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EDITORIAL: We expect too much of our university presidents

University presidents cannot and should not release comprehensive statements on every political issue — to do so would inhibit debate.

<p>In essence, contemporary factors have conspired not only to render the neutrality of the past century inapplicable, but also to make the <a href="https://www.chronicle.com/article/where-does-the-college-presidency-go-from-here"><u>role</u></a> of university presidents increasingly untenable.&nbsp;</p>

In essence, contemporary factors have conspired not only to render the neutrality of the past century inapplicable, but also to make the role of university presidents increasingly untenable. 

The latest Israel-Palestine conflict has renewed debates about free speech in our society. One question has become especially prevalent — what, if any, role do university presidents have in responding to international, national and local tragedies? While this question has no easy answers, what has become clear to us — the 134th and 135th Editorial Boards of The Cavalier Daily — is that we cannot and should not expect university presidents, or other institutional representatives, to articulate developed stances on every single political and social issue of the day. To do so would be antithetical to the mission of any university which is to protect academic freedom, debate and dissent. As such, we as students must reframe our expectations for university leaders — instead of demanding explicit statements, we should expect critical neutrality that encourages open discourse and contextualizes debates. This is not silence in the face of injustice. Rather, we call for a neutrality that is characterized by its insistence on facts and deployed in a way that empowers individuals within the institution to engage in discourse.

Right now, university presidents exist in a highly polarized space in which their statements are torn apart by all of their detractors and some of their supporters. No institution better epitomizes the high wire balancing act which university presidents are currently performing than Harvard University. Former President Claudine Gay initially faced backlash for her administration’s seemingly inadequate response to a controversial open letter authored by the Harvard Undergraduate Palestinian Solidarity Committee. Upon releasing her own statement, she still faced backlash for what some saw as a half-hearted condemnation of Hamas. Herein lies the catch-22 that university presidents face — remain silent and be accused of not caring or speak out and be accused of taking the wrong side. Such discourses are not removed from our own university — this charged environment led University President Jim Ryan to propose a committee which will advise him on if and when to speak about contemporary issues. 

This is not the first time universities have asked committees to create guidelines on releasing statements. In 1967, in response to anti-war protests and demands to divest from the apartheid regime in South Africa, the University of Chicago commissioned the Kalven Report. This report unequivocally states that the mission of any university inherently demands that it act with neutrality in order to preserve the spirit of free inquiry. Many have appealed to the idea of neutrality in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks. However, the neutrality of the twentieth century cannot be our neutrality today. 

Calls for institutional neutrality today originated as backlash against new university statements opposing systemic racism after the murder of George Floyd, and have since been marshaled to deny climate change. This suggests that some see neutrality as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card that perpetuates a status quo based on untruths. Moreover, today,  students are doxxed for expressing unpopular beliefs, and professors feel censored by politicians that undermine academic freedom. Because the Kalven Report insisted upon institutional support for the right of individuals to dissent as a precondition for neutrality, the contemporary lack of effective institutional and societal support for certain forms of dissent means that that twentieth-century perception of neutrality is dated and inadequate.  Contemporary neutrality, in contrast, must be exceptionally intentional in both its adherence to well-proven academic facts — such as systemic racism and climate change — and in its protection of individual actors’ right to speak out.

In essence, contemporary factors have conspired not only to render the neutrality of the past century inapplicable, but also to make the role of university presidents increasingly untenable. On the one hand, we perceive presidents as the sole verbal representative of an entire institution. On the other hand, we expect them to do whatever they can to preserve the institution and its mission. We demand both, and yet in many cases, these are contradictory imperatives. 

When forced to pick between them, as Dr. Gay alluded to in her resignation letter, presidents must ultimately prioritize the longevity of the institution and its mission. The widespread university donor backlash against criticism of Israel alone testifies to how statements can endanger the financial security of an ideologically diverse institution whose leaders must have cross-generational appeal. Without this broad appeal, funding would dry up and the caliber of education at America’s top universities would decline. 

Moreover, university presidents are responsible for sustaining and upholding institutions that by their very nature breed dissent and debate. This means that they should not issue statements which stifle discourse by providing answers to questions that students should be empowered to answer for themselves. In this way, top-down statements from presidents don’t just endanger financial security, they can also undermine the institutional imperative to foster critical discourse and develop a citizenry that is capable of grappling with difficult questions.

This imperative for student-driven debate should be very familiar to University students. Especially in a university such as our own which proudly lauds our tradition of student self-governance, explicit statements from institutional representatives such as Ryan on contemporary issues can dangerously limit discourses. Our tradition of student self-governance is founded in a radical certainty that students are capable of concretely answering the needs of their own communities and the questions of their time. In order to do this, however, students must be free to debate without the perspective of the president looming over them. Instead of expecting top-down guidance from our presidents, we should demand bottom-up discourses driven by students and enhanced by the contextual resources of universities. 

If we are practical, we, as students, will realize that our contemporary moment is not set in stone. In demanding expert statements from our presidents, we forget that such statements set a dangerous precedent. In the future, universities will have different leaders, presumably with different agendas. Many in our generation are attracted to progressive values but will not always have the luxury of a governing body whose basic principles match our own. In fact, by July 2024, Governor Youngkin will have appointed three-fourths of the Board of Visitors, who will wield great influence over the actions of the University’s administration. Whether or not we like it and irrespective of the ideologies we support, the power dynamics of our institutions fluctuate. We cannot permit sways in political power to determine what can and cannot be debated on Grounds. So instead of expecting presidential statements that champion these causes, we must champion these causes ourselves.

That is why, today, the 134th and 135th Editorial Boards do not call for neutrality alone. Rather, we call for students to reframe what they expect from university presidents — critical neutrality which is intentional in its encouragement of disagreement and debate. What this looks like in practice is a difficult question to answer, but President Ryan’s proposed committee to investigate these very questions is a sign that our University president continues to recognize the imperative to have this conversation. The job of an institution of higher education should not be to set guidelines for debates so much as to equip its students with the resources they need to have these debates. Instead of expecting perfection from our presidents, we should simply expect them to facilitate dialogue and protect its participants. 

This has been a joint editorial from the 134th and 135th Editorial Boards. The Cavalier Daily Editorial Board is composed of the Executive Editor, the Editor-in-Chief, the two Opinion Editors, their Senior Associates and an Opinion Columnist. The board can be reached at eb@cavalierdaily.com.

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