Pelton Speaks on Moral Leadership & Civic Engagement

January 30, 2012

Bart Giamatti, famed former president of Yale and baseball commissioner, once remarked that “being a college president was no way for an adult to make a living.” 

It may be that you have felt that way as well.

Consider the following story.

When a certain headmaster presided over a certain New England boarding school, shortly after the opening of that school, he received a call from the anxious mother of a first-year student. “My son’s health is delicate,” she said, “and I’m afraid that he is not eating properly. Would you please make sure that he is getting three nutritious, hot meals a day?” The Headmaster reassured the mother as best as he could and said that he would look into the matter.

A week later, he received a call from the same woman. “My son has been staying up too late. I’m afraid that he has fallen in with the wrong crowd and is not getting all the sleep that he needs.” The Headmaster reassured her again and said that he would look into it.

Not more than a week passed when the mother called again. “My son is studying too hard,” she said. “His teachers are assigning too much homework and he is anxious and distraught.” The Headmaster did his best to reassure her once again and said that he would look into the matter.

A week later she called again. “Chapel services are too early. He needs plenty of sleep and getting up that early to attend chapel is not good for his health.” At which point, the exasperated Headmaster said, “Madam, we guarantee our education. And if you are not perfectly satisfied, we would be more than happy to return your son to you free of charge.”

Now, that’s what I would call one of the best examples of moral leadership and courage that I know of. So much so that I have half a mind to end my talk right here and take questions.

Presidents of colleges and headmasters of independent schools share similar histories. Entrance to our institutions was, more or less, narrowly limited to men (and eventually women) of privilege and special talent. Today, however, access has been happily broadened in several dimensions.

 From the earliest beginnings of our institutions to now, when they are decidedly more complex, American society has continued to imbue both the college president and the headmaster with special and uncommon capacities of intellect, bearing, and resolve.

 “We are looking for a man of fine appearance, of commanding presence, one who will impresses the public; he must be a fine speaker at public assemblies; he must be a great scholar and a great teacher; he must be a preacher also, as some think; he must be a man of winning manners; he must have tact so that he can get along with and govern the faculty; he must be popular with the students; he must also be a man of business training, a man of affairs; he must be a great administrator.”

“Gentleman, there is no such man.” [Quote in American Higher Education: A History, Lucas, Christopher, St.Martin’s Griffin, New York: 1994, pp.187-88]

The speaker was Rutherford B. Hayes, the then former president of the United States; the audience was the Ohio State University Board of Trustees; the date, 1890.

Though he was speaking prospectively about the characteristics of the Ohio State University president, he could have easily been describing the hoped-for abilities sought in a headmaster.

The prevailing expectations about the attributes and role of what we do have changed little, even as the institutions, which we oversee, have changed significantly, especially in the last forty years or so.

We are very busy, you and I. We balance large and complex budgets. We cultivate, solicit and steward gifts from alumni, friends, corporations, and foundations in support of our strategic plans. (The definition of a president is “someone who lives in a big house and begs for money.”) Because upwards to two thirds of our budgets are accounted for by the people who work, live, and study at our institutions, much of the job is a “people business,” as we provide leadership for faculty and staff development, while managing––frequently, it turns out ––difficult human conflicts and issues. We attend lectures, symposia, creative productions, and athletic events and when we are not there, our absence is duly noted with disappointment. We entertain often, especially those of us who live in an official residence near or on our campuses. We write essays, deliver lectures, participate in our educational associations, and a lucky few of us still teach.

It is a splendid job that engages and stretches our intellectual leadership and managerial capacities to the delight and pleasure of those of us who are fortunate enough to hold the title of president or headmaster.                 

A frequent knock against college presidents is that we no longer speak with moral authority:  “Once university presidents could speak with such authority. Now they're administrators and fundraisers,” one frequently hears or reads.

The common complaint is that the complexities of the modern college has made it more difficult for today’s president to assert his or her moral authority because of time and political or donor-related constraints. However, the complaint is not a new one.               

John Jay Chapman, a lawyer and noted essayist of his day, had this to say more than a century ago: “The men who control [universities] today are very little else than business men, running a large department store which dispenses education to the millions.”

