February 23, 2024

College Presidents’ Opinion Pieces: A Busy Field, but with Some Corners Unplowed


Laurel, Md., January 27, 2015 – The bully pulpit is alive and well among college and university presidents, and the “Top 14” have published at least 10 opinion pieces in the past year. Yet, women presidents account for only 18 percent of the opinion pieces, and community colleges, HBCUs, and special-purpose institutions are seriously underrepresented.

Those are some of the findings in an analysis of print and online opinion pieces by college and university presidents over 2014. The study by Roland King of PhairAdvantage Communications, LLC, analyzes nearly 600 “op-eds” by presidents across all sectors of nonprofit higher education. It includes data on where those pieces appeared and the topics addressed.

The study also has identified those presidents that were most prolific in expressing their views – the Top 14. That select group includes both male and female presidents, and representatives from every sector of nonprofit higher education – public four-year, public two-year, and private.

Those with 10 or more op-eds in 2014 are Ricardo Azziz, Georgia Regents University (10); Robert Breuder, College of DuPage, Ill. (10); John Ebersole, Excelsior College, N.Y. (11); Karen Gross, Southern Vermont College (17); Patricia McGuire, Trinity Washington University, D.C. (14); Scott Miller, Bethany College, W.Va. (19); Robert Myers, Toccoa Falls College, Ga. (12); Christopher Nelson, St. John’s College, Annapolis (19); Gary Olson, Daemen College, N.Y. (15); Santa Ono, University of Cincinnati (10); Bill Path, Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology (10); Daniel Porterfield, Franklin & Marshall College (18); Michael Roth, Wesleyan University, Conn. (32); and Dustin Swanger, Fulton-Montgomery Community College, N.Y. (20).

Links to all op-eds published by the top 14 are posted on the PhairAdvantage website, along with a full list of the more than 200 presidents included in the database.

“For years, higher education critics have complained that college presidents are reluctant to speak out on social and federal policy issues,” King notes. “These findings show that perception is misguided and unwarranted. There are a lot of voices speaking out eloquently and forcefully on a wide range of topics, including some of the most controversial issues facing the country.”

Topics of the op-eds analyzed include race relations, immigration, climate change, incarceration, returning veterans, gender issues, and the proliferation of firearms. Campus issues presidents have addressed include sexual assaults, alcohol, college access for low-income students, free speech, college cost and debt, emotionally unstable students, and abuses in sports programs.

In higher education policy, presidents have voiced support for subsidized preschool and concern over the influence of private foundations, and have debated the pros and cons of a core curriculum. Most intensely, they have spoken out both for and against the administration’s proposals to rank colleges and to provide two years of community college free.

Even so, King notes that some presidential voices speak louder than others.

One concern is the limited representation of female presidents in the opinion pieces studied. While women constitute 26 percent of all nonprofit college presidents (according to American Council on Education data), only 18 percent of the op-eds studied were written by women presidents.

“There is a crying need for gender equity in policy-making and in shaping public views of the issues facing society,” King says. “I see women presidents’ voices as essential in that ongoing debate.”

Another concern is the disparate representation of some types of institutions. “We found that 70 percent of the op-eds studied were by private college presidents,” he notes, “with 45 percent written by those heading baccalaureate institutions, which are predominantly private colleges.”

The next largest subset – another 24 percent of the opinion pieces – are those with the Carnegie classification of master’s colleges and universities. King notes that nearly two-thirds of the master’s institutions are private as well. The smaller but highly influential group of doctorate-granting universities, which is 60 percent public and 40 percent private, accounts for another 16 percent of the op-eds studied.

In contrast to the dominant role of private colleges in the public discourse, some types of institutions are relatively invisible – especially community colleges, HBCUs, and special-purpose institutions (religious colleges, law schools, and those devoted to medical/health, engineering/technology, business/management, and the arts). Together they number more than 2,000 institutions – well over half of all nonprofit institutions. However, these two categories combined account for only 13 percent of the op-eds studied. Of the nation’s 106 HBCUs, only four are represented in the database.

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