Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Up in Arms: Feature

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Up in Arms: Feature

Article excerpt

Post-Sandy Hook, hundreds of American college presidents are taking on the gun lobby. Amid the US' increasingly febrile and evidence-free policy debates, does the campaign signal a return to the 'bully pulpit' for the American academy's leaders? Jon Marcus reports.

Lawrence Schall was particularly moved - as any father of four would be - by the news of the shooting spree that killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December.

"My kids went to an elementary school that looked exactly like that elementary school," Schall says. "We have the same kinds of relationships with the teachers that those parents had with those teachers."

But Schall is not just any father: he is the president of Oglethorpe University in the US state of Georgia, a position that offers a moral and intellectual platform that he decided he could use to push for changes to the nation's gun laws.

"There was something about this incident where many of us finally said: 'We have got to do better'," he says.

Schall and Elizabeth Kiss, president of Agnes Scott College, Oglethorpe's neighbouring institution, co-wrote a letter calling for a ban on assault weapons and more background checks for gun buyers.

"The time has long since passed for silence and inaction on the issue of reasonable and rational gun safety legislation," the letter states.

Within four days - lightning speed by academic standards - it had been signed by more than 300 institutional presidents. The list of signatories has since surpassed 400, mostly leaders of private, liberal-arts colleges. They even have a name: College Presidents for Gun Safety.

Another president, Lee Pelton, of Emerson College, Boston, soon established a centre to coordinate events at campuses nationwide that bring attention to gun laws and related issues. And other institutions are hosting speakers on each side of the gun divide, from David Keene, head of lobbying group the National Rifle Association (Harvard University), to US vice-president Joe Biden (Western Connecticut State University, just a few miles from Newtown).

The college presidents' widespread and sudden activism over an issue so controversial is noteworthy by virtue of the emotions at play in the gun debate. But it is also a rare example of university presidents involving themselves in public policy, something that was once common in the US but has since been beaten down by campus politics and the need to mollify donors, students, parents, alumni, legislators and other interest groups.

Tellingly, few presidents at public universities, beholden as they are to governors and elected legislators for much of their funding, have joined the campaign.

And the Association of American Universities, a body representing some of the largest public and private institutions in the US, has issued a softer, separate statement calling on national leaders "to apply honest and open scrutiny to identifying and implementing meaningful, consequential actions", but without offering specifics.

"We've silenced ourselves largely out of fear of offending somebody," says Schall, who previously worked as a civil-rights attorney. "Because so much of our job has become about raising money, you're not going to willingly step up and make statements that run the risk of offending anybody."

It was not always thus. Kingman Brewster, president of Yale University from 1963 to 1977, and others from his generation of higher education leaders spoke out against the Vietnam War. The Reverend Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987, was an advocate for civil rights and other causes.

But the world today "is entirely different", says David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. "There was no shared governance then. These were really figures of authority, unchallenged, and they ruled in an authoritarian way. …

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