02/21/2013 05:51 pm ET

University Presidents--Speak Out! | The Nation

In May 1943, James B. Conant, the president of Harvard University, published an essay in The Atlantic Monthly titled “Wanted: American Radicals.” Conant was on the lookout for “a group of modern radicals in the American tradition,” whose ideas would encompass Thoreau and Whitman, Emerson and Marx, and who would be “lusty in wielding the axe against the root of inherited privilege” so as to prevent the growth of “a caste system.” His proposal? The imposition of “really effective inheritance and gift taxes and the breaking up of trust funds and estates.” Conant, whose essay infuriated Harvard’s well-heeled trustees, was hardly a radical himself; he was, and would always remain, a man of the establishment. But in those days, college and university presidents did not limit their activities to fundraising, shmoozing, paper-pushing and administration. They had access to bully pulpits, and they occupied them.

Think about it: When was the last time a college or university president produced an edgy piece of commentary, or took a daring stand on a contentious matter?

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