Joe Gow is the kind of university chancellor who drops by dorms with his guitar for impromptu jam sessions and guest stars with the marching band. On the scenic University of Wisconsin-La Crosse campus, he's sometimes stopped by students seeking a selfie or wanting to talk music. And he's often deluged with friendly emails, especially when a blizzard is closing in on the school and students tell him, "Dude, close it!"
That's why he was so surprised earlier this year to find himself at the center of a different storm -- one he'd never encountered in 10 years on campus.
After President Donald Trump issued his first travel ban in January, Gow sent an email to the university community, saying he and the leadership team were "shocked and saddened" by the executive order that would have initially barred people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. His statement expressed support for the school's international students and was happily received by many. But in a purple state that unexpectedly helped send Trump to the White House, Gow's email also unleashed a furor from some students, parents, faculty, alumni, and even a state legislator, who felt he was inappropriately taking sides in a political battle.
Some of the critics convinced Gow his words might have chilled opposing points of view. So two days later, he sent a second letter standing by the intent of his original statement, but apologizing for his choice of words. That prompted another wave of outrage, this time from those who'd applauded his first email and felt sold out by the second one.
These are really complex times," Gow said during a recent interview. "The tone of dialogue, he said, is increasingly harsh and the climate on campus highly polarized, "maybe more so than we've ever seen.
"The country is so bitterly divided, and the colleges and universities are reflecting that."
-- Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education
Trump's election and the actions he's taken during his first 100 days in office have stirred emotions and bitter exchanges across the country. But that tension is perhaps most acute on college campuses, where conservatives have long felt marginalized and issues like immigration, the budget, and free speech intersect like a volatile Venn diagram. Just in the past few weeks, the University of California, Berkeley, has been gripped by debate over whether to host conservative author and commentator Ann Coulter, whose planned appearance provoked threats of violence. Coulter said Wednesday that the on-again, off-again speech slated for Thursday was canceled.
At the helm of such controversies are college and university leaders, who are suddenly at the forefront of the national debate to a degree not seen since the Vietnam War.
Their chief challenge? Defending the core values and mission of their institutions while trying to remain politically neutral arbiters.
The country is so bitterly divided, and the colleges and universities are reflecting that," says Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. "This puts pressure on college and university leaders to navigate their way through pretty rough waters. There is no cookbook. There is no simple solution.
Like many campus leaders, University of California president Janet Napolitano put out a statement the day after the election reaffirming her institution's values of excellence in scholarship and inclusiveness. In a state so progressive it's considering adopting "sanctuary" status to protect undocumented immigrants, Napolitano's words were generally welcomed.
But even the former Homeland Security Secretary under President Barack Obama says she tries to walk a fine line in speaking about Trump. "We're a university that has a whole range of political opinion held within our students, faculty, and staff, and we want to foster a good solid debate on ideas," she said in an interview.
Napolitano is looking at how some of her predecessors managed politically fraught times. She's been reading "Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power," a 2012 book that chronicles Ronald Reagan's campaign against protesters at the University of California, Berkeley in the mid-1960s, which led to his election as governor and, within weeks, the firing of UC president Clark Kerr, a towering figure in higher education who refused federal, state, and board demands that he expel student protesters.
"Kerr had a clear vision of what the university should be and should stand for," Napolitano says. "And it ultimately cost him his job.
Napolitano enjoys a bit more job security. The values of the university system are aligned with the current political leanings of the Democratic-controlled state government in Sacramento, giving her plenty of room to move about.
She didn't hesitate, for instance, to sign an affidavit in February, along with nine other former diplomats and national security officials, making the case that Trump's immigration ban "could do long-term damage" to US national security and foreign policy interests. She said she felt a responsibility to speak out, particularly given her central role in creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) order that has protected hundreds of thousands of undocumented students from prosecution since 2012.
I'm the president of the university, but I'm also the former Homeland Security secretary. And I think I can occupy both roles.
-- Janet Napolitano, University of California president and former Homeland Security Secretary
"I'm the president of the university, but I'm also the former Homeland Security secretary," says Napolitano. "And I think I can occupy both roles.
Meanwhile, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, the president of the University Notre Dame, reconsidered the school's custom of inviting newly elected US presidents to deliver the commencement address as he pondered the message he wanted the institution to convey. Thousands of students and faculty signed a petition imploring Jenkins not to invite Trump and the school ultimately announced that Vice President Mike Pence, an Indiana native and former governor, would be the speaker.
A spokesman for the Catholic university would not say whether an invitation had been first extended to Trump, but said Jenkins asked Pence to speak during a reception in the vice president's office six days after the inauguration. In a statement, Jenkins highlighted Pence's ties to the state and praised his "quiet earnestness" and "reserved dignity," perhaps a pointed contrast with Trump.
Beyond questions of values, the challenges to many schools presented by the Trump presidency are more existential, including his proposed deep cuts to science and research along with humanities and the arts.
College and university presidents are now dealing with what they perceive as life or death problems on their campuses," says Patricia A. Graham, the former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, especially when it comes to issues related to immigration and funding. In addition, the administration's trafficking in "alternative facts," she says, threatens the commitment to truth, knowledge, and fact-based inquiry that is the very heart of higher education: "That's the whole enterprise.
