Presidents, Lose the Politesse. Oppose Trump’s Re-election.Roundup
tags: Donald Trump, 2020 Election, colleges and universities
Brian Rosenberg is president emeritus of Macalester College and president in residence of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
In his landmark essay, “The Role of the University as an Institution in Confronting External Issues,” published in 1978 while he was president of Princeton, William G. Bowen argued persuasively that “there is a strong presumption against the University … taking a position or playing an active role with respect to external issues of a political, economic, social, moral, or legal character. By the “University,” I believe, he means chiefly those in positions of leadership like presidents or members of a board of trustees, since it would be impossible for the university as a whole, with all its disparate parts and diverse constituencies, to speak in one voice about anything.
In recent years this presumption has become far less strong, as college leaders have taken visible positions on a range of social and moral issues in particular, and as the claim that neutrality is even possible has become less tenable. Yet the remaining line that is almost never crossed is the one separating the university from electoral politics. Presidents, chancellors, and boards of trustees simply do not openly endorse or oppose candidates for elected office (though it seems only fair to note that Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, last year very publicly endorsed Michael Bennet, the U.S. Senator from Colorado, for president of the United States).
The easiest and most compelling explanation for this electoral neutrality lies within the Internal Revenue Code, which states definitively that “all section 501(c)(3) organizations” — the category into which nonprofit colleges fall — “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. … Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.” Presidential support for or opposition to particular candidates runs the very real risk of punishment by the IRS, though the unpunished actions of Jerry Falwell Jr., Paul LeBlanc, and numerous leaders of religious nonprofits in particular suggest that it is possible to distinguish the views of the president from the official views of the institution.
All of this raises an important question: Does a college leader have a sound and intellectually defensible basis for openly opposing the re-election of Donald J. Trump? Many of those leaders have spoken strongly in opposition to particular policies of the Trump administration — regarding immigration, DACA, racial justice, international students, and a host of other subjects — but few if any have spoken directly to the question of whether the creator of those policies should remain in office.
In Bowen’s essay, he defines three sets of situations in which the presumption of neutrality might be overcome. Two of these are not especially uncommon: when the issue at hand touches directly upon the ability of the college to carry out its educational mission — affirmative action is often cited here as an example — and when the issue requires action by the college as an employer or a member of a municipality (zoning regulations, for instance, or the right to unionize). The third set, Bowen acknowledges, “should be recognized conceptually even though they occur exceedingly infrequently” and comprises “potential threats to the fabric of the entire society that are so serious that if the ‘wrong’ outcome occurs, the survival of the University itself would be threatened — or, in the most extreme situations, would not even matter.” If there is typically a glass barrier between the university and politics, this might be described as a “break glass in case of emergency” scenario.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether the re-election of Donald Trump is a threat to the social fabric sufficiently dire to justify the abandonment of neutrality, even if such abandonment comes with risk. But this strikes me as a perfectly appropriate question to ask — indeed, it seems at the moment irresponsible not to ask it — a fact that in itself reveals how extraordinary our present circumstances have become.
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