogans and sound bites, college presidents ought to represent different values,” wrote James O. Freedman after he had run the University of Iowa for five years and Dartmouth College for 11. “They ought to express the essential nature of idealism. They ought to stand firm against the corrosive forces of a market culture. They ought to use their professional stature to bring fresh and independent insights to the unhurried consideration of large questions of public policy.” To that I would add: They ought not be preoccupied with whether they will be popular for what they say.

Presumably, Larry Summers, the current president of Harvard, thought he was following Freedman’s advice when—notoriously—he raised questions in 2005 about the inherent abilities of women to excel in science. His most ardent supporters surely feel that he was badly treated during the uproar that followed, and that the lesson to be learned is not to speak out. But there was nothing idealistic or original about Summers’s invocation of alleged gender differences to explain pervasive inequality in opportunity and rewards for women, no “fresh and independent insights” there, or even the promotion of a sincere research agenda.

I find myself more inspired by the example of William G. Bowen. While no longer a university president (he retired from Princeton in 1988), he has used his leadership of the Mellon Foundation as a bully pulpit to raise tough questions and challenge the world of higher education to lead American society toward self-criticism on important issues. Any serious hope for the reform of intercollegiate athletics is, in no small part, due to the provocative work of Bowen and his colleagues. Not everyone agrees with all the details of their critique, but it would be foolish, if not perilous, to ignore it.

More recently, Bowen and others have called attention to profound and troubling national shortcomings in providing equality of access to education for those lower down the socioeconomic ladder. This inequity has significant long-term consequences, not only for the health of the American economy, but also for the viability and credibility of our polity. Such pervasive inequality should be causing us to lose sleep at night. Besides, a country that preaches continuously to others about its own superiority and the value of its example must hold itself up to examination by well-intentioned observers, internal and external.

There are other notable recent examples of the courage to stand up for what is right and necessary: Ruth J. Simmons, upon becoming president of Brown University, ordered a painful reexamination of that institution’s historic ties to slavery and how it might make amends. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC), has openly questioned whether faculty members and administrators at leading universities are willing to make the recruitment of scientists of color a true priority. And Shirley Tilghman, now president of Princeton, was perfectly willing to risk offending conservative donors by debunking the fashionable theory of “intelligent design” as a legitimate part of high school science curricula.

With any luck, more of us will soon be drawing on our own experience and our access to intellectual resources to speak out more frequently, without fear or favor, about the problems of our time. We might be surprised how welcome this expression of leadership would be.