Of course, campus tumult didn't start with Trump's election. Well before his surprise victory, tension over matters of free speech and demands for more diverse, racially sensitive campuses were a staple of college life. Last year, Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia confronted head-on the difficult subject of the Jesuit school's role in slavery. At the University of Chicago, officials warned incoming freshmen last summer that the school doesn't "condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces" and affirmed the university's "commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression."
"These are not new issues, but the Trump presidency has put them on steroids on college campuses."
-- Joshua Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program
These are not new issues," says Joshua Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program, "but the Trump presidency has put them on steroids on college campuses.
The post-election marches and protests, including flag-burnings on a few campuses and violence on others, magnified the concerns of conservative students who already felt unwelcome. College presidents would not have put out reassuring statements and held post-election vigils had Hillary Clinton won, says Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute.
"Nobody has died. To encourage students on campus to grieve over the results is fear mongering and creates an even more polarized campus."
-- University of Michigan student Amanda Delekta
"I know that because in 2012 and 2008, nobody thought it was the role of university leadership to tell students who thought Obama represented a challenge to deeply-held beliefs that they still had a place at the university," he said.
Hess believes college presidents are trying to be inclusive and sensitive. But he argued their campus communities -- and their own backgrounds -- tend to be so steeped in liberal ideology that their leadership comes across as "remarkably tone deaf to roughly one-half of the country."
At the University of Michigan, hundreds of conservative students signed a petition #NotMyCampus, decrying the university leadership, including president Mark Schlissel, who spoke at a vigil the day after the election, for making Trump supporters feel ashamed.
Nobody has died," sophomore Amanda Delekta wrote. "To encourage students on campus to grieve over the results is fear mongering and creates an even more polarized campus.
On the other side are students who say they feel threatened like never before by Trump's campaign rhetoric and early White House actions. On the sprawling Ohio State University campus, president Michael V. Drake says that since November, he's been meeting in his office every other week with one Buckeye group or another anxious about the future – from undocumented immigrants to African-Americans to LGBT students.
"What's different this time is that they're seeing, for the first time in my lifetime, the fear that there will be less toleration, less support, less acknowledgment of their personal circumstances in the broader society than they would have expected a year or five years ago," says Drake. "Those are discussions that I hadn't had in my career before.
The raised temperatures have resulted in highly combustible campuses. An uptick in hate speech on campuses caused Michigan State University to ban whiteboards from dorm-room doors beginning next fall. At Texas State University, anti-Semitic flyers have made the rounds four times since November.
Outside agitators at the University of California, Berkeley in February, led to the cancellation of an appearance by conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. And at Middlebury College in Vermont, opposition to a speech by controversial social scientist Charles Murray, author of the 'The Bell Curve,' a 1994 book that suggested a link between socio-economic success, intelligence, and race, ended with a politics professor in the hospital after being attacked by a protestor. She was later released.
"I would tell you that what happened at Middlebury wasn't about Charles Murray," says Karen Gross, former president of Southern Vermont College. "He becomes like a big, anti-Lady Liberty statue, the symbol of discrimination in America. He's done many speeches on ‘The Bell Curve' and this hasn't happened. He's a target, not because of what he wrote, but because of where he was at this moment in history.
From his repudiation of established science on topics such as climate change to his attacks on political correctness, Trump has drawn a clear fault line with academia and its liberal slant. His Cabinet is largely devoid of former academics, a stark contrast with Obama, whose White House staff included many, such as former Harvard president Larry Summers, Yale Law School dean Harold Koh and Harvard Kennedy School professor Samantha Power. Even George W. Bush, no fan of ivory tower elites, tapped a Stanford University provost, Condoleezza Rice, as national security adviser and, later, secretary of state.
But no issue has pit higher education against the Trump administration like the immigration executive orders, which have faced powerful opposition in federal courts and have been blocked or held up.
Nearly 600 presidents of colleges and universities -- public and private, in blue states and red -- signed a letter to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly expressing concern about the order and its impact on the nation's ability to attract "the world's best and brightest students, faculty, and scholars." Some college leaders submitted briefs to bolster the legal case against the immigration ban. And all over the country, presidents and chancellors sent out statements to their communities, held town halls, and tried to reassure their undocumented students, in many cases offering legal assistance and pledging to keep information about their immigration status or national origin private absent a court order.
For all the agreement that such a measure would damage higher education, the tenor of the responses varied greatly, from silence to caution to caustic rebukes, a reflection of the different calculus each campus leader had to make.
Where Gow, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse chancellor, unleashed a firestorm with his relatively measured expression of dissent, many private school presidents spoke out forcefully with little fallout or fear.
David W. Leebron, president of Rice University in Houston, wrote that the order was executed "with a callous indifference" to those impacted. In a deeply personal letter to his community about his family's emigration to Canada in 1939 to escape Nazi persecution, Johns Hopkins University president Ronald J. Daniels wrote that the travel ban takes the country down an "ominous path."
