An Open Letter to President Marx
By Khan Shoieb '13, Columnist
President Marx,

There is a gaping void in the national conversation today. It is a void that was filled only decades ago by the likes of Arthur Schlesinger, Kingman Brewster and Norman Mailer. It is a void that was occupied by the public intellectual — the great thinker who concerned himself with the affairs of the public, unconstrained by calls for specialization and daring to embody a voice for a nation.

Sadly, in the silence of the public intellectual today, we hear only the shrill refrains of Washington politicians. Academics, cloistered in their Ivory Towers, are too busy talking to each other to speak to the broader populace, while writers and thinkers of another sort feel occupational pressures against generalization. No longer are there voices that command national attention to speak out on issues that a myopic Beltway neglects or fumbles.

But this silence was once filled by university presidents. Robert Hutchins, who led the University of Chicago during the Second World War, drafted a world constitution in 1948. James Conant, former president of Harvard University, addressed the public frequently on educational reform while serving as an adviser to the Atomic Energy Commission. As president of Yale, Kingman Brewster, appearing on the covers of both Time and Newsweek, spoke out against the Vietnam War and played a pivotal role in influencing senators to reform the draft. University presidents, properly seen as the heads of our democracy’s most vital institutions, as “captains of erudition,” undaunted by controversy, were national figures whose public utterances often made headlines.

Today, the leaders of our most prestigious colleges and universities have embraced a conspicuous reticence when it comes to issues of national concern. Immersed in the bureaucratic management of their sprawling institutions, they resemble technocrats more so than genuine leaders. Rather than contributing to the national conversation and inspiring a generation of students, a “successful” college president raises money and keeps the alumni base content.

Granted, a whole host of reasons have been proffered for the death of the president as spokesman. Presidents today claim fundraising as such a critical part of their duties that jeopardizing alumni relations with outspokenness may put their own jobs in jeopardy. Indeed, many believe that Brewster’s comment in 1970 on the heels of the New Haven Black Panther trials that he was “skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States,” led to sour alumni relations and declining revenue for Yale. Moreover, some feel that a vocal president gives the impression of violating institutional neutrality. In a worst-case scenario this would inhibit academic freedom.

But do any of these excuses hold water? Yale experienced declining alumni contributions during Brewster’s tenure more for his enactment of progressive admissions policies that increased the numbers of black and public school students (in lieu of Yale sons) than for his comments on public affairs. And history has shown that institutions willing to defend their principles fare better in the long run. Amherst’s successful fundraising campaign this decade is no doubt partially linked to our steadfast commitment to financial aid amidst a devastating recession.

Furthermore, the notion that by speaking out on a public issue a president will violate the neutrality of the institution he presides over is a relatively recent and illogical invention. It is nothing short of silly to think that a president’s views must always represent the university’s views, and equally as silly to think that the public is incapable of distinguishing the president as a private individual from when he is speaking for the university.

For a society that places such a premium on education, how can we afford for the leaders of the world’s most prized institutions to be so timid? We must restore the role of the university president in public life. If the institution stands as an example for its students, how better can it serve its purpose than by having leaders with conviction and who speak out on the pressing issues of our day and contribute to the intellectual vitality of our civic life?

President Marx, after having spent much of your tenure fighting to increase socioeconomic diversity in higher education, you are correctly recognized nationally as a pioneer in admissions reform. As your friend and education writer Rick Kahlenberg points out, you have had “an out-sized impact on the national conversation about diversity in higher education.” Indeed, you have built up a tremendous wealth of political capital over the years. So as you prepare to leave for the New York Public Library system, why not expend some of this capital in the name of national issues that need a voice? Why not speak out in favor of policies that will contribute to the long-term welfare of the society in which Amherst resides? What is there to lose?

There are many small and uncontroversial steps that you can take to restore the role of the college president. In the midst of repeated calls for increasing our global “competitiveness,” for a renewed emphasis on the technical math and sciences, why not remind the nation of the power of the humanities in sparking the ingenuity, creativity and leadership that is the real spirit of American prosperity?

Why not follow your colleagues at Yale and Harvard and publicly endorse the DREAM Act, which could use more support from influential education leaders while it’s suffering legislative setbacks?

These are only two of the many issues that could use your attention as president of the leading liberal arts college in the nation. And, in the spirit of giving you a fair platform, the Amherst Political Union would like to formally extend to you an open invitation to address members of the Amherst College community this spring on a topic of your choosing, and at a date of your convenience. We sincerely hope that you will accept our invitation for, as the Yale Daily News editorial staff wrote 46 years ago in defense of Kingman Brewster, “the concerns of a university’s public spokesman should be as broad as the problems of the society his university serves.”

Issue 13, Submitted 2011-02-02 00:35:41