The Myth of Political Neutrality

As higher ed becomes increasingly politicized, can college and university presidents afford to remain silent?

45 minutes
By: Higher Voltage

College and university presidents often have an aversion to conflict and unwanted attention, especially when it comes to politics. But as higher ed, itself, is increasingly politicized, political neutrality in higher ed is a myth. So say the two guests on this week’s Higher Voltage, Patricia McGuire, the president of Trinity Washington University, and Holden Thorp, the editor-in-chief of Science Family of Journals and the former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Both guests recently published opinion pieces in The Chronicle of Higher Education espousing their views on this topic, and with midterm elections right around the corner and national political discourse growing increasingly coarse year by year, McGuire and Thorp both argue that higher ed leaders must stand up and speak out for the values that higher ed espouses, and for the very value of higher education, itself.

Reference Material:

Episode Highlights:

  • 3:40: The calculations leaders make about whether or not to make a statement
  • 7:10: Thorp, on how he ‘hemmed and hawed’ during the infamous UNC basketball scandal
  • 10:15: Balancing competing priorities to say ‘the right’ thing
  • 16:50: Getting past the never-ending political campaign of higher ed leadership
  • 21:40: Navigating the pressure of advisory boards
  • 38:20: The intersection of state politics and higher ed institutions

Full Transcript:

Kevin Tyler:

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Hello and welcome to Higher Voltage, a podcast about higher education that explores what’s working, what’s not, and what needs to change in higher ed marketing and administration. I’m your host, Kevin Tyler. Welcome back to Higher Voltage. Thank you so much for joining me today. I’m very, very honored to have two incredible guests with me today. Holden Thorp is with me as well as Pat McGuire. I’ll have give them a chance to introduce themselves in a minute, but I’m excited for this conversation for a lot of different reasons. One of them being this is a conversation that I think about often, how leaders navigate shifting political winds on their campus, whether they’re active presidents, or former presidents, or chancellors. And this is the conversation we’ll be having today with Holden and Pat. Thank you so much for joining us on Higher Voltage Today. If you could both just give me an introduction of where you are, what you’re doing, and for whom, that would be awesome. And we’ll start with Pat.

Pat McGuire:

Sure. Thank you so much, Kevin. It’s great to be on Higher Voltage. I’m Pat McGuire, the president at Trinity Washington University. We’re in the District of Columbia, the nation’s capital. Trinity is celebrating 125 years of education for women and a few good men who come here also in our graduate and professional programs. And I’ve been president here for a long time. I’ve been president since 1989 and I’m still learning the ropes. So that’s me.

Kevin Tyler:

Awesome. Thank you, Pat. Holden?

Holden Thorp:

Yes. I’m Holden Thorp. I’m the editor in chief of the Science Family of Journals, which is one of the most influential scientific publications in the world. It’s a journal. The Parent Journal Science is a research journal that’s highly selective and it’s also a magazine that runs news and commentary. And then we have five other research journals that are read by a million people a day. Before I did this job, I was the provost at Washington University in St. Louis. And before that I was the chancellor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. So I’ve had a lot of adventures in these topics and learned a few things along the way and happy to share those if it helps your listeners.

Kevin Tyler:

I’m sure that it will. I appreciate you both giving those brief introductions. I have a couple of questions for you both. I’ve kind of broken this conversation up into current presidential or formal presidential roles for you, Holden, that that’s the first bucket. And then the second bucket is kind of like what we see as responsibilities or obligations for presidents now and in the future. That’s kind of the way I’m breaking up our chat today. So in thinking about the two pieces that were published recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the neutrality we’re seeing among higher ed leaders around these political issues and states.

We’ve had these conversations on the show before. It’s about critical race theory, it’s about transgender rights, it’s about spaces for access and spaces for people to be who they are on campus. We often see a lack of real response from leaders. I’m curious, in your experiences, when it’s time to make a statement about a social issue, what does or did that process look like? How do you go about saying, “This is the right time and this is what I want to say.”? And what are the hoops and loops you have to jump through to make that actually get out to the world?

Holden Thorp:

Well, since Pat’s still in the role, maybe we should start with her and I’ll be happy to chime in.