Emory University in Atlanta took the additional step of reaching out to applicants for the fall 2017 freshman class to inform them of the university leadership's opposition to the travel ban. Claire E. Sterk, a Dutch public health scholar who became president of Emory last September, said the admissions office sent an email to prospective students so they would know that Emory was "dedicated to values of inclusion, respect and integrity."
Brian C. Rosenberg, the president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, says he typically remains quiet on controversial issues to avoid inhibiting any points of view. But this time he felt compelled to write a searing letter to the community calling the order "cowardly and cruel," and a "shameful moment in our country's history."
I've struggled to find issues where I've felt a similar urgency to speak.
-- Brian C. Rosenberg, President, Macalester College
That's what I believed and so it's what I wanted to say," says Rosenberg, who had the backing of his board at the small left-leaning campus where the United Nations flag flies. "I've struggled to find issues where I've felt a similar urgency to speak.
Rosenberg says he breaks his silence on political issues only when the mission of the college is at stake, a threshold many campus leaders share.
The joke that when you step down as president you get your First Amendment rights back is not such a joke," says former Brandeis University president Frederick M. Lawrence, now secretary of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. "You pick your spots when you weigh in on something. And they should be few, far between, and should represent the best interest of the university. Not your interest.
Leaders of public universities, generally larger and more ideologically diverse and dependent on their state legislatures for funding, often feel even more constraints. "We're just really thoughtful not to try to take sides in political debates," says Drake of Ohio State. "We're more heavily connected with and dependent on the legislature, and we think very carefully about the outcome we're interested in."
Some state ethics laws even forbid public university staff from taking a position on any matters before the legislature. Officials at Texas State University, for instance, have been unable to weigh in on a "bathroom bill" currently being debated in the legislature that would require students at public schools and universities to use the bathroom of their birth-certificate-assigned gender – a bill many see as targeting transgender students for discrimination.
The University of California's Clark Kerr wasn't the only university leader to lose his job during the turbulent '60s and '70s. The era was such a trying time for college and university leaders that Swarthmore College president Courtney C. Smith died of a heart attack in his office in 1969 as student protesters occupied the admissions office one floor below. "When you see your fellow president drop dead in his office under the pressure of it all, you notice it," says Graham, the Harvard education historian.
Many '60s-era college presidents tried to keep their heads down or quash the campus protests over civil rights, free speech, and the Vietnam War. But a few, such as Yale's Kingman Brewster Jr. and the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh of Notre Dame, supported their students' efforts and emerged as leading figures in the major political debates of the day.
New pressures make it harder for today's college presidents to be the sort of bellowing voice of moral courage that some of their predecessors were. Modern campus leaders are under increasing fundraising pressure and don't want to risk offending potential donors. And social media makes pushback on any controversial statement swift, aggressive and possibly intimidating. Some in higher education also suggest that today's campus presidents think of themselves more as managerial experts than as scholars.
Still, one doesn't have to look far to find examples of those willing to buck strong political forces to defend deeply held beliefs.
As president of the University of Michigan in 2003, Mary Sue Coleman spoke out fervently on the need to have underrepresented populations on campus at a time when the Supreme Court was considering crucial affirmative action cases. University of Texas chancellor William McRaven, the former commander of US Special Operations Command who led the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, argued vehemently against a bill, ultimately passed by the Texas legislature last year, allowing guns on campus. In a pro-Trump state, McRaven also strongly condemned the new president's attacks on the media earlier this year, saying his remarks "may be the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime."
Equally audacious have been the remarks of Patricia A. McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University for 28 years, who denounced Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, an alumna and donor to the Catholic women's college in Washington. In a blog post McGuire slammed Conway for being "part of a team that thinks nothing of shaping and spreading a skein of lies as a means to secure power."
To some, her singling out of a donor and alumna was an act of integrity. To others, such as Hess of AEI, it was "astonishing and appalling." In an interview with The Washington Post Conway said McGuire's comments were "a disappointment" and noted the college had no problem seeking donations from her in the past.
To say we're politically neutral is just ridiculous because politics shapes the society that students live in, that we live in institutionally.
-- Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity Washington University
For McGuire, it was a matter of standing up for a fundamental moral issue and modeling free speech, responsibilities she sees as part of her job description. "To say we're politically neutral is just ridiculous because politics shapes the society that students live in, that we live in institutionally," says McGuire.
She argued that if higher education leaders aren't more vigilant, Trump's attacks on the press could segue into assaults on academic freedom. Other college leaders say they are bracing for an escalation of the tension of the last several months as other controversial issues sweep over their classrooms and quads.
Already, advocates for and against the strict Obama-era guidelines for dealing with sexual assault on campuses are mobilizing in anticipation of a relaxing of those federal guidelines by Trump. Once again, college presidents could be facing a thorny decision – whether to continue the Obama-era procedures or look at other options – that's likely to erupt into protest.
"The protests aren't going away," says Gross, the former president of Southern Vermont College. "The divisions are going to be louder, so campus tensions will rise.
Illustrations by Alejandro Cardenas.