John Rennie at the SciAm Perspectives Blog describes a truly disheartening encounter with a group (more than a dozen, he says) of university presidents. At a media roundtable he posed the presidents this challenge:

Suppose we have a petition here that says, “As university presidents, we affirm that evolution by means of natural selection is a demonstrated fact of science. We also assert that any failure to teach evolution, or to teach ‘intellectual design’ as an alternative theory, harms students’ educational standing.” Who here would not sign, and why?

How many university president said they would sign? All? Some? A few?

Nope.

None.

🙁

College presidents, unfortunately, far too often, have priorities that are far removed from student learning, or the growth of a rational society, or civilization or science. They see themselves, really, as executives, not as educators.

I remember the days, years ago now, when our own current (then new) president faced, and lost, a vote of no-confidence from the faculty. I remember thinking how much easier it could have been for him, and for all of us, if he had approached us (the faculty) cooperatively–as our leader, but our leader who was our ally, who was working toward the same goal as we were.

Time has passed since then, and my opinion of him (and probably his opinion of us as a faculty) has certainly improved. I’ve seen him take some actually brave steps, and I’ve seen clear evidence of a real commitment to our students. He’s still an executive, and I’ve begun to see reasons why an executive is an important thing to have.

But I wonder if, faced with the kind of challenge Rennie posed, our own president would have reacted as an educator, as a colleague, as someone who cares about truth and learning and knowledge. I like to think that he would. I like to think that he would be braver, less political and more principled, than the presidents of the University of Texas, Stony Brook University, the University of Chicago, and the others (the hiss of shame upon them all) Rennie encountered.