And John Dewey, the great American educator, criticized what he saw as “the atmosphere of money-getting and money-spending… [which] hides from view the interests for the sake of which money alone has a place.”

No doubt, modern-day presidents and headmasters believe that they exercise moral authority daily, in real and tangible terms, in fulfilling their institutional mission of preparing young people from diverse backgrounds and economic circumstances for college and lifelong learning so they might develop their talents to renew and strengthen true quality in human society.        

There are different dimensions of moral leadership. The most difficult are those in which two competing, but equally compelling, ideas or ideals clash. A recent illustrative example:

The Berkeley Beacon, Emerson College’s major student newspaper, is funded through a special annual allocation from student fees that are controlled by the Student Government Association (SGA). The allocation is constitutionally set as a percentage of the total of fees.    

All other student organizations must compete for funding by submitting their projected budgets and a rationale for their requests to the SGA finance committee. Organizations sometimes receive what they request, though, more often, they receive less. This competitive process is meant to encourage budget discipline among the competing organizations, while, at the same, to create a process by which the finance committee might better judge the merits of an individual request in relationship to all others. This merit-based system allows the finance committee to make allocations according to established priorities. Obviously, there are budget winners and budget losers in each funding cycle.  

The special allocation for The Beacon was established many years ago in order to protect the newspaper from SGA funding bias and, by extension, to ensure The Beacon’s editorial independence so that it would be free to express its views without the fear that the SGA might withhold funding if The Beacon unfavorably reported or criticized its funding source.

This past fall, however, the SGA set before the student body a set of constitutional amendments, among which was the withdrawal of the special, percentage-based allocation for The Beacon, requiring it to compete for funding each year as all other student organizations. The amendments passed by a 2:1 margin.      

After the vote, a firestorm ensued, particularly among alumni, especially those who worked for news organizations––of which there were many, by the way. Several of them wrote and called me. They were gravely concerned that the new competitive funding adopted by the student body would erode The Beacon’s independence, making it vulnerable to politically motivated SGA leadership. Not a few were also very upset that I had permitted this to occur and demanded that I override the outcome of the vote, which, as I said, was approved by two-thirds of the student body.    

This event provided me with an opportunity, as they say, to “not let a good crisis go to waste.” My response to the alumni, some of whom threatened to withhold philanthropic support unless I took decisive action to correct the SGA’s errant ways, was as follows:   

“My view is that the vote of the student body by a 2:1 margin to put The Beacon on an equal competitive funding basis represents the clash of two competing, but equally compelling, democratic ideals: on the one hand, the preservation of the independence of the news media and on the other hand, the right of students to make an informed decision about how their student fees are to be allocated. From this point of view, I believe that it would be wrong for an administrative authority to abrogate or sacrifice either of these democratic principles on behalf of the other. To prevent the student body from exercising its constitutional rights as students whose fees fund a variety of activities, clubs, and programs would be just as wrong to deny the student newspaper the opportunity to fulfill its very important role on campus through censorship or any other authoritative action that would limit its scope and editorial content.

Nevertheless, it is my strongly held view that the news media, including College student newspapers, have a special role in a democratic society, and by extension on a college campus, that should be assiduously preserved and supported.  

I regret that the majority of students have voted in favor of the SGA amendment. If I were a student, I would have certainly cast a different vote than the majority.

This represents an ‘educational moment’ for the College on which we should shed a very bright light so that our community might become more thoughtfully engaged in an issue that is central to our educational purposes.    

In the days ahead, I will be expressing my view on this matter with the objective of preserving both of these principles, while pledging to ensure that The Beacon's capacity to fulfill its duty is not diminished, now or in the future.”  