Pat McGuire:

Okay. Thank you, Holden. Well, I would say there are several considerations that I always use when there’s an issue that is of importance. And by the way, I see many of these issues as values issues. People call them political, but for heaven’s sakes, they’re values issues. They’re about how we construct society. And higher ed is about, if it’s about anything, it’s about how we teach our students to construct communities and societies and what the values are that hold communities and societies together. But the overriding concern that I always have is, how are my students affected by the issue? And if our students are affected, then I feel very much compelled to have a position that would defend my students if need be. For example, just yesterday the Fifth Circuit took an action on DACA that is rather dreadful. And I have over a hundred undocumented students at Trinity.

Well, I haven’t written yet… I did tweet out about how terrible that decision was and I will have something else to say later. The immigration issues are very serious for our undocumented students. And if we don’t rise in their defense, who will? We know them. They’re terrific. They are productive. They’re excellent students. They’re going to be excellent members of their community. So that’s one. Another one is critical race theory. I mean, what is happening about critical race theory right now is absolutely appalling in this nation that, for 230 years, has been struggling with these issues of racial justice, has not solved this issue. And if higher ed is not willing to speak out and defend our right and our need to teach about racial justice, where else will the world have that discussion if not on a college campus? I feel the same thing about women’s rights and those institutions who have taken a stand on the Roe V Wade and the Dobbs decision.

I think it’s very important to say to our women students, “We care for you.” We may have differing opinions religiously, I mean, Trinity’s a Catholic college and we do adhere to Catholic church teachings. But by the same token I put out a statement saying, “We’re here for you and we’re going to care for you. And we don’t want you to feel that you have no options at this point.” So we’ll help the women to find options and we wish the world were a better place where we had better choices for women. There’s many ways to nuance what you say about an issue. And I think not speaking about an issue is a cop out. And I feel presidents who will not speak out about issues because they say, “Well, other people will mind it.” or something, that’s just a cop out. If we don’t lead on issues, then what is our leadership about? So that’s how I make my judgements.

Kevin Tyler:

Holden?

Holden Thorp:

Yeah, and wouldn’t it be a great world if every college president talked like Pat just did. But I feel for the situation that a lot of these folks are in. And I kind of learned my approach to this the hard way because I started off… Well, I had a few of these where I did okay at the beginning, kind of through dumb luck, and just so happened that I blurted things out that I ended up getting away with. But I had a big one, of course, just to get the elephant out of the room if anybody’s punching me up on the internet right now, because I was at UNC when a very large scandal in athletics was revealed. I’m basically the person who found it and told the world about it. And I hemmed and hawed way too much. The truth is that my deep down feelings were that college sports is a hypocritical undertaking that exploits young men and women, but mostly young men of color, and that there’s a lot to be ashamed of there.

And most of the things that went wrong at the University of North Carolina were because people were in denial about it and covering it up and there was just so much double speak and what have you. Well, of course, the boosters and the people on my board didn’t want me to say all those things, as you could imagine. And so I spun around in circles and it ate me alive. I was lucky I survived. And I decided if I was going to keep going in this line of work that I was just going to say what I thought. Because, in addition to what Pat is saying about, “How does this affect the campus?” because if you’re the leader of the campus, the campus is what’s important. All these external people need to be taken care of. But you can go find another campus to run if you want to, especially right now with so many openings.

But number one, for sure, I agree with Pat, that it’s the campus, but the second is that the inauthenticity. Now it can affect some people less than it affected me, but it affects everyone. And when you get up and say things that you don’t believe or you deny talking about something when you have a strong view about it, that’s not good for your soul. And you can see that on the faces of these friends of mine that I used to work with. I mean, I can see it when they get the look. And I vowed I was never going to get the look again. But that also came with me getting enough maturity and experience to realize that I could go do these things somewhere else if I had to, and that I was better off just doing what was good for, first for the campus, and good for me.

Kevin Tyler:

I think those are really great ways to assess how necessary it is to enter a conversation. And one of the things that, from the piece you wrote, Pat, that has stuck with me, and I’ve shared both of your articles with my colleagues and really anyone else who will listen to me, because I think they’re so powerful, and so timely, and so important for what we’re seeing right now. But one of the things that stuck with me from your piece, Pat, was that we can’t be leaders if we’re blowing an uncertain trumpet, which I thought was just a powerful, powerful phrase. And I’m curious how, on a campus with so many competing priorities, how do you make your statement? If you know what your alumni are thinking, you know what your staff and faculty and all these other people that are super important to the culture of the place? How do you know when it’s right or that you’re saying the right thing? Is it the students? Is it, I mean, what does it look like?

