Reflections on the Politics of the Presidency

What role can the college president play in public activism, both as an individual occupying a public position and as the leader of an institution devoted to the development of democratic citizenship? These questions are intimately related, especially for those of us serving in public institutions. My personal political engagement is framed by the public mission of my college, and my capacity to affect civic dialogue depends on the public reputation of my institution—De Anza College—as a place where students regularly engage in civic activism. And yet, the question of presidential leadership is often personalized, as if it were only a matter of individual will and commitment, when it is also, importantly, a matter of institutional identity.

Why institutional identity? American higher education prides itself on its institutional diversity, its bewildering variety of institutional missions, purposes, funding and costs, and degrees awarded. Most often, those of us in higher education speak about this diversity using the “eduspeak” of higher education itself: research institutions, comprehensive universities, public two-year colleges, and so forth. Viewed from another angle, however, institutional diversity reflects very different social missions, or different roles in a profoundly unequal and divided society. Each president acts within a context framed by the social function of an institution and its unique constituencies.

The president of a public two-year community college starts with the fundamental dualism of our social role, with the tensions and contradictions built into what our communities expect from us, and what those who govern us expect. While we have a populist history of serving working-class and immigrant students and their communities, and we believe deeply in social mobility with an implicitly egalitarian end, we have also played a functionalist role assigned by states and the national government: prepare the workers, teach the skills of the marketplace, increase productivity, align with industry. In the language of political economy: reproduce the social relations of production.

What happens if we want to challenge that functionalism, or call attention to it, or insist that our students deserve an education that both prepares them for work and prepares them to challenge the social roles that are available to them? What if we believe our commitment to working families must go beyond workforce preparation, must include politics itself?

Standing Up Publicly

De Anza College is a large public two-year community college located in the epicenter of Silicon Valley. Our twenty-three thousand students are exceptionally diverse in their racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious, and class origins, reflecting the diversity of this century’s California (and soon, the diversity of the country). The college is known as a superb academic institution, with transfer and completion rates among the highest in the United States. We accomplish this even though 85 percent of our students arrive with less-than-collegiate-level math and compositional skills, because we begin with our students’ assets, the intellectual and social skills they do have. Seventy-two percent of our students speak at least two languages. They code-switch effortlessly, they navigate the public and private indignities of racism and class bias, and yet they get their work done. They are smart and talented, whatever the formal assessments say.

What does it mean to provide a presidential voice in such a place? Like any new president, I came with a history, one of political and civic work. My convictions were clear, and I was welcomed by faculty who had been working for decades to build a tradition of equity and cultural diversity and expected me to stand up for that tradition. More critically, I found that the faculty believed broadly in our students, appreciated our students’ history of activism, and were convinced that there might be a connection between students’ engagement and their academic success.

In this setting, it is perfectly ordinary for me to stand up publicly for our students and for their communities. It is not odd that I might argue for increased public support for public goods (not only education), be quoted criticizing the tax avoidance strategies employed by wealthy corporations, or join others calling for a living wage in the state and country. In doing this, I am not narrowly expressing my own convictions, but standing for the institution and its people. At the same time, I am careful to differentiate—as a matter of principle and of fact—that my own views on certain issues are my own views and not those of the elected trustees of my district. The trustees expect that I will have my own views, and that I am doing my level best to advance the interests of our students.

Developing Students’ Capacities

If presidential leadership consisted only of making public pronouncements, it wouldn’t yield much of lasting value. Where presidential leadership—or staff or administrator or faculty leadership, for that matter—counts is in the creation and support of programs and projects that develop the capacity of students and their communities to be politically powerful. At De Anza, I formed a broad-based task force on civic and community engagement; this task force, consisting of faculty and staff, developed a comprehensive plan for civic work, including the establishment of an institute (now named the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action, or VIDA) with staffing and a dedicated budget. Well beyond the task force, faculty and staff appreciated the role that civic work can play in the lives of students and took strong leadership in the relevant budget and planning bodies to support the college’s civic mission.

The result is more than an institute. It is curricula and community service, a formal certificate program in social change leadership, and faculty and staff development in equity. It is an independent student government with a budget of over $1.4 million and a tradition of annual political organizing. It is a comprehensive strategic plan aimed at enrolling students from the most disadvantaged communities. It requires the development of entirely new pedagogies that draw on the social capital our students bring to their classrooms, where familia is an organizing principle of mutual support. It has resulted in a first-year experience where “decolonizing your education” is a topic of debate; multiple public programs on equity and global issues; and community conversations on violence, sexual and gender bias, police shootings, and poverty.

At an institution that defies the stereotype of a commuter campus—where students stay on campus after class to participate in organizations on every conceivable topic, from anime to robotics, hip-hop and spoken word to overseas service—political engagement is a natural part of the place. Faculty and administrators see our students as whole human beings, and we encourage them to develop the skills and capacities, habits and abilities we would want in good neighbors, union leaders, civic and community advocates, parents, and friends.

Beyond the Bully Pulpit

There is a politics in our refusal to reduce our students to the national narrative of economics. Neither I nor my colleagues at De Anza believe it is adequate to educate narrowly for the workplace. While De Anza students know they will need to work, they also know their lives will be defined by issues that cannot be solved by the market: global warming, systemic and institutional inequality, racism and official violence, religious hatreds. All require the action of governments and states, and students who are not educated broadly in the liberal arts and sciences, or educated in how to organize and affect power, are systematically denied access to the debates surrounding these issues. They are vulnerable to the sound bites currently passing for political debate. Students must have civic and political skills if they are to work with others to confront global issues.

A college president can talk all he or she wants about these issues. But the bully pulpit doesn’t count for much unless the president leads a college that stands for something: equity, social justice, peace. In order for the college to effectively represent these ideals, the college president must also ensure that students know how to fight for them.


Brian Murphy is president of De Anza College.

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