Presidents choose their presidents
Tomorrow is Super Tuesday, when over 20 states will hold either caucuses or primaries. But some university presidents have already weighed in; the presidents of the University of Florida, the University of Miami, the State University of New York at Old Westbury, and Liberty University, among others, have all publicly endorsed candidates for the 2008 presidential election.
The most recent endorsement came on Jan. 21, when John McCain’s campaign issued a press release announcing University of Florida President Bernie Machen’s support. While the last sentence of the press release said that Machen’s opinion must “not be misconstrued as an endorsement by the University of Florida,” the headline of the press release itself mentioned Machen as the university’s president.
“I feel like endorsements are definitely publicized and used just as headlines by the campaigns,” said Gabby Moskowitz, a sophomore computer science major who is a member of College Democrats and an intern at the Pennsylvania League of Young Voters.
While these endorsements make headlines in press releases and the media, there are differing opinions as to their appropriateness.
“I don’t think it is within the role of a university president,” said Carnegie Mellon President Jared L. Cohon. “A university president is a citizen with a right to free speech. However, for the president of a university, speaking as an individual is the same as speaking as a university.”
Student Body Vice President Adi Jain, a senior business administration and electrical and computer engineering major, agreed with Cohon.
“I find it shocking,” Jain said of the recent endorsements. “There is a certain amount of responsibility that comes with a leadership role, which I feel like the university president overlooked in this case.”
Moskowitz insisted that an endorsement is acceptable as long as it doesn’t become campaigning.
“There is a difference between a press release and a rally,” Moskowitz said. “As voters, university presidents can endorse a candidate as long as there is no promotion or actions done for the campaign.”
As to the effect on students, Moskowitz maintained that there will be “no effect since those who will actually vote already have their opinions set.”
Cohon hoped that these endorsements might make students think more about the candidates and their issues in objecting or agreeing with their university’s presidents.
Jain saw the issue as more of a public relations ploy.
“It would increase a particular candidate’s visibility within that university’s population,” Jain said, “which a lot of times is enough to get a few votes out of voters who are either not very educated regarding candidates’ platforms and positions or undecided.”
The list of college endorsements includes public, private, and religiously affiliated colleges, all of which have been under the spotlight lately.
Donna E. Shalala, president of the University of Miami, a private instituation, endorsed Hillary Clinton.
Although Shalala’s endorsement came as no surprise since she served as a Cabinet member in the Clinton administration, her endorsement was so public that she even appeared on The Colbert Report.
Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones College, labeled his endorsement of Mitt Romney as that of a “private citizen” on the school’s homepage.
However, some universities have met with outside obstacles following their presidents’ endorsements.
When Jerry Falwell Jr., the chancellor of Baptist-affiliated Liberty University endorsed Mike Huckabee, Americans United for Separation of Church and State held a federal investigation as to whether the university violated federal tax laws in backing a bipartisan campaign.
For other university presidents, their endorsements had implications extending beyond their campuses.
The endorsement of Hillary Clinton from Reverend Calvin O. Butts III, the president of the State University of New York at Old Westbury, had a double meaning. He is both the university’s president and the pastor of the Abyssian Baptist Church, one of the most influential black churches in the United States.
Many people seemed to think voters’ excitement is the reason for so many university president endorsements, and endorsements in general, in this year’s elections.
“I can’t remember the last time there were so many. It might just be a reaction to how excited people are for this year’s elections,” Cohon said.
Cohon, who traveled to both Switzerland and India in the past two weeks, cited a “tremendous interest in the U.S. primaries” abroad.
Moskowitz agreed with Cohon that this year’s endorsements were a result of widespread excitement.
However, Moskowitz questioned student excitement levels on campus.
“There is widespread talk of Super Bowl parties,” Moskowitz said. “But what about a Super Tuesday viewing party?”
Cohon spoke of the 2004 elections on campus in which after the primaries, a rally was held on campus for John Kerry and the same was offered to George Bush.
“I would be happy to host rallies and hold forums and mock debates,” Cohon said. “Anything that increases student awareness is a good pro.”
Jain expressed his belief that during elections, universities and their leaders should be as vocal as student organizations are year round.
“Imagine if the university spent the time publicizing voting in the same way that some of these student organizations publicize their events,” Jain said.
With Super Tuesday tomorrow and the primaries in full swing, the talk of endorsements and presidential candidates is nowhere near its end.