Pat McGuire:

Well, first of all, you have to have enough political smarts that you’ve got antenna up and how far you can go, you know who’s important and so forth. But you also have to have a well honed internal sense of your own values and where your walkaway points are if you can express yourself. I’m always amazed, I have presidents call me saying, “How do you get away with saying that?” And I’m like, “Oh my God, you have to call me to say that to me. Shame on you.” If you have to say that, we can all bag groceries at the grocery store. We can flip burgers at McDonald’s. We can make a living if we’re going to get fired for speaking our minds. And for heaven’s sakes, if we cannot model free speech, and I’ve written on this in other places, presidents have free speech too. I mean, if I’m going to defend the academic freedom and the freedom of speech of my faculty and free speech of my students, I need to model that.

And I’m not modeling it if I’m self censoring. Now, that doesn’t mean that you go off on a reckless tirade about something that maybe is inconsequential or not germane to the life of the university. It does mean however, that you have enough hutzpah, enough courage, whatever it is, to say, “Well I’m going to say this thing, and maybe I’ll take some flack for it, but I need to say it.” And it’s very important to say it. So I had an example a couple years back, one of our famous alums is Kellyanne Conway. And a lot of my alums were writing to me saying, “When are you going to speak out about her?” And not in a positive way. And I said, “Well, I’ve got to respect everybody. She’s got a positional.” Well that was all well and good until she came up with alternative facts.

Well, we’re about truth. We’re about truth telling. We have an honor code. We’re trying to teach our students about truth. So I wrote a blog about alternative facts and it was in the context of the immigration issues actually. It was right around the time of the Muslim ban and some of the other policies of the Trump administration. Well, the blog I wrote got picked up by the Washington Post and suddenly what was sort of an internal discussion among ourselves, public, but internal to Trinity, became a national news item, if you will. And some people then, some alums called me who were fans of Kellyanne and said, “How dare you criticize her in public?” And I’m like, “Why wouldn’t I criticize her in public? She’s not representing the values of our institution.” I’m not saying that because she’s a Republican, it’s not about politics, it’s about the moral value of truth telling, which we proclaim all the time. We hold our students to a high standard and so forth.

So understanding when the issue is really purely political, and then understanding that many issues that people say are political are not political, they really are moral values you have to speak to. I also, I’m fortunate at Trinity, we’re a pretty progressive institution. We have social justice at the core of our mission. I have a board that’s very supportive and that is certainly helpful. My heart goes out to my brother and sister presidents in public institutions, because I think that’s a lot more complicated when you’re trying to protect your institution from blow back, because I realize that sometimes blow back could be financially harmful and we are fiduciary, so we have to be protective of the purse, but that can’t make all the decisions for us.

Prudence means you weigh all of the factors and then you pick your way carefully through the mine field. To say that you’re not going to go into the mine field says you shouldn’t be a president. If you’re that afraid of making a mistake or getting criticized, then you have to really question whether you can be a president. We’re not concierges, we’re not here just to make everybody happy. That is impossible. We have to pick and choose our battles and sometimes we have to put on the armor, and mount the horse, and go into battle. And, yeah, there will be criticism. Well, bring it. If it’s the right case, then we should not be afraid of that.

Holden Thorp:

And I think that a lot of what Pat is saying comes with experience. So particularly for the people who are first starting out, and certainly I was in this category when I was 43 years old and in charge of an enormous university. A lot of people who end up in that situation don’t realize that when you take a job like that, you’re putting your job on the line every single day. If you don’t feel like putting your job on the line every day, then go do something else. Because these are jobs where if you are worried about getting fired, you basically can’t do the job because you spend so much time worrying about that you wouldn’t be able to do anything else.

Pat McGuire:

No.

Holden Thorp:

And having gotten myself in that spin once, and then seeing what it was like when I wasn’t in that situation, it’s amazing how much more work I could do when I wasn’t spending all my time worrying about that. So the people that are connected to me that go off and do the best at this are the ones who say, “It’s one day at a time. I’m going to do the best I can and be myself.”

Kevin Tyler:

I really appreciate the points that you both raised there. I want to go back to Pat’s point around the consideration of values here. As a person who works in marketing and branding for higher ed, I am a firm believer that the brand that is communicated about institution is not just to recruit students, it’s also to recruit leadership and staff and faculty, et cetera. And who we are as an institution, we want to attract the same people who kind of believe in what we believe. And I think your point about values is a very important one. And I’m glad that you raised that because, from the piece that you wrote, Holden, there was a passage that really stuck with me there. And that was about knowing what we know to be true, and can that ever be politicized, or can we ever be neutral about things we know?

