When College Presidents Exit the Public Square

06/17/2011 02:50 pm ET | Updated Aug 17, 2011

Toronto -- The public square where ideas are debated is shrinking as academics increasingly shy away from speaking out on topics that might cause controversy.

That was the message from William Ayers on Thursday during a taped speech he delivered here at the Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education. The former antiwar militant, who retired last year as a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, decided not to attend the conference in person out of concern he would be denied entry into Canada.

"The public square is not something that exists in a static form," Ayers said. "We don't walk into it from stage left. It emerges when people face one another, authentically."

Ayers said that democracy requires dialogue, but that too many academics refuse to express their opinions. "We have a responsibility to enter into the public debates, to show our students how it's done," he said. "We can't say democracy is a great thing, but I'm holding back. Because I'm a medical doctor doesn't mean I don't have opinions on war and peace."

Public-college presidents, in particular, seem to be running scared these days. Over the course of two days this week, presidents of two major public flagship universities announced they were giving up their prestigious posts, to the shock of many on their campuses and around higher education.

Presidents come and go all the time, of course. But what was most striking about the resignations of Robert N. Shelton, of the University of Arizona, and Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin, of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, were their next jobs. They weren't steps up to even better public universities. Rather, they were steps off the public stage. Shelton will become director of the Fiesta Bowl, and Martin will become president of Amherst College.

Shelton wouldn't talk specifics about his move, and Martin denied that the political turmoil in Wisconsin this spring had forced her to jump to Amherst. They didn't really need to say why they were leaving now. Based on where they're headed, it's pretty clear--especially given their career tracks up to now--that both were frustrated by the current budget and political realities of being the leader of a big public institution.

Martin and Shelton were prototypes of the sort of academic who aspired to the top public jobs in the past. Both were first-time presidents. Both were previously provosts at other research institutions. And both were fairly new to the job. Shelton arrived in Tucson in 2006, Martin in Madison in 2008.

The question in both Madison and Tucson now is, Who will replace them? Boards of both universities could search for sitting provosts at other research institutions. But we know from several studies that many provosts are not as interested as they once were in moving up to the president's office. And both states would be tough places to start for a first-time president.

These could be challenging searches. When given the choice, more and more would-be presidents seem to prefer to settle at a private college. Indeed, the presidential pipeline more often flows from public institutions to private ones nowadays. Nancy Cantor left Illinois for Syracuse. David J. Skorton left Iowa for Cornell. Like Shelton, Mark A. Emmert went the sports route, leaving the University of Washington for the NCAA. One of the few exceptions in recent years was Gordon Gee's going from Vanderbilt back to Ohio State. But then again, Gee's peripatetic path as president has always been like no other.

So does anyone of substance want these jobs?

I asked that question of one of the longest-serving public flagship presidents in the country, Graham B. Spanier of Penn State. He's been in that post since 1995. He continues to think "these are among the greatest jobs in America," but agrees the challenges are not for everyone. Among some of the toughest, he cited, were the political agendas of governors, legislators, and boards; overzealous use of freedom-of-information requests; and governing boards that believe their mandate is not to advocate for the university, but to watch the taxpayer dollar.

Spanier has had his share of bruising battles. Ten years ago, in the midst of writing a Chronicle profile of him, I watched him at an appropriations hearing that turned into a debate over academic freedom as lawmakers questioned whether Spanier should have allowed Penn State students to hold a "sex fair" on the campus.

Spanier spent most of the hearing defending the free-speech rights of students. That was in the days before Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and easy-to-post anonymous comments on news articles. The sex fair had been weeks earlier. At least Spanier had had time to think about his comments well before the hearing. These days, he would have been forced to defend academic freedom in a matter of seconds and in no more than 140 characters.

Often when public-college presidents refuse to take a stand on a controversial issue, higher-education historians will invoke the name of Clark Kerr, the late University of California president, who often led vigorous debates about the role of public higher education. But Kerr lived in a different era, and it's worth remembering that, for all his outspokenness and political chops, he still lost his job after being fired by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. Maybe even Kerr would have exited stage left from the public square had he been president today.

-- Jeffrey Selingo
The Chronicle of Higher Education