The business page of Saturday's New York Times featured a column by James Stewart titled "Refusing to be Late on Gay Marriage." It told the story of Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs' chairman and CEO, staking out an early position on gay marriage a few years ago. While he was the first among CEO's of major companies to speak out, he expected many others to follow in short order. Turns out, Blankfein was a lone wolf for many years, but this week, Goldman was one of more than 100 large corporations that participated in amicus briefs filed with the Supreme Court supporting same-sex marriage. An attorney who prepared one of the briefs reported that just in the last week before the court deadline, the momentum to join exploded and companies had to be turned away. How the world is changing. Blankfein was quoted saying: "I think people wanted to attach themselves to what may be the last great civil rights issue of our time."
Corporations have largely steered away from controversial issues like this one. Goldman Sachs lost at least one significant client when its chairman spoke out, but Blankfein continued to lead on the subject. "I wouldn't normally speak out on something like this. People are only interested in what I have to say because of my position at Goldman Sachs, and I don't believe it's appropriate for me to express my personal views as being those of the firm. But, in this case, this is a business issue. We're a people business. They're the single most important thing to us. ... We want to treat our people fairly and equally." Not all of Mr. Blankfein's colleagues in the corporate world agree. The shareholders of Exxon Mobil, for example, defeated a proposal last year to extend employee benefits to same-sex partners. But there's no arguing that there's been an amazing rapid shift in public opinion on this issue, even if some regions of the country are not there yet.
As I was reading Stewart's column, I could not help be reminded of the recent open letter on gun safety which now has the leaders of over 450 colleges and universities standing in support of it. I think most of the presidents who signed the letter would express sentiments that mirrored those of Lloyd Blankfein. We almost never speak out on public issues of this sort, but something was different this time. In this case, for us, gun safety is an issue which literally takes the lives of the children and young adults we are tasked with educating. More guns, including more guns on our campuses, will make us less safe, not more safe. And so hundreds of us have chosen to speak out. I think it's fair to argue that we are a bit late to this issue. After all, more than 1,000 children have been dying every month in this country from gun violence for many years. But like many in corporate America in regards to same-sex marriage, we are now in the game even if we arrived late. I do wonder, though, where are the collective voices of college and university presidents on same-sex marriage. Why have we not participated en masse in one of the briefs filed last week with the court?
I suspect that the majority of our institutions in 2013 provide benefits to same-sex partners. I certainly believe that as leaders of those institutions, most of us share Blankfein's view that our faculty, staff and students ought to be treated fairly and equally without regard to their sexual preference. That's the case I would think whether or not our personal beliefs align with those business and human resource practices. And so, I ask once again, why are we not refusing to be late on the most significant civil rights issue facing our country today?