03/11/2013 04:22 pm ET Updated May 11, 2013

What I Believe

I no longer have many opinions -- for the public, anyway. As the head of an institution of higher education, I am expected to hold beliefs that are worth sharing.

I have more meta-opinions: that is, opinions about opinions. "Meta-" is a fancy Greek prefix that is easier to understand than academics would like to make it. It means something about something else, usually itself. It's easier to explain with examples.

Meta-conversation is conversation about conversation. When a mother says to a daughter, "Don't you take that tone of voice with me, missy," she's talking about talking. She's talking about how they talk. Meta-television is television about television. The recently ended sitcom 30 Rock was an exquisite, nerdy, send-up of the production of a fictitious variety show, called TGS. It sometimes gave us a glimpse into the show-within-a-show. "Meta" can be thrilling. The Oscar for Best Picture this year went to the movie Argo, a terrific movie about the making of a preposterous movie. And so on.

Douglas Hofstadter's 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, is cited as popularizing the concept of "meta." In our post-modern hall of mirrors, there is hardly anything that isn't self-referential or ironic.

In any event, my most important meta-opinion concerns humility. When I am an observer of a situation rather than a direct participant in it, no matter how well informed I try to make myself, I remain an outsider.

As I read about current events in the newspaper, I know I have only a modicum of the information that is needed by the individual with the duty to make a decision. So whatever judgment I may be tempted to pass on elected officials, I remind myself that I cannot be too confident.

The principle applies all the more if I am the decision-maker. I have come to heed the necessity of skepticism toward one's self. The world is dynamic. My ideas about it must be revised, because nature is ever-changing and my own nature is as well.

Every several years, I realize everything I once thought turns out to be wrong. As I become older, I have fewer settled opinions. I cultivate doubt.

As a professor, I respected ideas more than people; as a manager, I depend more on people than ideas. I recognize why we esteem "people skills." When I was younger, I was contemptuous of the notion that you would choose where to live based on the weather, but now I am convinced it would be foolish not to consider the climate. I eat vegetables and care about physical fitness. I prefer quiet time to wind down at night.

I would like to promote some of my meta-opinions. They can be as strongly held as conventional opinions.

I think every opinion that is based on assertions presented as fact (rather than faith or ideals) ought to be based on the truth. I previously supposed that to be a non-controversial prerequisite to rational discourse. But it does not seem to be.

There is abundant public dialogue that proceeds from claims that are false. I do not mean arguably false; I mean demonstrably false. It isn't, properly speaking, a fact at all, if it is false. There may be debate over the exact causes of or the best remedy for climate change. But there cannot be reasonable doubt as to the reality of climate change.

In my leadership role, people often inquire explicitly as to my opinion. They are frustrated when I refuse to offer it. I appear willful or strategic, as if I want to live up to a stereotype of being inscrutable and wily. Even people who proclaim their trust in the deliberative process want to be sure of my view in advance.

As I contemplate the possibilities, I usually conclude that the value I am able to add is to facilitate the discussion. When the community is looking at a faculty candidate, there may well be the need for someone to express criticism but there isn't typically any need for me in particular to do it.

My utterances should be appropriate and effective. Some of what is one, is not the other. And a few private feelings would be neither appropriate nor effective if articulated. All writers of advice from Marcus Aurelius to Benjamin Franklin admonish themselves on the priority of self-discipline.

Perhaps my opinions make me an oddity. I inhabit a role. I am not a free agent. My responsibilities are paramount. They limit what I am permitted to do.

As with most meditations on one's own behavior, I wish I could prevail upon others at least to some extent. People infer my beliefs whether I want them to or not. They draw conclusions.

I do not begrudge others watching me; I have the type of job in which many more people have an opinion about how I am doing than I have about how they are doing. Thus I am aware as the object of attention that most of what we perceive can be interpreted positively or negatively. We are ourselves only barely conscious that we are making these choices that frame our comprehension. Our opinions are the product of biology, history, psychology, and sociology, mixed with prejudice and whimsy.

Hence my overarching meta-opinion: what I personally happen to believe is not what I should impose even if I could do so.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.