So the passage is, “We know gun control laws save lives. We know that climate mitigation is desperately needed. We know that gender affirming care promotes positive mental health. We know these things because we can measure them. Can we be neutral about things that we can observe?” And I think that is so powerful. And so we have these conversations on campuses across the country because of state politics, because of whatever else, that is starting to call into question what we know to be actually true. And then presidents have to kind of navigate this or thread like a million needles that are impossible to thread in order to… I always joke that the role of a president feels like a never ending political campaign because you’re just trying to please everyone. How do we move past this as leaders in higher ed? To get back to what Pat was mentioning around, “We know it’s true, we have to speak up on what we know from a values perspective.”

Holden Thorp:

Yeah, well I think that it requires a very honest conversation between the president and the outside stakeholders who might not understand this, because there’s one thing the president can’t do, and that’s take something that as true and change it to not be true anymore. Those examples that I gave in the piece are all good ones, but there are plenty of others. Were racism and slavery important in the formation of the country and the history of it? Well, I think we know the answer to that is yes. President can’t change that fact any more than I could make it so that college sports was this perfectly wholesome thing where nobody got hurt. Lord knows I tried to do that. And so it takes the Constitution and the ability to explain that to people who disagree with you. That’s what leadership is.

Leadership is not saying, “Oh, I can come up with a way where everybody is happy on this.” It’s going to the people who believe something isn’t true and saying, “I’m really sorry. I know this is really hard for you, but here’s what we know.” Or, “Here’s the real reason why people reject this.” We’ve seen this in the history of science from the Scopes trial, to tobacco, acid rain, climate change, COVID, the nature of what race is. All of these things have objective answers, but those objective answers conflict with the ideology of a lot of people. And rather than saying, “Well, this conflicts with my ideology.” What those people like to do is say, “Well, this thing that you believe is true isn’t actually true.” And we can’t let them get away with that because that’s the whole thing that universities are set up to do, is to promote the things that we know to be true.

So if we could get people to say, “Well, yes, I know that abortion is good public health policy, but it conflicts with my religion.” then at least we could debate which one of those two things is more important, rather than getting into an endless thing about whether… What the dangers of abortion are, which have been measured many times and it’s safer than childbirth in any objective way that you can measure it. And I think how each institution solves that has to be kind of a one-off thing. It worked really well for me when I was at Washington University. I was the provost, not the chancellor. The chancellor was a cautious guy. He and I didn’t disagree about very many things, but he was a very, very cautious person and he made it as a chancellor for 24 years. But he let me say whatever I wanted to. All right? And that helped keep the campus where we needed them to be with us.

And when the board went to him and said, “What’s this Thorp guy talking about?” He could say, “Well, the campus loves him, and he does a great job running things, and he’s got my support.” And that worked for us. And we have plenty of conservative trustees who disagreed with a lot of things in campus politics. So that’s one solution. But another solution is for the one that I proposed in my piece, which is for the president just to say, “These are the things that I believe and I’m sticking with these, and if you want me to run this place for you, that’s the way it goes.” And I cited Mary Sue Coleman, I think she’s one of the people who did that the best that I’ve seen. And certainly she has plenty of conservative stakeholders up there in Michigan.

Kevin Tyler:

Totally. And we’ll have links to both of these pieces, as well as a couple of others, on our episode page for this. But I’m glad that you brought up trustees, Holden, obviously UNC Board of Governors has been in the news a little bit the last couple of years around several different items. And I think the bathroom bill was around your time, right, too?

Holden Thorp:

That was after I left.

Kevin Tyler:

After? Okay.

Holden Thorp:

There was a gay marriage bill while I was still there that played out in a very similar way.

Kevin Tyler:

Right. Okay. Yeah. So we’ve got these social issues that pop up on campuses and we’ve seen recently how boards of trustees, boards of governors, whatever each place calls them, have started to dip their toe into these conversations in different campuses. And I’m curious how, if at all, you navigate the waters with boards? Holden let’s start with you, because I think it feels like a much different kind of environment in the UNC Chapel Hill space than it might be for Trinity Washington.

Holden Thorp:

Yeah. And I was there when the tidal wave came on shore. I was standing on the beach, because I became chancellor in 2008, Barack Obama got elected president, Bev Purdue became the first woman governor of North Carolina. Lots of people in the legislature were old time democrats that I grew up with as a child. So I did not have to work at politics and I agreed with people about most things. Then in 2010, as Jane Mayer laid out quite vividly in her book, Dark Money, Art Pope financed the Republican takeover of the legislature, Bev Purdue became very undermined as the governor and all of this stuff started. And the first problem for me was, even though I disagreed with all these people about stuff, I also didn’t know them. So I didn’t have any political support. And so when all hell broke loose with athletics, I didn’t have anybody I could go to who could put their arm around me and say, “Holden’s doing a good job and he’s got my support.”

