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 offerring 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.
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?
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.
When the European Humanities University was shut down by the repressive government of Belarus in 2005, a dozen U.S. colleges opened their doors-and their wallets-to displaced students on very short notice.
Since Antioch College (Ohio) has announced its closing, what does it mean that its early leaders were vocal in their advocacy of innovations in higher education? Its president in the 1920s, Arthur Morgan, introduced the co-op program and was eloquent about why Antioch wanted its students to have a real-world connection. During that era, few colleges and universities embraced experiential education such as co-ops or internships, political activism, student-generated curricula, or interdisciplinary study. However, Antioch's leaders spoke out about the virtues of these innovative approaches to higher education, and today they can be found at many other colleges. Antioch did not abandon these approaches, and the segment of the college-going population that is drawn to these pedagogies has not decreased.
But today many institutions, in addition to Antioch, offer similar educational experiences. For Antioch presidents in the past two decades to make the same bold pronouncements that Morgan did in the 1920s would have had far less impact.
In contrast to Antioch, with its record of influence on the rest of higher education despite its own demise, there is Berea College (Ky.). Founded in 1855, Berea embraces a non-mainstream educational philosophy-that a student's education ought to include time spent in manual labor in the operation of the institution-and the institution is still going strong. Fewer than a dozen colleges today subscribe to the "work college" approach, and not all of them are finding a big student demand for it.
Berea's president, Larry Shinn, has advanced the cause so well that more traditional institutions, such as Rhodes College (Tenn.), are trying it, albeit on a smaller scale. The "work colleges" remain committed to this approach and believe that the taste for it among young people may grow.
There is no shortage of issues on which a college president could take a principled stand-including some that are close to higher education's self-interest and others that are broader in scope and impact.
A good example of the first type is the current proposal to federalize the college accreditation process. This is a fundamental assault on the autonomy of educational institutions and cries out for presidential responses. Where are the college presidents who will refuse to compromise on the creep of federalization?
An example of an even broader issue on which there has thus far been only a few comments from college presidents is the recent vote by the British faculty union to boycott Israeli universities. This stance is completely at odds with the commitment to the free exchange of ideas for which all colleges and universities stand. More college presidents (and faculty groups) should speak out in favor of increasing interaction between American universities and those in the Middle East-both Israeli and Arab.
The presidents of independent colleges and universities are well equipped to lead the way in the arena of public opinion. They already are accustomed to defending distinctive institutional values rather than neutral or universal missions, traditions, or values. They operate in a marketplace in which both lofty and pedestrian values must be promoted in order to chart an institution's future and to justify its value to a broader public. If these conditions lead to an increase in the number of presidents who give public expression to their views on the issues of the day, that is all to the good.
Richard Ekman is president of The Council of Independent Colleges, www.cic.edu.