Back in December, in response to the mass shooting of 20 children in Connecticut, Lawrence M. Schall, president of Oglethorpe University and Elizabeth Kiss, president of Agnes Scott College, wrote a letter to President Obama calling him to protect the children of our country with reasonable gun ownership laws.
The letter does not oppose gun ownership, but asks for “rational” gun safety measures such as forbidding guns on college campuses, ensuring universal background checks for gun purchasers, banning military style assault weapons with high capacity magazines, and establishing uniform safety measures for all guns.
As of now almost 400 university presidents have signed the petition, which seems significant, however a recent Washington Post article pointed out that this is about 8 percent of the 4,150 college presidents across our country. Other editorials, along with the Post, have criticized the thousands of college presidents who have decided against signing the letter, accusing them of failing to show the social and political leadership they expect from their students.
Not allowing civilians to own military style weapons and wanting to ensure that someone is not a criminal or mentally ill before trusting them with a deadly weapon seem like pretty straightforward changes that have recently made it through the House. However, it is clearly hard for college presidents to speak out on political issues.
In recent years, a college presidency has become more about fundraising and administrative duties than political activism. Coming out on one side of a controversial issue raises the risk of alienating donors and angering controlling board members. College presidents have a hand in shaping the future of our country through their influence on higher education, but should we begin expecting them to champion political issues as well?
An article authored by James Freedman former President of Iowa University, and published in Harvard magazine, recalls the days when college presidents bonded together over Civil Rights and laments the changing times that leave them too time-strapped to study and engage with the issues of our time. He predicts that if we do not enable the social engagement of college presidents “we could well end up selecting presidents from a class distinguished more by its managerial competence and fundraising skills than by its academic and intellectual distinction.”
To Freedman, higher education needs a structural change that will free college presidents to study and advocate political issues. However, the excuses of time constraints and not wanting to make enemies are not sufficient to justify silence. The costs of remaining so often outweigh the risks of speaking out, especially when the lives of children are at stake.