I mean, before that, Erskine Bowles, who was the person who hired me, was the president of the system. And he was not only with me on things, but he is a very strong leader. And so when people said, “Well, Holden me not be doing a good job on this.” He could straighten him out very quickly. And I did not have that afterwards. But in terms of the ideology, one thing I tried to do was to put through gender neutral housing, which of course is something every college should have. And the legislature actually introduced a bill to make it illegal. So I had to decide whether to pull that back and have them cancel the bill or whether to fight them on it and have the bill go through. And I had to decide that it was better to pull it back, because if the law was there, then one day if things changed, not only would you have to have them changed, but you’d have to get the law repealed.

So the day I got to Wash U I beefed up gender neutral housing and it felt pretty good to do that, I can tell you that. So this level of political intrusion is real. We had, like I said, a gay marriage bill that went before I left, but then after I left they had the bathroom bill. And then of course they’ve had this disaster with Nikole Hannah-Jones and all of those things are political influence. And the playbook is the same one we’ve been talking about, which is they say it’s not political when it is. That’s been around a long time. Reagan did it. The Scopes trial, it was done. Lots and lots of examples of this sort of right wing tactic of not saying that something is political. I mean, there’s never been a tenure case at the University of North Carolina that didn’t go through the board until Nikole Hannah-Jones. So are you telling me that it’s just a coincidence that the most politically explosive candidate ever to go through is the one that had a problem? So to say that wasn’t political is just ridiculous. No objective person would agree with that.

Kevin Tyler:

I agree with you. Pat, how do you navigate the relationship with your board?

Pat McGuire:

Well, a couple of things. First of all, I think the world of private higher education really is different when it comes to board relationships. Although I often think that private college presidents have more latitude and they don’t use it. So I think shame on us if we don’t use that. And we also have more influence over who our trustees are, especially if we’re on the job for a long enough time. We not only cultivate the current board members, but we participate in the selection of new board members, not determining it necessarily, the board elects their own, but we’re part of that. And there’s a lot of sensitivity on the private college side when the nominating committees really ask, “Can the president work with this person? Can this person work with the president?” That’s always a consideration on the private college side. So that’s the first piece.

But the second piece I want to say, and I think Holden’s comments really illustrate this, one of my philosophies is that higher education is the great counterweight to government, that if there are no other institutions to speak out, you talk about the pillars of society, you’ve got churches, you’ve got schools, but you have the higher ed system and higher ed institutions. And we have to be on the opposite end of the seesaw from government frequently. And the problem the public institutions have is the government believes they own it. And so the states will say, “Well, you are the government.” So those of us on the private side have to be even more aggressive about saying, “Even if you’re a public institution, you’re still part of us in higher education and you should be on the other side of the seesaw.”

And why is that? Because it’s about control of the issues that are determining the fate of our society. And that gets to these issues that Holden is sighting. So climate change, for example, let’s just take that, when we have a national administration that calls climate change a hoax, and that pulls out of the Paris Climate Accords, and that encourages the kind of environmental destruction that we’ve seen in the last 10 years, there must be an answer to it from the rational scientific community who we represent. That’s our community. We are the front people for the science community. Why wouldn’t we mount the barricades and say, “Government is wrong on this issue.”? I don’t consider that to be political at all. I consider that to be about the life of the society and the life of the planet. And this gets to the values issues. Is it just politics or is it values?

The same thing can be said for a number of the other issues. It’s about life and human dignity. So these issues about whether it’s transgender bathrooms, or gender neutral housing, or the rights of women and the right to choose and so forth. Well, what I do personally, in my own personal set of values, is mine. But what we represent for the human community is much larger and bigger than just my personal preference. And we always have to take the default position that we are going to defend the notion of human rights and civil rights across the boards, because that is how you build a good, and just, and peaceful human community. And if we don’t believe that, if we don’t believe that all of those moral values are central to teaching our students and being part of building the just community, then we just become complicit with the authoritarian movements that are rampant today, not only in this country but elsewhere.

