Here's a quiz for you. Name the presidents of any three of America's 4,000-plus colleges and universities.
Odds are most readers flunked that quiz, but it wouldn't be fair to take points off anyone's grade. How could the public know the names of higher education leaders, who are largely silent on the great issues of the day? Today's presidents only get noticed if they say something outrageous (Harvard's Lawrence Summers's comments about women and science), live too lavishly (former American University President Benjamin Ladner), or make millions (Lynn University's Donald Ross).
It hasn't always been this way. Father Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame, who led that institution for 35 years, declared, "Anyone who refuses to speak out off campus does not deserve to be listened to on campus." Many 20th-century university presidents also served as ambassadors and heads of major national commissions. Think Clark Kerr of the University of California, Jill Kerr Conway of Smith, Kingman Brewster of Yale, and Robert Hutchins and Edward Levi of the University of Chicago. Reporters knew to call them for opinions on the burning issues of the day.
I spent much of the past three years reporting about higher education and didn't find their modern-day equivalents. Presidents I met said they devoted much of their time to fundraising, often to build dormitories with wi-fi, athletic facilities with climbing walls, and stadiums with luxury boxes. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently released its own survey of university presidents, and its results confirm that observation. Five of the six most pressing issues have to do with money, and the sixth - retaining students - is only marginally related to teaching and learning.
Perhaps because of their preoccupation with dollars, today's college presidents are not educating the rest of us on issues that matter. Take the issue of intelligent design. Only three university presidents have spoken out against treating intelligent design as science.
Cornell University's interim leader, Hunter R. Rawlings III, was blunt, devoting his state of the university address to the subject. "Intelligent design is a religious belief masquerading as a secular idea. It is neither clearly identified as a proposition of faith nor supported by other rationally based arguments," he said.
The two other presidents made their views known in a less public way, in letters to their employees. University of Idaho President Timothy P. White wrote that intelligent design could be taught in courses like religion and philosophy or even social studies, as part of an examination of the role of religion in our society.
University of Kansas Chancellor Bob Hemenway wrote that evolution, "the central unifying principle of modern biology," must be the prevailing scientific idea in order to "raise the level of scientific literacy among our citizenry." Speaking out, even by letter, was an act of certain courage in Kansas, where the state board of education has mandated including intelligent design in its science curriculum.
Yet the overwhelming silence on this topic, among others, shows just how far higher education has slipped from its pedestal. Greater leadership in public debate on critical issues is what's needed to stop academia's declining prestige, not a fixation on the bottom dollar.
• John Merrow, who reports on education for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS, is the host and executive producer of "Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk."