University leaders cannot be public intellectuals

A Twitter storm over a remark he made on diversity policy reminds Jeffrey Flier why he was so wary of speaking out while a Harvard dean

November 22, 2018
Red cards
Source: Miles Cole

During nine years as dean of Harvard Medical School, I enthusiastically supported efforts to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion. Two years after leaving that role, I recently tweeted my view of a new policy at the University of California, Los Angeles requiring diversity, equality and inclusion issues to be incorporated into all promotion and appointment dossiers. Although I still support its motives, I opposed the policy as an intrusion into the objectivity of academic assessments.

I also noted that I could not have said this as dean – and the ensuing tweet storm of positive and negative comments about my views only served to reinforce that point.

In principle, leadership roles in academic institutions perfectly position incumbents to be public intellectuals, robustly engaging with educational, scientific and political issues of the day from their distinguished perches atop the academic pyramid. Unfortunately, anyone holding this view would be severely mistaken.

Academic leaders, such as university presidents and deans, can issue anodyne pronouncements on various matters as long as these safely align with the views prevailing in their communities. Most do so with regularity, occasionally edging a wee bit from the centre lane. But when academic leaders engage in intellectual discourse by expressing views that diverge from prevailing opinion, the ensuing reactions – even when expressed only by a vocal minority – can easily disrupt their ability to fulfil their primary duties. Such disruption, if severe enough, can even end their leadership tenure. Just ask former Harvard president Larry Summers, the reaction to whose provocative speech on potential explanations for the dearth of women at the highest levels of mathematics and engineering led to his having to step down.

Two major factors account for this state of affairs. The first is in the realm of the practical. Leadership jobs are complex and demanding, requiring full-time effort to manage the areas for which the leader is ultimately accountable. These include choosing among competing academic goals, addressing faculty, answering student and alumni concerns, managing facilities and budgets, devising and refining numerous policies, and, of course, leading fundraising efforts. At best, offering public opinions is seen as a frill – surely not essential but perhaps nice to do if time permits.

In addition, the skills, traits and accomplishments that elevate people to such positions rarely prioritise an ability or inclination to speak cogently and creatively on issues outside their domain of primary expertise. When leaders look around at their peers, they see few, if any, role models for such efforts, and several cautionary tales. Hence, most conclude that the best path to survival and success is to focus on their core responsibilities.         

My own time as dean revealed to me several other reasons to favour public taciturnity. These revolve around the hyper-polarisation of political debate, the tendency to tribally demonise those you disagree with, the surprising wariness of academics to express or tolerate heterodox opinions, and the possibility that expressing such perspectives will be construed as harming individuals or communities seen as marginalised or weak, regardless of whether that was the intention or the reality. Add to that the fact that even if a statement is portrayed as representing a personal perspective, many will take it to reflect the institutional view, for better or worse.

The same concerns also apply to opinions and decisions that are directed internally, to the business of the institution itself. A president or dean must appear balanced and judicious, and official statements must run the gauntlet of dozens of eyes and endless special interests. This accounts for why they so often seem unresponsive to deeper questions, and most often appear trite.

Leaders are aware that institutional statements, even when they sign them, are not taken to represent their personal views, but are, rather, an amalgam resulting from the process established to develop and approve them, on behalf of the school. When leaders have strong personal views that differ from the prevailing consensus on an issue, pressures are great to minimise conflict and achieve consensus. Having said that, some of my proudest moments resulted from managing conflict rather than minimising it, as I did by closing one longstanding department and creating a new one, amid opposition from some influential members of the community. You just don’t get many such opportunities, given the limits on political capital, time and energy.

Until and unless the academy changes to become more interested in and tolerant of leaders with the time, inclination and skill to be public intellectuals, presidents and deans will have to go on waiting until their leadership tenure is over before taking on the role. From my perspective, I am now in the best possible position to enter the arena as a public intellectual, having experienced life within the academic pressure-cooker ecosystem. The height of my bully pulpit may now be less elevated, but, released from most of the constraints imposed by the expectations of deanship, I’m now free to challenge, provoke, surprise and hopefully even enlighten some of the people who will read what I have to say.

Twitter storms notwithstanding, so far I am relishing it.

Jeffrey Flier is a Harvard University distinguished service professor and former dean of Harvard Medical School.


Print headline: University leaders cannot fulfil the role of public intellectual

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Reader's comments (1)

I think this misses the point. It is definitely better for leaders to speak out on what they believe. Then we know what they believe. Its just that we don't want to be lead by some who have particular views. That is we care about what their views are, not what they say their views are. Personally I'd rather be lead by someone who *believed* (and not just said they believed) that in the long run increasing diversity the academy is synonymous with prioritizing excellence in the academy.