My response was meant to achieve several purposes: 

  • To articulate the big ideas involved: newspaper independence and the right of students, within a democratic process, to decide how best their student fees ought to be allocated. The SGA leadership did not, initially, view this as an independence issue; for them, it was merely a matter of fairness and equity in the distribution of student fees; it failed, however, in my view, to acknowledge the critical role of the press in an American democratic society, even if that press is a College student newspaper..                                                                            
  • To make clear that I supported both ideals as meritorious: the right of citizens to express freely their views and values through a democratic voting process and the imperative to ensure that editorial independence is maintained for the benefit of a democratic society. 
  • To make clear that I would not abridge––through authoritative fiat or any other means the constitutional rights of students––even though I disagreed with the outcome. In other words, that I would treat them as the adults I believe they are, recognizing that colleges (and schools, for that matter) are commonwealths of learning, not merely congregations of individuals devoted to self-cultivation alone.              
  • To make clear that I would seek to take actions that would protect the rights of students to exercise their citizenship in our commonwealth of learning, while ensuring that the newspaper’s editorial autonomy is preserved now and in the future. 

Postscript: I met with the SGA president, in order to engage him in deep reflection on the issues involved, while respecting his point of view. I let him know that I disapproved of the outcome as well as the process, which was, in my view, too truncated and did not provide sufficient opportunities for robust discussion. He was neither persuaded nor particularly moved by my concerns. Nevertheless, I hope that I, at least, planted a seed for more thoughtful SGA consideration in the future. I suppose only time will tell if what I said will have any meaningful, long-term effect.      

Now, we have begun to meet with The Beacon editors to discuss ways in which we might be able to provide the newspaper with a permanent source of funding that will protect its independence so that it may be able to continue to publish articles and editorials without the threat of SGA or administrative bias.                                             

Of course, in a certain sense this was not a very big deal. Certainly, it consumed large chunks of my time when I had precious few chunks to give. Nevertheless, I believed the principles involved were important enough that it warranted my intervention, so I could engage the community in discussion and debate on a matter that evoked two deeply cherished American democratic ideals. Hopefully, if another more serious event were to arise in the future that involved these two issues, The Beacon and SGA dispute would serve as a useful framework for reflection.                                 

Sometimes, the best opportunities for moral leadership are on those occasions when the principles involved are consequential, but the outcomes are less so.                                          

However, we need not limit the exercise of our moral authority to crises on campus because the larger society provides us with plenty of opportunities to do so.          

For instance, I was very proud of how presidents and the colleges and universities they served responded to an event that we now know by a single name: Katrina. Terrible forces of nature killed many and displaced even more.                                        

Katrina unveiled deep and long-standing social and economic disparities that exist within this land of plenty.

We saw––with spirits made heavy by human suffering–– the deep fissures of race and poverty that haunt our nation’s conscience.

We sent legions of our students there to provide much-needed assistance to repair schools and feed the hungry. I know that some of you did as well.

College presidents, all across the country, acknowledged that we––the community of the educated folk––were deeply implicated in the terrible truth that Katrina exposed: the truth of neglect and pain captured by unrelenting and raw television footage.

Our nation looks to colleges and universities to help solve its most pressing problems.  And, yet, there is deep skepticism about what we do and how we do it. This we must seek to change, and it begins with college presidents exercising more forcefully their moral authority beyond our ivied towers.

Sometimes, the failure of smart and well-meaning executives to exercise moral leadership can unravel an entire institution, as we have seen recently at Penn State. There were no winners there.

The arc of moral leadership will always bend toward light, not darkness.

I have a simple rule that I try to follow when making difficult decisions: I ask myself, “Will I be able to defend the actions that I am contemplating in a public setting, that is, in a setting outside of my office?” If the answer is “no” or “I’m not sure,” then I know that something is not quite right and I, therefore, need to reconsider what I am thinking of doing.

In recalling the tragedy of Penn State, I am reminded of Samuel Johnson’s remark that “however we may labor for our own deception, truth, though unwelcome, will sometimes intrude upon the mind.”

Our capacity for self-deception, even among the best of us, Johnson believed, is both natural and compelling and, therefore, requires light, not darkness, as its guide. Of course, we all now understand that the painful and unhappy consequences at Penn State sprung from the lack of disclosure, the absence of light, which, if it had been exercised sooner, would have in all likelihood produced a very different outcome than what sadly transpired.

