The Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, who served the University of Notre Dame as its president for 35 years, wrote an article in 2001 titled “Where are College Presidents’ Voices on Important Public Issues?” He began this way: “When I was a college president, I often spoke out on national issues, even when they didn’t pertain to academic life. Yet, nowadays, I don’t find many college presidents commenting on such issues.”
I will suggest that the silence has grown even more deafening in the decade since Father Hesburgh penned those words. This month, the silence was broken. Over 330 college and university presidents signed a letter, which I penned together with my colleague Elizabeth Kiss at Agnes Scott College, calling for the adoption of rational gun-safety legislation in our country. The letter and the names of all the presidents are posted on the Web site College Presidents for Gun Safety. Additional presidents are signing on every day, and other similar letters have been drafted by such prominent organizations as the Association of American Universities, which includes virtually every leading public and private research university in the country. Yes, the silence has been broken.
Father Hesburgh shared that back in 1957, he and one other president, John Hannah from Michigan State University, were members of the five-person U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He wrote about the angry letters he received for his public service and public stances, including when he was named to serve on President Ford’s Presidential Clemency Board at a time when draft dodgers and deserters from the Vietnam War were being considered for pardons. He wrote: “Painful as those days were, however, they taught a powerful lesson. We cannot urge students to have the courage to speak out unless we are willing to do so ourselves.”
I am incredibly proud that so many presidents have spoken out on the appalling level of gun violence in America today. There is no simple solution, but we all believe that part of the answer lies in requiring gun owners to be subject to background checks before they can acquire guns and that there needs to be reasonable limits on high-capacity guns and magazines. We also shared our collective opinion, based on the experience of managing hundreds of college campuses, that permitting faculty members and students to arm themselves on our campuses will make us all less safe—not more safe.
James O. Freedman, former president of Dartmouth College and past dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, my alma mater, authored an article soon after he left Dartmouth on why college presidents have removed themselves from the public stage (“Getting College Presidents Back on the Public Stage,” Harvard Magazine). He reminisced about the day when such presidents as Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia University from 1902 to 1945, played a significant role on the national political stage, among other things campaigning for the repeal of Prohibition. He cites A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University from 1909 to 1933, arguing for America’s participation in the League of Nations. We also had Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1945, speaking out against the Cold War policies of the Truman Administration.
And then Mr. Freedman speaks to today and the silence that comes from our offices. Presidents have plenty of critics, he shares, and who needs more of them, especially when so much of our job these days is raising funds from constituents? He quotes Justice Holmes: “Every idea is an incitement.” How true that is. He aptly notes the issue of length of tenure. The presidents cited above all enjoyed decades-long tenures. Today, college presidents serve an average six or seven years. Longevity does indeed provide some cover and certainly newly minted presidents might rightfully lack the confidence to survive an onslaught of criticism. All that said, I come back to Father Hesburgh’s challenge: How can we urge students to have the courage to speak out unless we are willing to do so ourselves?
I don’t suspect that the call to action on gun safety is the start of presidents speaking out on every issue the country faces. In fact, on most of those issues, I am pretty certain we wouldn’t agree. But on this one, in the face of the massacre in Sandy Hook and in the face of the countless deaths by gun violence across America every day, we do agree and we have chosen to speak.
Lawrence M. Schall