The Public Role of the University

January 31, 2003
Campus Gargoyle

I must numerous times I have been called on as Duke's president to speak out--or been criticized for not speaking out--on some issue of public moment. This has led me to wrestle mightily with the question of whether "the university" has a responsibility, in some form, to make its voice heard on issues of great public importance.

First, we have to figure out what it means for "the university" to take a stand. Few would deny that faculty members and students, as individuals, have the right to say whatever they wish about hot topics--signing petitions, writing op-eds, making speeches. The complications arise when those of us who lead the institution speak out.

We may claim that we do so only as individuals, that we don't abnegate our individual right to free speech by taking a job like president. Yet such a stance is not easily sustained in practice: It's very hard for observers to separate the person from the job. Anything a president says about controversial issues while in office is likely to be taken as an official statement of the university.

Furthermore, if the chief officer takes a substantive stand, those on campus who hold the opposite point of view may be less likely to speak out, especially if they lack power and job security--even if the senior officer has no intention of silencing anyone. In this way, a stand one believes to be in the public interest can actually cut against the robust expression of ideas by creating a potentially chilling effect.

Must university presidents therefore be silent on all controversial public issues? Many think so, arguing that no one can legitimately speak "for the university" and that our best course of action is solely to ensure the unabated free play of argument and counter-argument. There is merit in this stance, but it neglects the positive potential of using the "bully pulpit." Such a view also ignores the fact that some major issues affecting society have significant implications for universities as well. In such cases, silence may be dangerous, as the field will be left to those who understand little about higher education. Institutions have no voices, after all, except for those of the individuals entrusted with their care.

Sometimes, of course, an issue has clear relevance to the other public purposes of the university. Few would deny that the president ought to make his or her voice heard when, say, support for research, financial aid that makes education more accessible, or academic freedom is at stake. The university community may not agree on the right specific answers, but at least the connection to the university's well-being is undeniable.

More difficult are situations where the university has an interest, but the connection is less clear cut: on health policy, for example, or drug abuse or gun control. We cannot function well if people pack heat in our classrooms or threaten students at gunpoint on or near campus. Our medical enterprise depends heavily on decisions made elsewhere about paying for health care and about how and to whom it will be provided. However, these are matters on which we are likely to hold widely differing views as citizens; this means that special care should be used in deciding whether and how to speak out as president.

Sometimes there is serious disagreement about whether "the university" has any business getting into a topic at all--issues like divestment from South Africa a few years ago, support for the government of Israel or the rights of Palestinians today, perspectives on war in Iraq, corporate ethics, sweatshops, and boycotts. In these areas, a president must determine her course of action very carefully, realizing that a large contingent who care about the university will disagree strongly with whatever she does--including doing nothing.

Thus, only after due procedures and consultation might Duke join a fair-trade association or workers'-rights consortium, for example. In announcing and implementing such a decision I am speaking "for the university." A salient distinction can be drawn here between speaking out and making policy, between expressing an opinion and taking steps that commit the university as a whole to particular actions.

In deciding when and how to speak out, I follow a number of rules. Here are a few:

- How important is the moral principle involved? Are human rights and liberties at stake?

- How clear-cut are the moral issues? Are there strong moral arguments on both sides of a dilemma, or is the preponderance of moral argument in favor of one side?

- How close to the university is the issue at stake; how much involvement does the university have in the question?

- Have I been called upon by thoughtful and engaged members of the community to exercise judgment and take a stand on this issue, or have I rather gone out looking for dragons to slay?

- Do I have any special competence or experience that might give more credibility to the expression of opinion and make it more likely to be sound?

I do not for a moment believe that such rules yield easy answers, but they represent the kinds of filters I think presidents should employ.

It can sometimes also be relevant to assess how many people on campus would agree with a stand I might take. Yet there are situations in which I may be bound in conscience to speak out anyway.

Quite a few people these days complain that university presidents have become a bunch of wimps, concerned only with raising money and keeping peace--pale shadows of the giants who walked the Earth in ages past, whom an entire society revered as moral arbiters. I have no desire to be a wimp but also no illusions about becoming widely recognized as a moral arbiter, even if I wanted to. That's simply not the way things work in our society of sound bites and talk shows, a society that no longer easily accords moral leadership to anybody in any post.

My responsibility, I would argue, is neither to be silent nor to chime in on every possible occasion, but to think very carefully about how I use my public voice. Moral authority may become moribund if it is never used, but it is also squandered if it is used too casually.