Leadership is about more than dress suits, handshakes, pleasant Twitter accounts and annual holiday parties. It is a responsibility to enrich the minds of a generation, challenge others to consider different perspectives and have the courage to stand up for what you believe in.
At Elon University, we are settling for middling leadership when it comes to contentious issues. We seem to be satisfied with our leaders, but are they doing enough to warrant our devotion? Perhaps we are too quick to accept our administration’s pleasant, politically correct statements in the face of controversy.
As you may recall, Elon’s Board of Trustees created a Vendor Policy Study Committee last October in response to the controversy concerning Chick-fil-A. Elon made a wise decision in creating this committee. Other universities made rash decisions on whether to let Chick-fil-A remain on their campuses while ours is taking the time to come to a well thought-out decision. Not only is the committee examining the policies and practices of Chick-fil-A, but also those of other vendors with whom our university has relations. We applaud Elon for this, but there is a problem: This committee has diffused accountability.
Do any of us know where our administrators stand on the Chick-fil-A issue or on other controversial issues that would require them to take a stand and risk offending someone? Probably not, unless you’ve had one-on-one conversations with members of the administration.
The student body is receiving generic, politically correct statements that tiptoe around the issues. Our administration is acting more like a public relations firm than the leaders of our generation.
There’s a debate occurring in higher education as to whether administrators ought to stand up for such issues. We realize donations and application rates are at risk, but there are some things worth standing up for.
Dr. Steven House, provost and vice president for academic affairs, made no statements regarding the Chick-fil-A debate. Shouldn’t we be hearing from someone who has done so much for our university? He’s the ‘‘chief academic officer’’ of our university, one that preaches service, global citizenship and a commitment to diversity.
In 2001, he became the founding dean of Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences. He helped develop the Elon College Fellows Program and worked with faculty to develop Elon’s application to have a Phi Beta Kappa chapter on campus. He is clearly an integral part of our university, but apparently has nothing to say when it comes to contentious topics like Chick-fil-A.
President Lambert has made a mere two statements regarding the issue, none of which involve taking a stand. On Oct. 18, 2012, he made his first public statement.
He spent the first few paragraphs objectively explaining how the issue has generated debate on our campus. He clarified that a decision had not yet been reached, but named committee members who would present to the Board of Trustees later in the academic year. He provided an email address for people who wished to offer their input on this issue and informed us of a discussion that was to be held regarding the broader issues at stake. It was all very matter-of-fact.
On Oct. 30, Lambert released another statement. He listed each member of the committee and expressed his gratitude to those on it.
He went on to say, “As a university community, we do not and should not avoid respectful debate about the controversial issues of our day.”
We ought to consider the fact that President Lambert encourages civil debate and applauds others for sharing their viewpoints, but witholds his own.
After the racial slurs that were made last year, our administration launched a “Not On Our Campus” campaign. President Lambert and Smith Jackson spoke at a special College Coffee to demonstrate Elon’s commitment to tolerance. According to an article on E-Net, Lambert told the student body the easy road would have been for individuals to do and say nothing, to ignore injustice and to let discrimination proceed without comment. Isn’t that precisely what is happening with the Chick-fil-A debate?
While it was respectable for our administration to take a stand against racism, it was not praiseworthy. We all agree that racism is unjust; we don’t all agree on the legal definition of marriage.
Of course there is risk involved in stating one’s opinions on a hot-button issue, but this is what being a leader is about. There is a way to be politically savvy while also showing one’s personal convictions. As a student body, we need to start demanding this from our leaders.
Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, was an advocate for many issues during his time as president. In 2000, he co-authored a book that changed the debate on affirmative action in America. In this book, “The Shape of the River,” Bok essentially defends affirmative action in college admissions. His stance certainly created controversy and generated criticism, but he defended his convictions, a hallmark of strong leadership.
Reverend Theodore Hesburgh, Notre Dame’s president from 1952 to 1987, also provided strong leadership in the face of controversy. Hesburgh faced criticism in the 1960s and 1970s with his liberal views on civil rights and his support of Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1972, he made another bold move by opening Notre Dame’s doors to women. He was not universally liked and probably would not have enjoyed as many retweets as President Lambert, but there’s no denying his courageous leadership.
Although our administration clearly cares a good deal about our community, it is also clear they are simply not doing enough. Our university leaders should be role models, but if they’re failing to stand up for crucial issues facing our generation, who will? With Student Government Association elections taking place today, now is the time to strongly consider what it means to be a worthy leader. As a student body, we shouldn’t be settling for uncourageous, politically correct leadership. We ought to be demanding more.