A college president spoke up to his students and campus community the other day. His concern was a timely topic: race and race relations, bigotry and racial slurs. And who was the president? Well, while we don’t often think of these leaders in this way, the superintendents of our three major military academies are the presidents of their universities. And this superintendent of the Air Force Academy, Lieutenant General Jay Silveria, the academy’s president, spoke out because of race-baiting posts on the message boards of five African-American students on his campus.
He was forceful. He related his concerns to the cadets and the academy to recent events including the Charlottesville white supremacy rally last summer, and the recent dust-up over NFL players protesting unequal and unfair treatment of blacks in America. And in the process of what Silveria said, he additionally challenged the chair of his board, no less a figure than the president of the United States, his commander-in-chief up the chain of command.
President-Superintendent Silveria minced no words. He expressed his outrage and told his students that they too should be outraged, not just as Air Force students, and future military leaders for our country, but more importantly “as human beings.” His message was simple: If you cannot treat with equality and respect those different than yourself in gender or race, then you should get out. This was a cry for basic human integrity and dignity: Racial slurs are indecent acts that must be condemned. Invoking the fundamental mission of our colleges and universities, Silveria urged “civil discourse and talk about these issues.”
Then, in stark contrast to his commander-in-chief and displaying the force incumbent on college presidents, Silveria went to the heart of the value of diversity. This was not some mushy apology and boilerplate appeal for progressive politics. No this was the power of diversity, “the power that we come from all walks of life, that we come from all parts of this country, that we come from all races, that we come from all backgrounds, gender, all make-up, all upbringing.” That is, “the power of that diversity comes together and makes us that much more powerful.” This is no weak-tea argument. This is the revered founding creed of the nation and embedded as fundamental values of academia.
Contrast Silveria’s stand with that in recent months of Jerry Falwell Jr. at Liberty Baptist University. Falwell has done everything from apologize for the bus videotape behavior of Donald Trump, to excuse the president’s remarks about Charlottesville, the bad people on both sides, and to support throwing transgendered military people out of the military services. One president stood up for cherished values of the college and university and of the nation. The other caved in a craven fashion in a quest to curry favor with the ideological proclivities of the president of the United States. (And indeed Falwell was rumored to be the head of a presidential task force on higher ed that never materialized.)
Last week, a college president stood up, placed his leadership front and center with the men and women of his campus. He challenged them about how they must behave, and what they owe each other and the country now and in their future leadership in military service. President Trump, are you listening to this leader in your military command?
We can and should take heart from this president of one of our major universities about how campuses and leaders can best handle issues of diversity and can push back against those instigating racist messages and rhetoric. All college presidents as they work hard to take similar stands can be encouraged to be likewise forceful when called upon and take up Silveria’s urgent message about how we find unity and power in the diversity of our racial and other differences. Our colleges and universities and the nation benefit hugely from such stand-up leadership.
Stephen J. Nelson is professor of educational leadership at Bridgewater State University and senior scholar with the Leadership Alliance at Brown University. He is the author of the recently released book, The Shape and Shaping of the College and University in America: A Lively Experiment.
NEJHE has published Nelson’s thoughts on previous occasions: The Conundrums of the University’s Ideological Battlegrounds; Reflecting: Perspectives on the College Presidency; Tales from the Presidency: The Dartmouth and NYU Chapters; Presidential Chaos; Success and Failure in the College Presidency; and Balance Wheel: Presidents Should Use Their Moral Authority to Protect Academe.