By contrast, I was heartened by what recently occurred at Claremont McKenna College (CMC). It has come to light that CMC manipulated the SAT exam scores of incoming first-year classes for the last several years in order to raise the statistics used for national school rankings, in particular those published by U.S. News and World Report. A senior admissions officer, who has apparently taken responsibility for the deceit, is no longer with the College.

Of course, the systematic submission of altered data to boost the academic profile of incoming classes is inexcusable. It undermines the integrity of the institution itself, for academic integrity and honesty undergird one of the most fundamental principles of colleges and universities. Moreover, these actions, now exposed, will raise doubts about the probity of all other institutions of higher learning to submit true and accurate data for the purposes of measuring performance in a highly competitive and overheated admission environment. No doubt, there will be much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair, not only among the colleges, but also among the press, prospective students, and their parents who are already skeptical of what we do.

However, what should not go unnoticed is the remarkable moral leadership of CMC’s president, Pamela Gann, who publicly disclosed the manipulation of the SAT data in an open letter to the community: “As an institution of higher education,” she said, “with a deep and consistent commitment to the integrity of all our academic activities, and particularly our reporting of institutional data, we take this situation very seriously.”

This was a brave thing to do; it was also the right thing to do. It is the type of moral leadership that we hope our college leaders would exercise on a daily basis. One can only imagine how the situation at Penn State might have been different if its senior administrators had disclosed inappropriate (and possible criminal) behavior of one of its employees in a timely manner ––a failure of moral leadership not lost on the public, or the attorney general who said that while certain members of the Penn State administration had met the criminal reporting threshold, they failed to meet the moral threshold.

At other times, circumstances provide us with opportunities for moral leadership, if only we had the courage to recognize them: for instance, at the University of Michigan, where the extraordinary leadership of two presidents, Lee Bollinger and then Mary Sue Coleman, fought two lawsuits all the way to the Supreme Court, which, if left unchallenged, would have seriously weakened the nation’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

The Court, speaking through Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, acknowledged that the best education occurs within the context of learning that is multi-dimensionally diverse, and it affirmed that selective private and public universities have an obligation to ensure that “the path to leadership [is] open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity” (Grutter v. Bollinger).

Most recently, the Occupy movement provided all of us with an opportunity to exercise moral leadership. One campus in California got it all wrong, as the entire world watched as campus police officers showered peaceful protesters with pepper spray. Many others, including me, were eerily quiet at a time when our voices were needed to bring perspective to the important issues raised by the occupiers and their allies. We should have spoken out, not necessarily in support of the Occupy movement itself, but most certainly in recognition of the growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots in our country. 

I hope that you have seized this opportunity to engage your faculty and students in meaningful discussion and debate on this and related topics.

Being in a very important election year puts our moral leadership in a special light. The reduction of ideas and language to the lowest common denominator is one of the great dangers of contemporary American political society. The prevalent notion seems to be that a great mass of the people cannot understand ––cannot form independent judgment upon important topics that affect their lives, that they are incapable of meaningful intellectual engagement and reflection––attributes that distinguish our common humanity.

The noisy drum beat of slogans, the jangling discords of the news, the great storm of sound bytes that rain down ceaselessly upon the citizens make democracy vulnerable to those messages that are the loudest or most persistent, rather than those that are most reasonable or well-considered. The waves and bits of detritus we endure now surpass anything that previous generations ever knew.

In this election year, I think how difficult must be the trials of John and Jane Q. Public.

Is it too much to hope that a strong dose of education in childhood and youth can inoculate a person to withstand the onslaughts on independent judgment that spin masters concoct every day? For this, much diligence is required.

Also required is that college presidents and headmasters seek to ensure that our students acquire those habits of mind that give them the capacity to think deeply and to think for themselves. We ought to ensure that our schools provide ample opportunities for our faculty, students, and staff to engage in important discussions about the pressing issues of the day.

This is an example of moral leadership that we should seek to put to good use every day. It’s like a muscle that, if exercised frequently, will grow in strength.

