June 19, 2024

How political can a college president be?

Author: Lilah Burke
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Last month Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, endorsed Senator Michael Bennet for the U.S. presidency.

Bennet is a Democrat from Colorado, though you’d be forgiven for not knowing his background. He currently is polling at about 0 percent in the Iowa caucus and so far has only qualified for two of seven Democratic debates.

“I really appreciated Michael’s thinking about higher education,” LeBlanc said in an interview. “He’s going deeper than simply shouting, ‘Free college.’”

But LeBlanc acknowledged Bennet’s long odds.

“During the primary, that doesn’t matter to me so much,” he said. “I want to vote for somebody who would be really be good in the position.”

The endorsement was rare for a university president. But it comes amid what seems like the rise of a new kind of college leader.

To be sure, public attention is still mainly devoted to the Ivy League, elite research institutions and public flagships. But Southern New Hampshire’s enrollment is now more than 130,000 students, most of them online. It is one of the nation’s three largest universities by enrollment, along with Arizona State University and Western Governors University. The average American today might know more about SNHU than about whichever college is ranked fourth in US News & World Report. The University of Chicago, you might say, doesn’t advertise on ESPN.

These universities represent the rise of a new model in higher education. And as they percolate into public consciousness, their presidents move further into the spotlight. LeBlanc will take over in March as chair of the board of the American Council on Education, higher education’s umbrella association. Farther south, Liberty University, now boasting an online enrollment of roughly 100,000 students, can claim it has one of the most well-known college presidents in recent memory. Jerry Falwell Jr., whose late father personified the modern conservative evangelical movement, makes it into the news as often for his political opinions as for scandals that have dogged him of late.

One of SNHU’s most popular TV ads, aired over 54,000 times, is a tearjerker starring LeBlanc himself. “Stand up if you’re the first in your family to go to college,” he asks the crowd at an SNHU commencement ceremony as part of the ad. “Stand up if you’re a mother or a veteran,” LeBlanc says. Graduates openly weep while accepting their diplomas.

“The world in which we live equally distributes talent,” he says in the spot, “but it doesn’t equally distribute opportunity.”

Lions or Lambs?

Neither LeBlanc nor Falwell is the first president to wade into politics. Both, in separate interviews, referred to Theodore Hesburgh, the Catholic priest and president of the University of Notre Dame who blasted the Oval Office over civil rights and the Vietnam War, as somewhat of an forebearer. And former politicians often have found a home in the president’s office, with perhaps the most notable example in recent years being Mitch Daniels, former Republican governor of Indiana and current president of Purdue University.

LeBlanc said his political choices still take some balance. For example, his endorsement video for Bennet was filmed on a public sidewalk because it could not be shot on the SNHU campus. He stressed that it was his endorsement as a citizen, not as a university president.

“I have to be very, very careful to separate out and be neutral in terms of my official role in the university’s position,” he said.

He referenced the popular lament that university presidents, once lions on politics, are now sheep, sneaking quietly to the top so as to not make enemies.

“I talk to so many of my colleagues who don’t feel like they can be very public around their political views,” he said. “The fallout from public stances can be more caustic, more pronounced, with social media supercharging all of that. It’s really fraught territory for many people.”

Indeed, research suggests that in the last decade, college presidents have been getting fired more often as boards have become more activist or aggressive. For example, Carol Folt, former chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, had her resignation accelerated by the board there last year when she announced she would be taking down Silent Sam, the campus’s Confederate soldier monument abhorred by a loud chorus of students. Margaret Spellings, formerly the UNC system president, left shortly after Folt. And at the University of Wyoming last year, the board found itself searching for its fourth president in six years after firing Laurie Nichols.

LeBlanc himself stirred up some controversy by wading into the political discourse in 2017. After a white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, Va., turned deadly that summer, LeBlanc put out a statement to the university community. The alt-right marchers, he wrote, “are to be reviled,” while the countermarchers “were there to protest the evil that is the alt-right and defend American values.”

“There were some of our employees who were upset and felt that I was painting Trump supporters with too broad a brush,” he said. “I’ve learned from that.”

The standards of civility he says he adheres to have lost some currency on college campuses, as activists, arguing that existential threats don’t warrant friendly debate, do their best to shut down some discussions. Engaging with conservative students and making them feel included on campus is a goal, LeBlanc says.

But ultimately, he’s not sure his students, many of whom are taking classes online, really care.

“They’re busy working adults, they’ve got kids, they’ve got jobs, they’re trying to get through their program,” says LeBlanc.

The National Stage

Falwell, who prominently supported Trump in 2016 and is all in on his re-election, agrees that most students aren’t paying attention to his politics. But Falwell thinks being outspoken has helped Liberty’s enrollment.

“For every student we lost, we probably gained two because we’re openly conservative,” he said. “But that’s not why I do it.”

Falwell said it’s not exactly what he believes that matters to students, but rather his growing celebrity.

“It’s just the excitement of Liberty being at the center of a national discussion,” he said. “Liberty is seen as relevant on the national stage, and I think that’s what caused the enrollment to continue to increase.”

LeBlanc says he’s not at all afraid of his views making SNHU a target of Republican lawmakers. His political stance might just give him less influence on that side of the aisle, he suggests. Falwell, however, said the concern is already realized because Liberty is the target of Democrats.

As one example, he noted that Virginia governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, proposed in his state budget eliminating tuition assistance grants for students in online programs, which would directly impact Liberty, located in Lynchburg.

“The very people they claim to champion are the ones they are harming,” he said. “Those who claim to be tolerant are usually the most intolerant.”

Ultimately, LeBlanc said, he is political because it is necessary.

“My own involvement is an attempt to say to students, ‘This is important. You need to have a voice.’”

Image Caption: 
Paul LeBlanc in his endorsement video for Senator Michael Bennet
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