Permission to Speak: College Presidents, the Israeli Boycott, and Climate Change

Rachelle Peterson

When should a college president address a contentious public issue? To judge by the actual behavior of most college presidents, the answer might be “never,” or at least “avoid it if at all possible.” When college presidents do address controversies, of course, most steer towards staunch reiterations of politically correct views. Mary Sue Coleman, the president of the University of Michigan, responded to the 2006 passage of a popular referendum outlawing racial preferences in Michigan’s public colleges and universities by declaring her determination to flout the law. On the eve of another referendum in Maine that would have allowed for same-sex marriages, Barry Mills, the president of Bowdoin College, wrote a letter in the student newspaper urging Bowdoin students to vote in favor of the proposition. Neither Coleman nor Mills was taking a risk by going against the sentiment of their faculties or their students, where racial preferences and gay marriage were overwhelmingly supported.

Risk-avoidance might be seen as the operative principle even in the relatively few cases where college presidents enunciate stands on contentious issues. But the desire to avoid risk doesn’t always point to a clear path. Avoiding one risk can expose the wary president to a different risk. That is what seems to have happened in the latest flare-up over a proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Some college presidents having denounced the boycott found themselves criticized by faculty members for butting into an affair that ought to have been none of their business. More on this in a moment.

College presidents do from time to time strike a public position that gets them into hot water. Perhaps the most prominent recent example was Indiana Republican governor-turned Purdue president Mitch Daniels, who brought down the wrath of progressives last October when he gave a keynote address at a conservative Minnesota think tank, the Center of the American Experiment. His alleged malfeasance: dabbling in partisan politics. The criticism he received may have been opportunistic. Other presidents who have done much the same thing by giving speeches to liberal think tanks have somehow escaped similar complaints. For example, in September, when Spelman College president Beverly Tatum spoke at the left-leaning Center for American Progress along with senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett and Democratic House leader, Nancy Pelosi, no one so much as shrugged.

Sometimes presidents do take calculated risks. For example, Biddy Martin, the president of Amherst College, took a principled stance last October defending the academic freedom of Amherst professor Hadley Arkes, an outspoken critic of homosexuality. In return, Martin faced the outrage of alumni who judged that she oughtn’t let Arkes cite his affiliation with the college, since he didn’t represent Amherst’s official position.

The controversy currently roiling academe, however, concerns Israel. The American Studies Association voted in December to boycott Israeli academic institutions, in between similar actions by the Association for Asian American Studies last April and the Modern Language Association this January. Decisions by more than 200 college and university presidents to condemn the ASA’s boycott for undermining academic freedom and unfairly singling out Israel have provoked a counter-backlash. Pro-Palestine professors and students bristled when their institutions’ presidents publicly adopted a position they disliked.

Their unhappiness has not led to any backtracking on the part of the presidents, but the sound and fury do signify something. They tell us about the pitch and yaw of the ideological tightrope that college presidents must walk if they choose to engage a controversial issue—or, more likely, if they judge that they cannot avoid addressing such an issue. The Israeli boycott was almost certainly one of the latter. Once the ASA put the matter on the table and it was widely reported in the press, college presidents felt enormous pressure to clarify where they and their institutions stood.

The presidents’ clear declarations of opposition to the boycott have emphasized that “boycotts” by their nature compromise academic freedom. Only a few of the statements have gone further to point out that Israel was being unfairly singled out for alleged transgressions that are commonplace among other nations, that the ASA appeared to have no interest in dealing with. The reliance of the presidents on the doctrine of academic freedom, however, raises an interesting issue. When a college president speaks on a controversial issue, he is always at some risk of overriding the diverse opinions of his faculty and students. That could be seen as an action hostile to academic freedom—which is indeed the complaint of the pro-Palestinian faction that favors the boycott and is protesting the presidents’ actions.

