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People participate in a candlelight vigil at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville on Aug. 16, 2017. Education leaders are grappling with how and when to speak up about issues that divide the country.
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Education leaders consider: When should we speak up about divisive issues?

Both K-12 and university leaders have found themselves considering how to balance neutrality with the need to voice reassurance about community and safety.  

On Aug. 14, Brian Rosenberg joined in a chorus of college presidents across the United States denouncing the racially charged events in Charlottesville, Va.

Dr. Rosenberg, head of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., took his denouncement a step further than most, however, condemning both the gathering of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville and the “disgracefully inadequate response to that display of hatred and bigotry from the White House” that followed.

Rosenberg describes his decision as influenced by professional, rather than personal, ethics: Both the protests and the subsequent White House response “had a really jarring impact on people in our community, people on our campus, and people in our alumni community,” he says in a phone interview.

But the contrast between Rosenberg's statement and those of other college presidents highlights an issue that educational leaders find themselves grappling with amid a fraught, hyper-polarized political climate: when and how to speak out on divisive political and social issues. 

Typically, educational leaders avoid taking public political stances for both academic and business-related reasons, jumping into the conversation only when an issue directly impacts their institution’s educational mission. Increasingly, though, leaders in both higher education and K-12 public schools are finding new moral challenges in maintaining political neutrality while addressing concerns about students’ safety and emotional well-being. 

“At what point does neutrality become abrogation of responsibility?” Rosenberg asks. 

A question of safety  

For some leaders in the K-12 arena, the events in Charlottesville proved a tipping point, with administrators citing heightened safety concerns and the emotional well-being of students as reasons for speaking out. 

“People are realizing that … no response, in many instances, allows examples of hatred and intolerance to grow, because no one is challenging the behavior,” Charlottesville City Schools superintendent Rosa Atkins told the Monitor in a recent interview (read excerpts here). 

Eva Moskowitz, the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City, had largely stayed out of debates over the president’s policies on issues such as immigration. 

In an open letter to her school community five days after the Charlottesville incident, Ms. Moskowitz wrote that “some have perceived my silence as tacit support of President Trump’s policies,” and that in retrospect she believes she should have spoken out sooner. 

Mr. Trump’s comments after Charlottesville were the thing that broke that silence – comments that “have left many in our community feeling unsafe and uncertain about their place in society,” she wrote. “It’s one thing to have a President with whose politics you disagree; it’s another to have a President who doesn’t even seem to care about your welfare.” 

Normally, Moskowitz told the Monitor in a phone interview, she focuses on the everyday work of battling what she sees as the injustice of low-income children and children of color trapped in failing schools, but “as a leader, there are times when you just can’t remain silent. I thought this was a moment that required national outspokenness.”

Among some in the education community, the response to Moskowitz’s open letter was: What took you so long? Despite being a Democrat, she has been a strong advocate of school choice and was approached by then-President-elect Trump to discuss possibly serving as Secretary of Education, an idea she rejected.

“For a while the charter and choice world was a more bipartisan arena,” says Sarah Reckhow, a political science professor at Michigan State University. But now “it’s more partisan, with Democrats in particular wanting to distance themselves from the Trump version.”

Eva Moskowitz, the founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, during a 2015 charter school rally outside the New York State Capitol in Albany. Ms. Moskowitz is one of the school leaders who has chosen to speak out post-Charlottesville.
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Moral imperative vs. overreaction

Where some see a moral imperative to speak out forcefully in reaction to events such as Charlottesville, others see an overreaction.

School leaders do need first and foremost to assure all students that their safety is key, but some of the recent statements denouncing Trump and calling out white supremacy amount to “cheap hollow grandstanding,” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Mr. Hess points to longstanding disagreements between the left’s focus on implicit bias and the right’s perspective that “the more we fixate on skin color, the more we prime people to think about it.” Educational leaders shouldn’t suggest that only one side of the debate can claim moral high ground, he says. Race relations are a complex problem and “it’s something superintendents and principals should wrestle with. What worries me is when they decide there is a right answer and stop wrestling with it.” 

Walter Fluker, the Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Ethical Leadership at Boston University School of Theology, urges educators to “take a stand of moral courage” by speaking out on issues of racial injustice and teaching students about the history of race in America.

For Mr. Fluker, the imperative to speak up is not just about the violence in Charlottesville.

“We have a nation with poor people, with people incarcerated, who would love to have the opportunity to receive a quality education and live a life of human flourishing,” he says. “That’s part of what’s at stake and the context out of which educational leaders must speak.”

Drawing the line on campus

For university leaders, the decision to condemn – or support – the Trump administration and situations such as its reaction to the events at Charlottesville comes with some additional complications. 

Most modern college presidents adhere to the school of thought that says institutions should only take a stance on public issues that could impact the core mission of the university, says Julie Reuben, a historian at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Under this principle, she says, it’s considered all right for a university leader to support affirmative action “because diversity improves the quality of education, but not as a means of addressing centuries of racial injustice.” 

Similarly, she notes, many college presidents who spoke out against President Trump’s executive orders limiting travel from seven majority Muslim countries earlier this year cited not a moral obligation to help refugees, but the reasoning that a travel ban would limit the freedom of movement essential to many schools’ missions and inhibit student diversity.  

Beyond the business-related risks, Rosenberg of Macalester says he avoids making divisive political statements whenever possible for fear of restricting “free and open discourse” on campus. 

“There’s a feeling that if the president is too outspoken on one side or the other, it might shut down that discourse,” he explains. 

For his part, Rosenberg typically bases his decision whether to speak out on two factors, he tells the Monitor: the extent to which the issue will directly impact his campus, and “my sense of how badly I think the college campus community needs to hear from me” as a leader.

How to engage?

Some educators and observers say the question is not whether to engage, but rather how to engage.

In an op-ed earlier this year, Donald J. Farish, president of Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., stressed the importance of maintaining a civil tone when addressing divisive issues. He urged his fellow university leaders to “reclaim the middle ground” between “extremists on the left and right,” writing: “Unilateral declarations by college presidents do very little to prompt a fruitful debate, let alone to change the minds of those on the other side of the matter.” 

Maintaining the middle ground may not always be possible at such a politically divisive time, others say. But there’s agreement that tone can make a difference.

“I don't think [college] presidents should (or probably even can) be ‘neutral’ on all issues,” says Nannerl Keohane, former president of Duke University in Durham, N.C., and Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. “But the stances, and the mode of expression of opinions, should be chosen with care, with the benefit of advice from others, and with the long-term interests of the university, as well as the society, in mind.”