And it is no secret why certain legislators and governors want to take over the curriculum of K12 schools, want to band books from libraries. And that’s going to come very quickly into the colleges and universities, it is a short hop from ninth grade to 15th grade. And if we’re not careful, the government takes over curricula, it says, “Well, we’re not going to teach about slavery because that’s a hoax too. We’re going to call it…” I forget what they were calling it in Texas. They made up some word for slavery that was like, “Happy life.” or something.

Kevin Tyler:

I remember that. Yeah.

Pat McGuire:

At the end of the day, you have what we saw in other authoritarian regimes. And I know it is considered to be pernicious to make comparisons to Germany in the 1930s, but we’re seeing many of the same threads of behaviors, the rise of authoritarianism, the reticence of academics and others and intellectuals to speak out, and to confront, and to oppose a movement that takes over the intellectual life of the society. And that leads the society to believe the big lie, the big lie. And we’re in that moment right now. It’s the big lie. And if colleges and universities don’t challenge that, who will?

Kevin Tyler:

Exactly.

Pat McGuire:

And dare I say the other institution that should be challenging it is the media, and they’re not. That’s another whole topic we can get into. The media should be working hand in hand with the scientists and those in academia who really need to teach about what, are the fundamental values of a good society and how do we get there? And there’s no shame in that. That’s far afield from the board, but obviously I have a board that supports my views on this or I would have been out of this job a long time ago probably. But I mean some of my trustees will say to me, “Gosh, I read that, what you wrote, I never saw it that way.”

And this is the other side of working with boards, we presidents, we’re teachers, we’re teachers of our students, of our faculty, but we also have to teach our board what this business is about. The business is not just about making itself glamorous and rich. And so this is the other side of this discussion and it drives me crazy. We’ve just been through the usual frenzy, the September frenzy about rankings. It happens every September. It’s like the leaves turning color. There are presidents who get financially rewarded for moving up in the ranks. We know that. There are institutions that make it part of their strategic plan to move up in the rankings.

And yet everybody knows, objectively speaking, that the rankings do not measure any kind of quality in education, they measure wealth, and status, and prestige. We know that. It is objectively verifiable, but we default to that. And it’s the same kind of default position that defaults to building the athletic machine, because what we’re really focused on is getting to the Final Four or the BCS. And we’re not focusing on the health and welfare of these young people who are the players, who are at such risk of exploitation. I mean, I can go on about that, but it’s about how do we teach our boards what the values are? How do we stand up for those values and give voice to it in the public square? And are we willing to take the criticism that comes with it?

Holden Thorp:

Yeah. Amen to all that. And one thing [inaudible 00:32:00]-

Kevin Tyler:

Double amen. Yeah.

Holden Thorp:

One thing that cracks me up is all these schools that moved up one because of what happened to Columbia, who sent out press releases saying, “Look, we moved up.” Of course that’s ridiculous.

Pat McGuire:

It’s a real corruption of purpose for the universities, even to play that game with magazines. I mean, U.S. News could not be successful as a news magazine, so it decided to start rating other institutions. Let them do that, that’s fine, that’s their business. But we should not be co-opted into things that don’t matter for the life of the university really, that are not really core to who we are. The real question is, how well are we teaching our students and what are we teaching our students? And are they leaving our institutions able to be productive, engaged citizens in this country or in whatever country they inhabit? And we’re not asking the right questions if the board meetings are all about, “How much money did you raise last week? Are we going to get to the tournament? And by the way, did you rock any boats last week? I hope not.” The values are all wrong.

I’ve just recently been studying, because I’m giving a talk next week, about Catholic higher education. And I’ve been studying the difference among institutions in our own sector on the size of endowments compared to the percentage enrollment of Pell Grant students and students of color. And I mean, what’s happening in Catholic higher education is the same as all of education, so it’s a metaphor. There are a top group of institutions that are building wealth like mad. They are hugely wealthy. And I look at that list and there’s maybe 3%, 4%, 5% black students and there’s maybe 10% Pell grantees. And then I look at the more impoverished institutions, like my own, and we’re a predominantly black institution at Trinity. We’re the only one among the Catholic schools that is a predominantly black institution. Xavier New Orleans is historically black and we’re the only two really.

But I say that because, shame on us in Catholic education that we’re not really taking a stronger stance in favor of access and inclusion. And we’re not. This is an example of a sector that could be speaking to the rest of higher education saying, “Here’s how you do it. Here’s how you open your doors wider and make it possible. And let’s take some of those great endowments and invest them in students who can’t otherwise afford to pay.” But we’re not taking those stances collectively. Individually some of us mount the barricades, and write stuff, and talk about that, but collectively we’re not. And there’s something wrong with that. And it comes out in the fact that, for as long as we’ve been talking about access and inclusion in higher ed, the numbers aren’t changing at all. And that’s where boards should be asking the hard questions. That’s where the conversation should be, not in this, “Well, don’t rock the boat and don’t say anything political today. And by the way, go raise more money for the football team.”

Holden Thorp:

Right. One thing-

Pat McGuire:

I’m just ranting now.

Holden Thorp:

One thing I learned from Mark Wright, which is certainly easier in private higher education, but still applicable, and would’ve served me well if I’d known it when I was in the blender. And that is that when we would make the students happy, because I loved… Oh my God, there’s nothing I loved more than going to the activists and saying, “Okay, we’ll do it.” And so one time we were doing this, and I can’t even remember what it was about, but I had cooked up all the spreadsheets and everything and made sure that we knew we could afford what we were doing. And I’d worked out all the details. And he and I went and met with the activists and blew their minds because we said, “Okay, we’ll do all this.” We worked out a way to do it. And then they said, they were good activists, and they said, “Well, isn’t the board going to be upset with you about this?” Because it was some very progressive thing.

I can’t remember what it was. And Mark said something which I think serves everybody well, which is, “Well, if the board is upset with me about this, they can tell me next year at my performance evaluation.” Because I think one of the things that happens is you go do something like this and you’re scared you’re going to get fired. And that gives them the opportunity to mess with you. And that feeds this drama. And for all I know, inside maybe he was worried that they were going to say something about it, but his outward stance was, “Well, they do my performance evaluation once a year, so why would they come in here and tell me about this right now?” That lowers the drama level significantly, ups his confidence, the appearance of his confidence. And so I think a lot of people who get in these dramas, their fear comes through and that feeds all of these problems. And so I think saying, “Yes, the board can make a change if they want to, and if they want to, they’ll let me know.”

Pat McGuire:

But, Holden, I’ll just say my advice to new young presidents is twofold. One, never show your fear. No matter how much you’re quaking on the inside, you cannot show your fear. It’s like blood on the water and people will know that. But the second thing is, every single one of us as president has to know where our walkaway point is and we have to have a plan for our walkaway point. You just can’t come into the job and say, “Well, I’m going to hang on no matter what.” That lacks integrity. The integrity of the job requires you to know where your walkaway point is and be ready to do it. Don’t be fake in it. Walk away if you need to.

Holden Thorp:

Right. Amen.

Kevin Tyler:

That’s a great, great point. I think those two pieces, or three, I guess, three pieces for people who are sitting in this space, that’s very valuable it feels like. I have, actually I have two questions. One’s a very easy kind of yes or no. I’m just kind of curious, because in the years that I’ve worked in this space, I’ve really never heard a president, first of all, talk the way that you both have been speaking. I mean, this has been very energizing and inspiring, truthfully, I really mean that. But I’ve never heard a president say that, “The other day I was outside of a budget season, I was down at State House testifying about some state policy that was going to really impact our campus in whatever way.” Is that something that you do or did in your tenure as president or chancellor?

Holden Thorp:

Oh, well, not very often, mainly because it would be unusual to be called to do that. Because most of the time when the chancellor or the president goes to the legislature, it’s to ask for the budget. And certainly in North Carolina, all of the focus was on preparing the budget. Even the social policies generally were enforced through the way that the budget was done. So it would be pretty unusual for that to happen, just not because of anything other than just the mechanics of the way the budget gets done.

Kevin Tyler:

Sure.

Holden Thorp:

I think it’s a little more common in Washington to go to Congress and say, “We need this.” about immigration in particular. But I don’t think it that’s a readout of this problem necessarily that it doesn’t happen.

Kevin Tyler:

Yeah.

Pat McGuire:

I mean, being in Washington, I’ve done probably more of my fair share of that than others, especially with American Council on Education and some of the other lobby groups here. But it’s also true that almost all of higher education has some very large and semi effective mechanisms for lobbying that doesn’t always require us to go do that work. There’s other people doing that for us.

Kevin Tyler:

Sure. And then my final question is just kind of general, and I’d like to get both of your perspectives on this. In your own words, in your own perspective, what is the consequence of higher ed leaderships avoiding these tough conversations? What is it doing to the value and brand of higher education as a whole?

