When College Presidents Were America’s Conscience

As anger grows over the unwillingness of so many college and university presidents to unambiguously condemn Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, it is helpful to understand the unique role that these academic leaders once played in American history. Their legacy continues to generate an expectation of intellectual and moral leadership which has always been more prevalent in the U.S. than in other countries. 

It is largely forgotten now, but for nearly three centuries, from the founding of Harvard College in 1636 right up until the early twentieth century, almost every American college or university was sponsored by a major religious denomination. Their presidents were either prominent clergy or, in the case of the women’s schools that emerged in the 1800s, lay church leaders.

Although these presidents represented different theologies, they all saw their missions as providing undergraduates with the moral insight and intellectual courage needed to cope with even the most difficult personal and social problems. Among the latter would be a War for Independence pitting colonists against their mother country, a bloody Civil War, the Industrial Revolution’s disruptive migration from farmlands to cities, and a Great War so traumatic that the survivors came to be known as “the Lost Generation.”

Up until the American Revolution, when colleges were few and sparsely attended, most presidents conveyed their wisdom in the context of a required seminar, normally taken in their students’ junior or senior year. The formal name for this course was Moral Philosophy, a phrase that had long been used by European scholars to describe the study of Christian ethics.

But in America, it referred to something far more ambitious: a way of sustaining free thought and traditional morality in everyday life, regardless of whatever obstacles, temptations, heresies, or even physical dangers one might encounter. Students themselves referred to this class as simply “the president’s seminar.”

Over time, as campus populations grew to the point where it was impractical for one person to conduct the same course for every undergraduate, college presidents began to reorganize their ideas into a series of Sunday sermons, which all students were required to attend right up to the middle of the twentieth century. These sermons, in turn, became chapters of popular self-help books.  

Many of the best authors—including Mark Hopkins of Williams College (1836–1872), Princeton’s James McCosh (1868–1888), and Yale’s Noah Porter (1871–1886)—became nationally admired figures, in great demand as lecturers and guest speakers. DePauw College’s first president, Matthew Simpson, was a trusted advisor to Lincoln; two 1885 debates on morality between McCosh and Harvard’s president, Charles Eliot, were considered important enough to be covered on the front pages of newspapers across the country. Acres of Diamonds, based on a sermon by Temple University’s President Russell Conwell (1887–1925), is still in print and remains one of the most influential books ever published.

Indeed, it is hard to overstate the presidents’ influence. Their work inspired hundreds of social service organizations, including the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the American branch of the Salvation Army, and the precursors of modern substance abuse programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. And, in large part because of the presidents, mental asylums ended their historically callous warehousing of inmates and adopted a more humane approach, which came to be known as “moral treatment.”

It was not until the early twentieth century when colleges and universities finally stopped choosing their presidents from the ranks of prominent clergy, ironically because of just how successful the religious leadership had been. So many departments of agriculture, medicine, architecture, history, chemistry, foreign languages, and law had become world-class competitors by then that prospective students no longer chose a school on the basis of its denominational affiliation alone. And with their financial responsibility for rapidly growing educational institutions, school trustees increasingly felt compelled to appoint presidents who promised to be capable fundraisers, regardless of their prior academic careers.

Yet the public’s belief that college and university presidents should be guardians of America’s free speech and moral traditions was so strong that it has persisted to this day. So much so that presidents continue to be seen as the ones most responsible for taking corrective action whenever some political, economic, or social ideology is being too coercively promoted on campus. 

William F. Buckley’s first book, God and Man at Yale, became a sensation in the 1950’s precisely because his criticism of the Yale administration’s refusal to crack down on the aggressive teaching of collectivism and secularism tapped into a wider concern that other presidents were similarly failing in their duty. More recently, groups like the Bipartisan Policy Center sponsor projects to help college graduates support the presidents of their respective alma maters in standing against cancel culture. 

The ostensible argument being made by those presidents who today refuse to unambiguously condemn the October 7 massacre is that it’s finally time for Americans to accept a transition that began more than a century ago. Those who lead our institutions of higher education are no longer esteemed clergy with sufficient insight to determine when some campus movement has become too intolerant, but full-time administrators with the less elevated job of allowing every ideology free reign: even if large numbers of students and faculty are justifying the intentional torture and murder of innocent civilians.

Of course, this position would seem a lot more sincere had so many university presidents not rushed to forcefully condemn the 2016 election of Donald Trump, the 2020 death of George Floyd, and the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade. It would also be more credible if administration policies against hate speech were not applied so unevenly—almost always against conservative campus groups and hardly ever against far left ones. 

As the State Department’s former Director of Policy Planning Peter Berkowitz recently observed, college and university presidents have no problem drawing on the centuries-old expectation that they are uniquely qualified to pass judgment on current events when it benefits progressive causes. They may claim that “it is not university administrators’ job to opine on behalf of their institutions on the great issues of the day,” but this is “after decades of taking sides, usually supporting decidedly progressive causes and priorities.”

The real argument being made by those presidents who refused to speak out against the October 7 attack is that it’s perfectly acceptable for their faculty and students to aggressively promote ideas which contradict both the nation’s founding principles and its underlying moral sensibilities. And for their own administrations to continue providing these voices with as much cover as they can.


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