This "Household Words" column appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Macalester Today.
By Brian Rosenberg
The following remarks are excerpted from a convocation address President Brian Rosenberg made to the student body during the first week of classes last fall.
There is a myth about the evolution of the American college presidency that runs like this: “Back in the day” college and university presidents were figures of towering intellect who spent comparatively little time worrying about such mundane and vaguely unsavory things as fundraising and balancing budgets, but instead provided visionary leadership for their institutions and, even more broadly, spoke with effect to the great issues of the day. Now, like many myths, this one has embedded within it at least some small element of truth. There have been in fact a handful of college presidents who have functioned as visible public intellectuals, and as the business of running a college has become more complex, the need for presidents to attend to matters financial has grown accordingly.
If the past year has taught us anything, it is that not only college presidents, but businesspeople and politicians and individuals of every stripe should pay very careful attention to the advice offered to Dickens’s David Copperfield by the irrepressible Mr. Micawber: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds and six, result misery.” It is a president’s job to avoid institutional misery. But anyone who believes that this responsibility is new, or that college presidents used to be free of such concerns, is deeply mistaken. Here is one president lamenting the financial pressures of the job: “What I was sent here for is an inscrutable mystery. I am too diffident to wrestle with men about money or with financial problems so vast…. If [a college president] can read and write, so much the better, but he must be able to raise money.” The voice is that of James Wallace, Macalester’s fifth president, writing in 1895.
The reality is that college presidents have always had to be concerned with both the business of education, or the work of preparing students to be successful in their personal, professional, and civic lives, and the education business, or the work of ensuring that the institution can pay its bills. Bill Bowen, the former president of Princeton University, recalls being told by a Nobel-prize winning physicist on his faculty that “excellence can’t be bought…but it has to be paid for.” Bowen, who went on to become president of the Mellon Foundation, never forgot this observation, nor should anyone whose responsibility it is to seek the highest quality in education at any level.
The question of the extent to which a college president should function as a public intellectual is more interesting and the answer more nuanced. Few would argue that within the college community the president should provide intellectual, ethical, and even temperamental leadership. The faculty is responsible for shaping the curriculum and carrying out the core educational work of the college; the president can aid that work by articulating, clearly and repeatedly, the context within which it takes place and the ends to which it is directed.
At Macalester, I believe the central end to be the education of students for what the college’s ninth president, Charles Turck, termed “the duties of world citizenship,” which I take to mean preparation for socially responsible leadership and constructive participation in local, national, and transnational communities.
Our job is to provide students with the knowledge, skills, understanding, and motivation to lead more rewarding lives and to make a difference in the lives of others. It is to repay families and donors and the broader society, all of whom have invested in your education, by turning you loose after four years as smart, motivated people who will make the world a better place—and along the way to prepare you for gainful employment. Further, a college president should model the essential attributes of a learning community, including clarity of language and thought, civility, scholarly curiosity and rigor, openness to different views, and an unwavering commitment to ethical behavior: in other words, everything that we have not seen manifested at the recent town hall meetings on health care reform.
Being human, college presidents will sometimes fail to meet these exalted standards, but every day and in every setting they should try. This is important because fairly or not, members of the community will extrapolate from the president’s actions a sense of what is valued and accepted by the college.
A trickier question is this: What role should college presidents play in relation to political and social questions that extend beyond the campus and may divide our communities and culture? This is perhaps the single most difficult dilemma I wrestle with in my position. As those who know me well will confirm, I have strong opinions and a preference for expressing them directly: After all, I grew up in New York City, a place not known for its delicacy and decorum. At my family’s dinner table, if you weren’t shouting, someone would ask if you were feeling okay. But I am also enormously frustrated by the absence of thoughtful public discourse in this country and believe that those who are educated and embrace the life of the mind have a responsibility to raise the level of that discourse.
And yet—fairly or unfairly, reasonably or not, the views expressed by college presidents are typically seen as the views of the colleges they represent. My personal desire to express publicly my opinions on controversial issues often conflicts with my professional responsibility to preserve academic freedom and an atmosphere of openness to all reasonable perspectives that are civilly stated. And in the end, that professional responsibility must take precedence.
My conviction is that in agreeing to become a college president, a willingness to be measured and restrained in one’s public statements is part of the deal.
There is no principle that has generated more debate on campus. Some of you will no doubt engage me in that debate in the coming years, and that is on balance a good thing. It is to wrestle with such difficult matters that college communities exist, and it is through such discussion that we approach closer to some kind of wisdom. Now, this does not mean that I believe that I should say nothing about anything, though I’m sure there are those who think I do a pretty darn good job of saying nothing about everything. It means that I believe that I need to pick my spots with great care. In general, when I speak to issues of public significance, I try to focus on those so central to the educational mission of Macalester as to require the college to make a decision about its policies and practices.
For example, it seems inappropriate for me as president to endorse a particular candidate in the Minnesota gubernatorial race. I have opinions—boy, do I have opinions—but to express them openly runs the risk of suggesting that Macalester is taking an official, institutional position and even of jeopardizing our status as a tax-exempt organization. Similarly, I do not believe that I should be staking out Macalester’s position on health care reform or military intervention in Afghanistan. These are, however, precisely the issues that all of you should be studying, arguing about, and taking action on as students, scholars, and global citizens. My job is to ensure that Macalester provides the environment within which you can do these things, rather than to delineate in each instance the proper “Macalester” stance.
On the other hand, I have spoken out on issues such as the importance of diversity in higher education and the necessity to practice and model environmental responsibility. For me, these issues are inseparable from and directly relevant to our work as a college, and therefore ones that I can and should address. So we have signed an amicus brief in the University of Michigan affirmative action case and become early signers of the College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. I would contend that not to take stands on issues of this kind would actually impair our ability to carry out our educational work— and therefore that they are issues to which I should speak, both individually and as a representative of Macalester.
Is the line between issues of the first sort and issues of the second perfectly clear? Absolutely not. Is it important for anyone in my position to recognize that such a line exists and to decide on which side of it any particular issue falls? Yes. So those of you who will want Macalester during the coming years to take a position on a matter close to your heart should bear in mind that the standard I have described is the one that I consistently apply and should try to construct arguments that will meet that standard. And remember: it is not enough to argue that the majority of members of our community share a particular position on a cause or issue. One of my tasks—indeed, a task for all of us—is to create an environment within which the views of the minority can be freely expressed and listened to carefully, critically, and respectfully. We do not achieve this by putting the weight of the college behind the views of the majority. One of the most comfortable and at times energizing things about Macalester is that there is much more consensus about potentially divisive matters here than there is in society at large. I suspect that this is why a fair number of you elected to enroll here. Bear in mind, however, that this is also one of the most challenging things about Macalester. It is a little too easy to get swept up in the collective certainty, a little too easy to dismiss those with whom one disagrees, a little too easy to become intellectually lazy. It is even, on rare but memorable occasions, too easy to become cruel. We never want to become mirror images of those whose intolerance we are striving to rise above.
I try to do what all of us in a college community should do, and that is to learn from those around us and translate what we learn into wiser, more humane, and more constructive behavior. That’s a hard job but one I wouldn’t trade for any other.
Brian Rosenberg, the president of Macalester College, writes a regular column for Macalester Today. He can be reached at email@example.com.