University presidents should not be held to the same standards as politicians

While this may be the norm for many politicians, different standards should apply to university presidents. | Via FIU Flickr

PantherNOW Editorial Board

On Jan. 2, Harvard President Claudine Gay yielded to pressure from conservative critics and announced that she would resign from her post following allegations of plagiarism.

Undoubtedly, Gay’s infamous congressional hearing this past month also drew the scorn of many who saw her as being indifferent to mounting anti-semitism on college campuses. The compounding effect of both these circumstances was unquestionably instrumental in her resignation. Her downfall has surely infused her detractors with a high sense of vindication.  

But where do university presidents’ duties begin and where do they end? And to speak candidly, can we ignore the conflicting responsibility of fostering an environment where students can engage one another freely while also ensuring that hateful rhetoric is kept at bay? Surely, easy answers cannot be given to complex issues involving the right to free expression. 

It seems to be an established policy in academia that whenever there is a controversial issue, university presidents are expected to weigh in. They seem to enjoy a halo effect of wise men and women and this somehow makes them the ideal individuals to reinforce some national political stance. 

This ignores the fact that the primary goal of university presidents is to impartially look after the interests of their student population. That duty cannot only be exercised toward those who may be the victim of unpopular speech on college campuses. 

We in PantherNOW understand the rationale for having university presidents give their input on controversial issues, but we believe that it’s unfair that balancing acts has led to one’s resignation. 

Being educators and academics themselves, they’re in a unique position to influence national politics. However, lately, their jobs seem to have mutated from being about advancing the interests of their respective institutions to being full-blown politicians.

When the country faces complex political conflict, it is important for university presidents not to yield to loud voices demanding actions beyond their power. Institutions of higher learning must be the place where knowledge flourishes, not the place for the next politician to get their first taste of mindlessly pandering to the public by pushing shallow reforms. 

Nevertheless, Some university presidents have, in recent times, occupied political jobs in the past, with former senator Ben Sasse being the most high-profile one. It’s fair to wonder whether the usual political theatrics won’t inevitably be transferred into the administration of a university. 

While this may be the norm for many politicians, different standards should apply to university presidents. 

We should expect our university presidents to be as objective as humanly possible. Their failure to tame redundant issues that existed before their times should not be grounds for dismissal. 

Further, we cannot only look at a single responsibility. Yes, university presidents do need to ensure that hate speech and hateful attitudes have no place on their campuses. However, they also have a responsibility to secure free speech for students within those standards. 

As such, extreme adherence to any one responsibility may come at the expense of even the bare minimum to another.

During her heated exchange with senate republicans, Gay offered a reasonable answer to the rise of anti-semitism at Harvard University. She said that whenever the anti-semitic incidents would rise to the level of actual violence against Jewish students at Harvard, is when the university would take action. Clearly, this was an insufficient response according to her conservative counterparts. 

The gutting of Gay’s job is also powerfully illustrative of hypocrisy among the conservative base. 

It would seem that the virtues of free speech can only be trumpeted for as long as they do not impact right-wing ideals in any way. Conversely, when firebrand political pundits take the stage to speak disparagingly of transgender individuals, they seem to carry a badge immunizing them from losing their jobs. 

When that speech goes against what they espouse, they rise up in anger to resoundingly oppose it. When they are caught red-handed doing the same thing, they readily lecture us all about the sanctity of free speech. When objectivity, much like the one Gay spoke of, is offered as a reasonable option, it’s suddenly inadequate. She was forced to resign because of it. 

We don’t dismiss the allegations of plagiarism at all – that, of course, is cause for any decent administrator to consider resignation. However, these allegations are being highlighted at what appears to be a suspicious time.

We also don’t dismiss the magnitude of hate on college campuses. It seems these days, many colleges have dealt with hate of some form, and they are scrambling to offer solutions to that epidemic. 

But university presidents should not be lambasted for siding with reason. It’s only the politicians who will publicly offer half-hearted solutions while knowing full well that they do not stand a chance of being implemented. These standards should not apply to university presidents.

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