Despite these modern-day challenges, I believe we should judiciously and cautiously also put to good use our “bully pulpit” to nurture a more creative and civic-minded impulse, one that would lead in the face of change and act responsibly in an increasingly complex, faster changing world. As leaders, we recognize that while knowledge creation and job creation are essential learning outcomes, we also have a role to play as shapers of society.

And while it might be difficult for individual headmasters and presidents to use their “bully pulpit” in this particular way, I would hope that you would consider using the “bully pulpit” of this prestigious 120-year-old organization, the National Association of Independent Schools, or other such groups on behalf of issues that affect the health and welfare of our nation.

There is no lack of issues to which we might lend our voices of influence. 

Just yesterday, the New York Times reported on an incident at the Claremont Colleges that contrasted two very different approaches to the same problem:                

The issue began with Pomona receiving a complaint from an employee that the College had undocumented immigrants on its payroll. A law office representing Pomona identified deficiencies in seven-dozen employees, including faculty, staff, and students. Seventeen Pomona College employees, sixteen of whom were long-time dining workers, were fired when they were not able to produce a sufficient proof of legal residency.    

David Oxtoby, who, in the interest of full disclosure, is a close friend, a person of deep integrity, is reported to have said, after consulting the Board of Trustees:

“This is a very sensitive issue, especially in Southern California, and many of our students and faculty are immigrants themselves or are descendants of immigrants.” Still, he said, he had no doubt that the workers would need to leave the college. “The law is very unforgiving, and unfortunately we have to obey the law even though it really hurt the community.”  

However, his Claremont Consortium colleague, the president of Scripps College, took a different approach:                                                                         

“[She] sent an e-mail to students and the staff saying that ‘as soon as the calls came to the attention of the President’s Office, they were halted.’ Further, she said that employment forms were stored off campus, and added, ‘There is no reason for any further questions or actions to be pursued.’ A spokeswoman for the college said that the human resources official was not acting on any complaint.”  

“What would you do?” A good lunchtime topic for discussion?         

Paul Valery once said: “The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be.”          

We are in the midst of a demographic shift that is every bit as significant as that which our country experienced after World War II, as increases in secondary and post-secondary applications will come largely from members of underrepresented groups.

The Educational Testing Service predicts that “by 2015, more students of color will be enrolled in higher education than white students in three states ––Hawaii, California, and New Mexico ––and the District of Columbia. Six other states will have populations of students of color over 40 percent, and Texas will be evenly divided between white students and students of color.”

The U.S. Education Department has similar news: up to “80 percent of these new students will be minorities and students of color, many from low-income families…many [of whom] will not have taken a demanding high school curriculum and will need supplemental help to enroll, persist and succeed.”

Yet, just as the pipeline of low-income students and students of color is expanding at a rapid rate, these students are finding it increasingly difficult to afford to go to college. 

Our response to this tidal wave of transformation and change will define our moral leadership for decades to come. I sincerely hope that you are working with your schools and university colleagues to address this issue in your admission and financial aid policies as well in retention programs. Most important, I hope that you are making sure that all of your students have access to the many co-curricular activities available to them regardless of their socio-economic background so that how they experience your schools is not materially different from how all other students experience your schools.

Education is that instrument of change that holds before us the promise of what Whitehead called “habitual visions of greatness.” Our business is to prepare a new generation of leaders to make of this old world a new world.

Jane Addams devoted her wealth and life to Hull House, a famous settlement for social service in Chicago. Almost a century ago, she spoke about moral leadership:

 “Then when we come to the study of great [persons], it is easy to think only of their great deeds, and not to think enough of their spirit. What is a great [person] who has made his [or her] mark upon history? Every time, if we think far enough, [it] is a [person] who has looked through the confusion of the moment and has seen the moral issue involved; he [or she] is a [person] who has refused to have their sense of justice distorted; [they] have listened to [their] conscience until conscience become a trumpet call to like-minded [men and women], so that they gather about [them] and together, and with mutual purpose and mutual aid, they make a new period in history….”

I implore you to accept this call to greatness with a sense of urgency, recognizing the capacity of human endeavor and a single person to make a real and lasting difference, even in a land of plenty.

Thank you very much.