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Time for college presidents to find their voices

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Dr. Scott D. Miller Dr. Scott D. Miller

Dr. Scott D. Miller is President and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies at Bethany College. A graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College, he has served as president of three private liberal arts colleges during the past 22 years.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of participating in a series of briefings sponsored by NAICU, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, on Capitol Hill. NAICU and its president, David Warren, have been steadfast advocates for private higher education, keeping member institutions apprised of potentially harmful developments that could affect college and university enrollments nationwide.

What we learned in Washington earlier this month was that March — not April, in the poet's words — may be the "cruelest month." All colleges and universities, public and private, are well advised to keep a wary eye on Washington lawmakers' deliberations as they confront "fiscal-cliff" budget sequestration.

These automatic federal spending cuts, which went into effect March 1, would critically reduce Federal Work Study and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants. Pell Grants, though spared this year, would remain at risk. We at Bethany College have expressed concern for months to legislative representatives in Washington about the potentially harmful impact of reduced Pell Grants and federal budget cuts for higher education, in general.

Although we private college leaders recognize our responsibility to raise the bulk of funds ourselves for enhancing the attractiveness of our institutions to prospective students, Washington still sets much of the tone for consumer confidence, affordability of higher education and projections of economic stability. A family's commitment to any form of higher education these days—private or public—represents a significant investment of funds and faith, as well as an understandable desire for a return on that investment.

These are critical times for students and their families as they shop around for the best financial aid deals at desirable colleges and universities — an important time for the institutions, too. Most campuses leverage financial aid as part of their marketing sell to high school juniors and seniors. That's because higher education choice remains a buyer's market, giving prospective students and their families unprecedented opportunity to compare institutions' offers of discounted tuition — usually in the form of generous scholarships that defray the sticker price of enrolling.

The higher-education landscape is already changing due to the emergence of for-profit providers, MOOC's ("massive open online courses"), the public's growing expectations of value for their tuition dollars and other factors. So amid these uncertain economic projections, the pressure is on campuses to increase funds for merit scholarships, to package available financial aid attractively and innovatively and to keep up to date with the quality-of-life campus extras that students and their families expect when choosing a college these days.

All of this underscores a discussion theme of NAICU's annual meetings in Washington: whether higher-education presidents need to speak out publicly on such broad national issues. Yes, we do. It's in our best interest to do so.

Although many presidents are reluctant to voice their opinions in public, for fear of offending key constituents (donors and/or legislators), I see little reason to decline an opportunity for using the "bully pulpit" of our offices. Throughout my own 22 years as a college president at three institutions, I have been supported by my governing boards for voicing public support for key higher-education initiatives. These have included joining the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment to reduce campus emissions that contribute to climate change and most recently signing a letter to President Obama, pledging to engage our campuses in a national dialogue about gun control and mental health, and urging adoption of gun-safety legislation.

So now is the time, as well, for presidents and other institutional leaders to weigh in on the political deliberations that influence economic policy in this country. Our stewardship of our students and their investment in our institutions should extend to protecting them from the worst results of the "fiscal cliff" as well as harmful climate change and gun violence. (And, no, I don't mean to imply that an economic crisis or climate change is equivalent to mass shootings.)

A Jan. 28, 2013, letter by Oglethorpe University President Lawrence M. Schall to the editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education reminds us of former University of Notre Dame President Father Theodore Hesburgh's charge to other presidents: "How can we urge students to have the courage to speak out unless we are willing to do so ourselves?"

Because America's institutions of higher education have traditionally fostered open dialogue about the most compelling issues of our times, we should not find it inconsistent to join the current debate about how best to address economic problems that affect not only our campuses, but all of our citizens. To shrink from doing so relegates our institutions to an unsettling and unnecessary silence.