Our View: In a flash — message for Lester Lefton

DKS Editors

The Nation magazine recently published a piece titled “University Presidents — Speak Out!” in which writer Scott Sherman discusses how university presidents aren’t outspoken about major issues of the day like they once were.

In the early 1900s, “college and university presidents did not limit their activities to fundraising, shmoozing, paper-pushing and administration,” Sherman wrote. “They had access to bully pulpits, and they occupied them. … But the job has changed radically in recent decades, and these days we have a generation of presidents who tiptoe around public controversy.”

Sure enough, President Lester Lefton fits this mold, as evidenced by last semester’s interview with one of Kent State’s student-run magazines, The Burr.

“One of the problems of being a public university college president — we say in the business — is that you tend to lose your First Amendment rights,” Lefton said. “Because there are things you want to say that you just can’t say. Because, as president, you just can’t say them — despite the fact that you want to say them. It’s like, you want to tell the truth about something, but you just don’t say anything. You don’t lie, but you just don’t say anything. You have to be very circumspect. You don’t express your political views, for example. Nobody knows whether I’m a Democrat or a Republican.”

This reserved policy makes some sense. As universities are often struggling to stay out of debt, their presidents probably don’t want to say something that could offend potential applicants or donors.

But we can do better than that. A university is supposed to not just give students the education they seek, but also inspire them to improve our world. University leaders should be bold and motivate people to think about the systemic problems in our society.

We would hope that if Lefton and other university presidents are truly confident in their political stances, people will find them persuasive and compelling, not offensive. University presidents could be role models, advocating action and making a beneficial impact in policy discussions.

Sherman cited a quote from Bard College president Leon Botstein that is worth reprinting here: “A college president has an obligation to be more outspoken than the average citizen. … Failure to be in a leadership role on matters of public policy … is an act of cowardice and an avoidance of responsibility. We need to teach our students that the civilized assertion of one’s beliefs is an obligation, an honor, and a pleasure.”

The above editorial is the consensus opinion of the Daily Kent Stater editorial board.