Several years ago, John T. Casteen III, then president of the University of Virginia, made a statement that has haunted me in my own leadership. Because of certain constraints, he said, university presidents, and many other leaders as well,
cannot (or believe we cannot) take the kinds of principled stands on public policy that at least some of our predecessors in the academy . . . took. The topics we address are circumscribed by what I suspect are shrinking spheres of influence.
Of course it is a little presumptuous to assume that university presidents deserve any sphere of influence. Do we really have that much to say? Maybe not, to be sure.
But I think a university president ought to try to address the important issues of the day. We stand out on a public point for a faculty highly trained, in specialized ways, to pursue the truth of things. In other words, the university should be speaking out, precisely because it has something to say, through its faculty. While we don’t speak as the scholars we represent, the president is often offered a platform to say we care about real issues, and we do indeed have something to offer.
But what are these constraints that Casteen talks about? Well, we might think of the tyranny of political correctness, or the severe ideological dividedness in our society. There is also the moral relativism — try taking a moral stand on almost anything and you will find yourself blasted from all sides. Then there is the speed with which opinion changes, and the speed with which news is discarded. All of this causes any speech we may have to be chopped up into little sound bites.
For the Christian university president there are added challenges. Take a position on almost any contested issue, and the conservative part of the Christian community will attack for not saying enough, the liberal wing will act embarrassed that you have said too much. There are some people who would like to see us circle the wagons from the surrounding culture, from which we might lob our missiles from time to time. On the other end, there are those who would like to see us accommodate to the culture, blend in, don’t ruffle the feathers.
All of this is perhaps why “the topics we address are circumscribed by what I suspect are shrinking spheres of influence.” This is not a good thing. This is limited, circumscribed leadership. We need leaders who will speak out, say some things, take some stands, point a direction. Leaders have to take the time to prepare, to be thoughtful, to listen before speaking, to read, to reflect, to think, to pray, but then we ought to think about how to break through this confining, this circumscribing, this shrinking of our spheres of contact and connection. We need to have the confidence that our universities have something important to say, and then we need to get out there and offer a glimpse, a hint, a promise of something new and helpful and important to the world we serve.