Hey, college presidents, speak up!

University heads protect their coffers by avoiding big issues

COLLEGE PRESIDENTS HAVE long used the bully pulpit that comes with their office to shape public opinion. That is, until now. Today, college leaders remain silent, having turned their sights inward to their own campuses. Their desire to avoid any press has diminished their moral authority and role as important thought leaders.

In the past, Boston area presidents took positions against slavery and McCarthyism. James Bryant Conant of Harvard revolutionized higher education from centers of privilege to become meritocracies. Boston University’s John Silber spoke frequently about reforming education when he ran for governor.

But this is in stark contrast to the public statements of Joe Aoun of Northeastern, Bob Brown of BU, William Leahy of BC, Tony Monaco of Tufts or Tafael Rief of MIT. Their statements would make for a very small book. These presidents have become the “Silent Five.” Can you remember what any one of them said about the biggest higher education story of 2018 – the closing of Mount Ida? Total silence.

There is much for them to address. Many of our colleges are in financial trouble, unable to fill their seats and too dependent on government subsidies. Conservatives accuse them of bias; businessmen of irrelevance; and politicians of incompetence to adequately teach low income students. They appear hopeless trying to prevent for-profit institutions from stealing students and revenues. Wouldn’t you like to see them talk more about college affordability, student debt, tuition increases, and how they assign financial aid?

Against this litany, why stay silent? It’s because these colleges have become businesses. Presidents have built a layer of administrators focused on finance, strategy, investments, and public relations shielding them from faculty, students and us, the public. Public relation departments are charged with creating a positive atmosphere to attract applicants. Controversy is shunned. If a president has issues, he takes them up to lobbyists not the public.

To be fair, this model is working very well for these five schools, all in the top tier of their peers and financially sound. But that is by the standards of a well-run business. Colleges are not-for-profit institutions to which we the public grant tax relief in exchange for good works. In normal times, just educating our children would seem to be enough. But at a time when so many colleges are in financial trouble, we could use a little guidance from the Silent Five about what is at stake.

In an effort to reclaim moral authority, Larry Bacow, the new president of Harvard and past president of Tufts has vowed to step forward.  “I don’t think I can afford to sit on the sidelines,” Bacow said to the Boston Globe. “I think the issues that we confront as a nation are too important to just to be focused on Harvard alone at this point.”

Meet the Author
This is good advice for the Silent Five. Who knows, they may disagree with each other and we would gain from a genuine debate. If our colleges were only a cottage industry, the debate would be only interesting. But our colleges drive employment and our economy. A debate over the fate of this industry could prove crucial.

Robert Hildreth is founder and president of Hildreth Institute, a non-profit organization based in Boston that aims to increase awareness among students, families, and higher education institutions about the student debt crisis.