The force of this objection—that college presidents should hold their tongues lest they create a campus climate hostile to free expression of dissenting views—really depends on a showing that college faculties care enough about such matters that they seek to uphold this ethic of presidential neutrality across a wide variety of issues. But that really has not happened. Consider the case of college presidents who have unilaterally committed their institutions to a doctrinaire position on “climate change” and sustainability. Unlike other campus movements that trace their roots to student protests or faculty activism, the sustainability movement waltzed into campus policy by presidential fiat—and no one called foul.

Starting in 2006, college and university presidents began publicly avowing their commitments to sustainability by way of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), a pledge written and monitored by an activist organization founded by John Kerry and Teresa Heinz. Heinz and Kerry had met at the 1992 UN Rio Summit on sustainability and left determined to make the UN’s sustainability dreams a reality in the U.S. They launched the ACUPCC’s parent organization, Second Nature, to target U.S. college and university presidents as leaders in the nascent American sustainability movement. In 2006, Second Nature established the ACUPCC with twelve founding signatories. Today, 679 presidents and chancellors have vowed to make the teaching and practice of sustainability a top priority at their schools.


The examples of the ASA and the ACUPCC provide a helpful contrast to discriminate appropriate and inappropriate public presidential behavior. The presidents who opposed the boycott stood against the politicization of the academy. They protected academic freedom and rational scholarship from the hard-headed tools of ideology-driven boycotts.

“Sustainability” presents itself as environmental responsibility and resource-stewardship: part eco-hippie and part old-school thrift. It differs from the Israel-Palestine debate in that it’s less divisive, less overtly political, and seemingly innocuous. Who would oppose lowering energy bills and teaching students to turn off the faucet while brushing their teeth?

But environmental stewardship serves as a façade for a host of openly political dogmas and as an umbrella for many of academia’s obsessions with race, class, and gender. AASHE, one of the founders of the Presidents’ Climate Commitment, grades 628 participating institutions in an elaborately coded hierarchy of sustainability initiatives. Some of them echo strict environmentalism: buying recycled content napkins (OP-T2-10), installing lighting sensors to reduce electricity use (OP-T2-14), and landscaping with native plants (OP-T2-19). But AASHE also awards sustainability points to schools that offer vegan dining (OP-T2-4), patronize “historically underutilized business, minority businesses, and women-owned businesses” (OP-T2-24), develop gender-neutral housing (PAE-T2-1), provide child-care and “sustainable compensation” to employees (PAE-T2-4 and PAE-11), and give students a graduation pledge to live sustainably (PAE-T2-10).

The most common depiction of sustainability is a Venn diagram showing three interlocking circles labeled “environment,” “society,” and “economy.” Sustainability, in the middle of the Venn diagram, marks the ideal where the natural, social, and economic resources are properly allocated according to progressive principles. (See, for example, variations of the Venn diagram at Vanderbilt University, Transylvania University, and Rutgers University.) Signing the ACUPCC actively invites ideology, injecting politics into the campus’s intellectual climate even while worrying about the globe’s incalescent one.


NAS has criticized the ASA’s boycott of Israel for undermining academic freedom and curtailing reasoned debate in favor of social coercion. Boycotts aim to convert opponents to a dogma (often a political one) not by persuading, but by crusading against and ostracizing those who disagree.

The sustainability movement takes a similar tack: it pressures compliance by threatening catastrophic dangers and misappropriating the precautionary principle. In the absence of conclusive scientific evidence for anthropogenic global warming, the chary sustainablers call for drastic action, hedging against the possibility that global warming might turn out to be true. And like the boycotts that operate on peer pressure, the movement depends on a “science by consensus”—that is, by democracy rather than by the scientific method. The dominant sustainability movement shames minority climate change skeptics as “deniers” and academic misfits.

The Presidents’ Climate Commitment institutionalizes this way of thinking, setting forth an ideological party line for professors to toe and for students to learn. Consider the opening statement of the pledge that each of the 679 signatories has taken:

We, the undersigned presidents and chancellors of colleges and universities, are deeply concerned about the unprecedented scale and speed of global warming and its potential for large-scale, adverse health, social, economic and ecological effects.

