We are at a moment of moral peril in the U.S. Basic rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly are being undermined by hate groups, extreme language online and politicians galvanizing their base of voters. Last week, I wrote about CEOs stepping up to advocate for diversity and tolerance. But the private sector is limited by fiduciary responsibility and pragmatism in dealing with government. Universities have no such constraints. In fact, they should be taking the lead at a time when questions of history and governance are being debated by those who prefer ideology and controversy to historical background and fact.
It is time for the academic community to step into the breach. I made the case in December that presidents of universities had receded into the realm of administration and had stepped away from their obligation to be the conscience of the country. I noted such leaders as Kingman Brewster, former president of Yale University, who led the public discourse on the wisdom of continued American involvement in Vietnam. Or Father Theodore Hesburgh, former president of Notre Dame, who was a central figure in the civil rights movement in the 60s and 70s.
I commend Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, for his remarks in the wake of Charlottesville. In a letter to the university community, Zimmer talked about the history of free expression and open discourse at the school. “The recent events in Charlottesville saw a group claiming to act on the basis of free expression but whose behavior demonstrated the opposite. The celebration of Nazi flags and uniforms, torches and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan… and the death of an innocent person must be seen for what they are… an attempt to intimidate, threaten and arrogate for themselves an exclusive right to speech… It is a travesty to label as free speech the combination of brandished weapons, the killing of an innocent person and the symbols of destruction.”
Similarly, Dean Risa Goluboff of University of Virginia Law School wrote to her community, “I am appalled by the attempts of white supremacists to instill fear and provoke violence in our community… acts of racial intimidation are criminal… When the story of the long march of civil rights is told, this moment will, I hope, be seen as a late and ultimately futile response to the successes of the freedom struggles over the last fifty years… As we begin the new semester, the world will be watching… People near and far will note how we beat back the forces of intolerance and they will celebrate our resolve.”
The Edelman Trust Barometer finds academics, along with a person like yourself and technical experts, as the most credible spokespeople. They are seen as objective, brilliant but distant figures. And while some university presidents and deans may have wider latitude than others, it is time for them to enter the public dialogue, providing necessary context and intellectual rigor to the citizenry. We have important issues to debate, such as the future of statues of Confederate generals which are on public display in many Southern cities. One of the central roles of universities and their leaders is to provide a safe space for debates and discussions, and not just for students but for entire communities. Get out of the walled garden, presidents and professors, because this is your time to shine.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.