Pat McGuire:

Well, I’ll jump right in there and say, I think the silence of presidents and the reticence of presidents and other leaders to speak out on the great issues of the day reduces our value and makes us institutions that really are vulnerable to simply being seen as job training havens. And I mentioned that in my article, that we become complicit with this dumbing down of higher education. And I don’t mean to be disrespectful about job training, but job training is a byproduct of what we do, sure, but it’s not the main deal. And if we don’t talk about the big ideas and the big values and stand up for them, then people just assume that we’re all about producing the next generation of business people, or nurses, or specialists, and that we don’t really do much else or contribute much else to the society in which we live.

And that, I think, is a great loss for higher education. It’s part of what makes us vulnerable to this then ongoing discussion about the worth of college because that whole discussion is around jobs and salaries. It’s not about values and the kind of persons we build and develop. We have kind of abandoned that discussion even, which is all about the mission, and we’ve allowed it to become, our future is dictated by payscale.com or the college scorecard rankings according to the earnings of our graduates 10 years out. I mean, that’s not what we’re about. Sure they’ll have jobs and they’ll be well paid, but that’s a different issue from the values for which we stand.

Holden Thorp:

Yeah. Well, I certainly agree with all that. And I think one readout of it is another big part of the problem, which is that really for about, well certainly since the end of World War II, when you saw the expansion of research and everything, the colleges have gone from this idea of leadership to just wanting to do more of everything. Bigger endowments, larger budgets, more postdocs, more grad students, more papers in the literature, more wins for the football team, more facilities for athletics, more climbing walls and amenities for the students. Just more, more, more. And every decision that gets made is let’s do what it takes to get more money. Let’s go to Congress and say we’ll help you fight the corruption that doesn’t actually exist in our work with China. Let’s not take a position on this important thing because we don’t want the legislature to penalize us on the budget. Let’s be nice to this donor, even though we disagree with them because we want to get their gift. It’s just always going to get more.

And there’s never a thought that says, “What are we giving up in order to get this?” Because we’re not standing up for something. And so look at what happened, we don’t have a public health infrastructure. We have a Supreme Court that isn’t paying attention to things we actually know because every time we go to the hearings, or we go to the State House, or we go to the development thing, we don’t stand up for what we believe in. I mean, the fact that we sat by and let the NIH carry out the China initiative is just a shameful act by American higher education. Every university is complicit in the targeting of people, solely based on the fact that they’re researchers from China and Francis Collins, and Mike Lauer, and Congress, and all these university presidents, all people that, a lot of folks, a lot of us agree with about things, didn’t stop it. That’s just one example of the things that we could have done if we had spent more time standing up for what we believe in and thinking, every once in a while, whether the money we were getting was worth what we were giving up.

Kevin Tyler:

I think that is fantastic and a great place to conclude. Thank you so much to you both for joining me today. This is one of the most compelling, most exciting conversations I’ve had on this show. I appreciate your time. I appreciate your transparency and openness to sharing this information, your perspectives. I’m very, very excited about this. Is there anything else you’d like to share about anything we didn’t ask about?

Holden Thorp:

No, I’m just in awe of Pat’s leadership, and thank you Pat for everything you’re doing.

Kevin Tyler:

Same. Yes, thank. Thank you both.

Holden Thorp:

Go for it.

Pat McGuire:

I’m humbled by your praise and I am so pleased to meet you because when I read Holden’s article, I thought, “Oh my gosh, he writes so beautifully.”

Kevin Tyler:

Yes.

Pat McGuire:

You said everything that I was thinking.

Holden Thorp:

Yes, back at you.

Pat McGuire:

And I had already written my piece. I had already written my piece and the Chronicle had it, but great minds run on the same path.

Holden Thorp:

Yes.

Pat McGuire:

So may our paths continue to cross.

Holden Thorp:

They will.

Pat McGuire:

And thank you for your leadership. And Kevin, thank you for giving us some space to talk about these very important issues.

Kevin Tyler:

Of course. And let me thank you for doing the work that you both do and for saying the things that you both say because it’s so important, it’s so relevant to what we’re doing right now. And I think it will push the envelope forward in very, very important ways. So thank you both for what you’ve done and said and continue to do and stay.

Pat McGuire:

Thank you.

Kevin Tyler:

That’s it for this week’s episode of Higher Voltage. We’ll be back soon with a new episode and until then, you can find us on Twitter @volthighered. And you can find me, Kevin Tyler, on Twitter @Kevinctyler2.

Higher Voltage

Higher Voltage

Higher Voltage is the flagship podcast of Volt, covering marketing and leadership in higher education.


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