It goes on to “recognize the scientific consensus that global warming is real and is largely being caused by humans” and “the need to reduce the global emission of greenhouse gases by 80% by mid-century at the latest.” Ignoring the active scientific debate over the reality of global warming and slipping into the political lingo of UN protocols based on “scientific consensus,” the ACUPCC commits its signatories to an ideological statement firmly positioned on one side of an ongoing academic debate.

The Climate Commitment effectively commits students to that ideology, too. The ACUPCC urges colleges to redesign the student experience to inculcate the behavior and the beliefs of a sustainable lifestyle:

Campuses that address the climate challenge by reducing global warming emissions and by integrating sustainability into their curriculum will better serve their students and meet their social mandate to help create a thriving, ethical and civil society. These colleges and universities will be providing students with the knowledge and skills needed to address the critical, systemic challenges faced by the world in this new century.

AASHE, in its sustainability grades, awards points to institutions that include sustainability in new student orientation (ER-3), sponsor sustainability-focused courses (ER-6), and develop sustainability literacy assessments (ER-13). Presidents and their institutions take these commitments seriously. Cornell’s president Frank Rhodes called sustainability “a new foundation for the liberal arts and sciences.” The University of Texas at Arlington developed a University Sustainability Committee with a Curriculum, Research, and Community Engagement sub-committee “dedicated to integrating sustainability themes across all academic disciplines”—now a standard feature at many schools. The University of Denver rewrote its mission statement to emphasize its commitment to sustainability.

Protests and Reactions

Consider the divergent reactions to the ASA and to the ACUPCC. Overwhelmingly, college presidents balked at the ASA’s overtly political tone. Even more overwhelmingly, they’ve invited the political commitments of the ACUPCC.

When 200-plus presidents denounced the ASA, and six cancelled their institutional memberships, members of the professoriate raised a ruckus. Upset that they weren’t consulted and that the president didn’t acknowledge, let alone endorse, their divergent opinions, professors and students felt their leader had unilaterally determined an official institutional position on a political matter best left to individual choice. At Trinity College, in Hartford, Connecticut, the president and dean of the faculty wrote a strongly-worded condemnation of the ASA that met equally strongly-worded protests from twenty-one professors there. “No announcement was made to the faculty prior to the letter going out,” the disgruntled Trinity professors wrote in their open letter to their president and dean, “and so no discussion was permitted.”

In Indiana, when IU president Michael A. McRobbie cancelled his university’s institutional ASA membership and Purdue’s Mitch Daniels publicly criticized the ASA, eight professors from the two schools wrote a lengthy op-ed in the Lafayette Journal and Courier calling McRobbie’s behavior “a chilling violation of faculty governance and academic freedom” and warning Daniels against any move to “override faculty, student, program or department policy or democracy.” It’s worth noting that individual professors may retain their ASA memberships even if their university cancelled its institutional membership, as Indiana University did. As of now, President Daniels has not taken any action on behalf of Purdue.

And in Illinois, eighteen Northwestern University students wrote to The Protest (which bills itself as “Northwestern’s social justice news source”) to protest the injustice of their president and provost foisting anti-boycott sentiments on the rest of the university: “We believe your…recent statement is a narrow and unfitting generalization of the values and opinions of the diverse faculty, staff and students of Northwestern University…. We disagree on the grounds that it does not speak for the varying viewpoints within the University community.”

If a president’s decision to oppose an academic organization’s boycott prompted outcries, signing onto the ACUPCC should have provoked rebellion. Anti-boycott statements represent clearly defined principles of academic conduct. They rightly rejected politicization of the university rather than inviting it. Such actions may ruffle the feathers of a few angsty, ruffle-prone professors and students, but they represent no official campus policy. Even in the six schools that cancelled their institutional memberships in the ASA, individual faculty members retain the right to obtain an individual membership if they choose.

