Presidents for Presidents!

Every four years, we see swelling lists of presidential endorsers, those individuals and organizations that are backing a particular candidate.  Any savvy (or semi-savvy) political staffer (Eduflack included) knows the enormous value of such backing.  The right names signal support from those in the know.  Their endorsement can often bring buckets full of votes and contributions.

We get endorsements from business leaders, veterans, labor leaders, entertainers, other politicians, teachers, church leaders, environmentalists, Nobel Prize winners, past Cabinet officials, and just about any other group we can think of.  Those endorsers make a choice based on what they believe is best for the nation and best on those issues they are most passionate about.

Which makes a news item in today’s Inside Higher Education all that much more interesting.  Scott Jaschik reports on the president of the University of Florida endorsing John McCain.  (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/01/23/endorse)

Yes, UF President Bernie Machen’s endorsement of the Straight Talk Express is major news in higher education.  College presidents just don’t do such a thing.  Maybe they are above such politics.  Maybe there is too much at risk, with federal research dollars riding on presidential appointments.  Whatever the reason, it just isn’t done.  College presidents are supposed to be non-partisan and apolitical.  After all, there is more than enough campus politics to whet their appetites for a true political fight.

But it is the right thing to do?  As we consider presidential nominees, do the carpenters and the longshoremen and the WWII veterans and former secretaries of agriculture carry a stronger voice than college presidents?  Does the voice of a college president matter?

For the past six or seven months, the education community has been stammering and stuttering on the need for greater emphasis on education in the presidential elections.  We look at presidential education platforms, and many of them are chock full of details on students loans and college readiness.  We listen to speeches on the economy and job creation, and can’t shake the notion that colleges and universities are often the largest or second largest employer in their communities.

All that said, shouldn’t university presidents be coveted endorsements?  And more importantly, shouldn’t college presidents be on the record as to which candidate or candidates are strongest when it comes to student finances, college readiness, research dollars, or general support for our postsecondary institutions? 

As the son of a retired college president, I watched as my father carefully walked the nonpartisan college presidential line.  He worked successfully with governors and senators of both political parties, winning support and dollars for his institutions, regardless of what party was in power.  I knew, though, that he was also a community leader, and that people sought his perspective on the issues and candidates of the day (and it didn’t hurt that he is a presidential historian by training).  His endorsement could have helped local and state candidates.

That said, leaders like Bernie Machen or University of Miami President Donna Shalala (who has endorsed Clinton) should be the norm, not the exception.  If we want education to have a prime position in the debate, we need strong advocates and experts to step forward and ensure that education is at the table and heard in all corners of the room.  Any union official can tell you that happens when you endorse at the national scale.

So for all those college presidents, chancellors, system heads, and even K-12 superintendents watching Campaign 2008, take note.  If you want greater dollars invested in your schools, if you want more attention and resources devoted to your students, if you want your economic development investments noticed or your community programs emulated, you need to stand up and articulate what you believe in and what candidate best aligns with your mission and your successes to date.  You need to tell us what type of president will strengthen your institution and your community.  You need to put your stake in the ground, before all of the prime real estate is taken.

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