COLLEGE PRESIDENTS ARE increasingly called upon to defend the historic missions and principles on which their institutions were founded and to explain to prospective students, their families, and the public the value of the education they offer. However, college and university presidents also have an obligation to address social issues with direct or even tangential implications for higher education.
These higher ed leaders are well prepared to contribute in meaningful ways to national and international conversations. Colleges and universities with distinctive missions and educational philosophies--including women's colleges, historically black colleges, "great books" colleges, and colleges affiliated with religious denominations--continue to exist at least partly because their presidents speak out with courage and conviction about the value of a diverse array of educational choices.
Presidential leadership is often a matter of making discrete decisions that anticipate a future in which the institution will thrive. Sometimes that means offering a spirited defense of the college's historic values, and sometimes it means pursuing entirely new directions.
Officials at Hillsdale College (Mich.), for example, believe so deeply that the government should not meddle in higher education that they have not accepted federal funds for many years. More recently, several dozen college presidents have come to believe so strongly that U.S. News & World Report measures the wrong things that they have decided not to participate in the annual "reputational" rankings.
COURAGEOUS OR COWARDLY?
A president who takes a stand that resonates with the college's distinctive traditions while the surrounding culture moves in another direction, it is assumed, shows courage, while a president who departs from the institution's traditions demonstrates even more courage. It is believed that a president who takes a stand on an issue that has implications beyond the campus itself exemplifies the boldest leadership of all.
But it is not that simple. Consider, for example, the president who vigorously defends the American role in Iraq. Is he courageous in speaking out in support of an unpopular war even though the campus is near a large military base and many of its students are from military families?
While many campuses are taking dramatic steps to become more "green" in recognition of the precariousness of the global environment, would the college president who champions the opposite case be seen as bold or cowardly?
MATTERS OF PRINCIPLE
These days, colleges with clear religious identities often face challenges to the role of their traditions in contemporary society and thereby present dilemmas for presidents. If data show, for example, that non-Lutheran students tend to do better academically at Lutheran colleges than they do at secular institutions, how actively should the president of a Lutheran college promote the institution among non-Lutherans? If a Methodist-affiliated college in the Southeast experiences increasingly large enrollments of Catholic students from northern cities, how should the president address this trend?
Big lessons emerge from finite episodes. After a church burning in which at least one student was implicated, the president of Birmingham-Southern College (Ala.), David Pollick, announced that the college itself would help to reconstruct the building. He could have spoken out against this criminal act and punished the student but not committed the institution to help the community in this way. Pollick chose to go further.
After Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of colleges and universities throughout the country accepted students who had been displaced from Gulf Coast institutions, often providing financial assistance. These institutions volunteered--quickly and quietly--long after their annual budgets had been set. …