The Presidents’ Climate Commitment, by comparison, entails pledging to a political statement, reordering funding priorities and significantly increasing expenditures, creating new staff positions (and often entire departments and committees), reshaping student life, and in many cases prompting a wholesale reconsideration of the college curriculum. The ACUPCC puts expensive administrative feet to ideological conviction. Signatories vow to perform three tasks: develop a plan to achieve carbon neutrality; begin tangible actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as establishing a purchasing policy to buy only Energy Star-certified appliances or creating a committee to support sustainability endowment investments; and make plans, progress reports, and other documentation available to the public.

Achieving “climate neutrality” means reaching zero net greenhouse gas emissions within the next few years—a massively expensive undertaking. Climate neutrality requires retrofitting buildings with new heating elements, finding “green” energy sources, buying hybrid campus vehicles, convincing students to ride bikes rather than drive, composting or recycling all bio-degradable waste and conducting trash audits to pressure students into compliance, and purchasing expensive emissions credits. To oversee these audacious projects, schools need sustainability coordinators and departments, and often student, staff, and faculty committees. To fund these new projects, schools rely partly on private grants and donations—but also on government funds, student “green fees,” and the general budget (read: tuition).

No Protest

Yet the faculty has responded to the Climate Commitment with impassive tranquility. We have in our research found no documentation of professors who spoke against their president’s decision to sign the Presidents’ Climate Commitment. Partly that’s due to a well-executed PR campaign that coaxed would-be discontents into silence. California State University-Monterey Bay’s Climate Action Plan submitted to the ACUPCC notes (on page 21) the risk of “backlash if message is too heavy-handed” and an allocation of $20,000 to “marketing materials, prizes & incentives, staff time (80 hrs); faculty time (80 hrs); student time (300 hours)” to lubricate faculty compliance. An issue of the ACUPCC newsletter Implementer covers on page 50 the “best practices for creating a climate action plan”: “If a CAP (Climate Action Plan) appears to challenge existing projects or to deprive other departments of their funding, it can be viewed with hostility. Preventing this kind of backlash first requires setting yourselves up for success.” “Setting yourself up for success” means, apparently, shutting out the opposition—which is, incidentally, the same tactic favored by the boycotters.

But partly it’s because professors and students have bought the ideology wholesale. Sustainability permeates higher education in a way that shuts out dissent and shuts down debate. The ACUPCC itself seems to think that skepticism about global warming or concern about adopting a political pledge is unwarranted. On its list of “10 Common Objections to Signing the ACUPCC,” none anticipates any real resistance. Instead, the ACUPCC expects that if potential signatories harbor any fears about signing up, they are worried that the ACUPCC doesn’t go far enough in its sustainability commitments: “We are already doing more than what the ACUPCC requires, and joining would dilute our efforts” (#4) or “Working to reduce our own GHG emissions to net zero will distract us from our real contribution of education and research on solutions to global warming” (#5). The most remotely skeptical objection is #10: “Global warming may be real, but we don’t need to act now.”

While we found no critical professors, we did find one student, a brave sophomore (at the time) from College of the Holy Cross, who criticized his school’s participation in the ACUPCC. Writing for an independent campus newspaper, Fenwick Review, in February 2012, Andrew Emerson ’14 aptly noted that

There are both fiscal and economic objections to these policies [of signing the President’s Climate Commitment], as well as philosophical and political concerns. This is not intended as a repudiation of an individual’s freedom to believe what they wish, or an individual’s choice to recycle or to use energy efficient products. However, a problem arises when institutions, from colleges to countries, decide to affect the behavior of their constituent members or make unsound fiscal decisions based on information that is, at best, suspect.

Bravo to Mr. Emerson. The Presidents’ Climate Commitment lends the sheen of expert credence to a political dogma. It enshrines in heavy-handed institutional policy an expensive, ideological reordering of higher education.

Often what a president may or may not say without drawing public ire depends on the sentiments of politically correct watchdogs. That’s most visible in cases such as signing the Presidents’ Climate Commitment, when presidents should have been called out for political activism, but weren’t. Here, if anywhere, is a blatant abuse of presidential prerogative. And yet where are the protests? 

Image: Screenshot from Youtube

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