Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Know Yourself, Be Yourself, Speak for Yourself or Not

I am familiar with the essential conflict that can arise when you want to speak for yourself and in your own voice but you have a job that requires you to speak for your boss in their voice or to speak for an institution in a voice that serves the institution's interests and purpose rather than your own.

The president of Colorado College, L. Song Richardson (a lawyer and expert on DEI issues and race and politics), expressed the conflict this way as she explained in an interview with Inside Higher Education, why she was resigning as president after only three years in office:
 “There are many things that I can talk about in my role as president that are consistent with the things that we are trying to do as we move forward in this higher ed space. And then there are things that if I were an academic, as a law professor and scholar, I could speak more robustly about,” Richardson said. “For instance, I’m a scholar of race, equity and inclusion. I have a lot of deep knowledge, based on my own scholarship, about the issues that are being debated today. And because of my role as president, I won’t speak as I would if I were an academic.”

According to IHE, Richardson wrote [in announcing her resignation] that "as the national dialogue around “equity and fairness” has intensified, she has felt “increasingly torn between my desire to pursue that work as an academic with the freedom to fully engage in these debates, express my personal views, and challenge the status quo” and her responsibilities as president of the college."
Richardson chose to resolve this conflict by returning to academia to run "a new institute focused on equity, opportunity and leadership."

Seeing this as a fundamental choice she had to make is acknowledging that we don't expect or want college presidents or their institutions to lead on moral issues.  The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) and others have called on boards of trustees to impose "institutional neutrality policies" theoretically to protect "free speech."  The Governor of Utah told his public colleges the state didn't need them to take positions on political issues. The Governor of Virginia and his Attorney General have hinted, as one commentator put it, at "thought policing" Virginia educational institutions from K-12 through college.
All this makes me wonder how former Princeton University and Mellon Foundation president William G. Bowen would be "seen" today. Author of "The Shape of the River" a landmark book in the debate over "affirmative action" in college admissions, Bowen was an advocate for race conscious admissions as President of Princeton and after who said this in a speech in 2005:
"Race remains the most deep-seated and intransigent barrier to opportunity. That was, is, and will remain the reality in this country for the foreseeable future. ... [P]aying attention to class and background, which we strongly favor, is, at this juncture in our history, no substitute for paying attention to race.  ... Americans always seek the painless alternative, and it is much easier for most people to be sympathetic to economic disadvantage than it is for them to understand and address challenging issues that are due in large part to what Glenn Loury has called the "unlovely history" of race in America."   Bowen continued:  "But surely it ought to be possible to think about opportunity from more than a single perspective--to recognize that the river of opportunity has tributaries of may hues and many kinds. There is also the matter of attitude. It is clearly necessary to focus on the difficulties and challenges involved in helping this river wind to the sea, however measured is its progress. But we should also be grateful for the privilege of addressing such fundamental questions, and we should be permitted to take some satisfaction from trying to do the right things for the right reasons." 
From "Extending Opportunity: What is to Be Done?" included in Ever the Leader, Selected Writings 1995-2016, pages 68- 85
Extolled in 1998 for his leadership and use of his labor economist training to make the case for race conscious admissions, would Bill Bowen be chastised in 2024 for taking a political position on a controversial issue while serving as Princeton's President or leading a major Foundation?  Would he feel forced to choose between speaking his mind based on his academic training and expertise and leading an institution? Perhaps. Perhaps not.  Definitely worth further thought.