As the political season moves into high gear, as politicians speak about choices to be made, college leaders should remember the opportunity they have to speak out -- in a nonpartisan way -- on issues of import. In years past, presidents would do so regularly. Not so today.
Obviously, presidents need to know why they were hired and what their job is; they need to know, too, after doing what they were hired to do, they also have an opportunity to speak out and involve the college in the community. They should do so.
All-too-often, presidents fail to understand, and boards fail to encourage and support, the incredible opportunity presidents and their institutions have to influence their community, particularly through the involvement of students.
I know because I was often questioned by trustees about why I spent so much time on community affairs. In both communities where my colleges were located, I chose to be involved in efforts to turn the cities around.
How would my involvement, I was asked, help the college? How would that involvement result in a better English department or stronger students? My answer was simple: If the community remained depressed and the college is surrounded by drug houses (unfortunately, that was the situation at both colleges; fortunately, it no longer is in either case), the college couldn't thrive. It couldn't recruit better faculty for the English department, and it wouldn't be able to bring in better students.
My constant refrain to questioning trustees (actually, there were very few skeptics) was that I was doing what I was hired to do, and I wanted to spend my "free" time on community affairs. In doing so, I also felt I was helping both the college and, in my small way, showing students they, as individuals, could make a difference.
Presidents today have relatively few opportunities to speak to the college community. Unlike in the years before the 1960s, when presidents would gather faculty, staff, and students for weekly chapel talks, presidents in the modern era usually have three occasions each year to speak -- convocation, charter or founders' day, and commencement. However, they have daily opportunities, through their actions, to influence events on and off campus.
I believe any president must, first and foremost, do what the board and other constituents demand. If, though, presidents have enough energy at the end of the day, they can do much more.
While I never thought of myself as a role model, I wanted to be involved in the community and speak out on issues when the occasion warranted my voice. I never wanted to be frozen in place with worries about the next term or year; instead, I always tried to see the next steps on the college chessboard, steps that, for me, included trying to make a difference beyond the college's gates.
I ended every Commencement during my 24 years by urging students to make a difference and to do well and do good. Unless I wanted to be a hypocrite, I could do no less myself.
Presidents need to find the issue that motivates them and then use their bully pulpit. The pulpit may not be as easy to use as in years past, but it is still there. Presidents need to summon the energy and courage to use it.