Bruce's Blog

Jan. 4, 2012

It's an important matter; why isn't Western taking a public position?

Periodically, well-meaning folks contact me, seeking to have Western take a formal position on a particular issue.

Those making the request are deeply concerned about a cause that has obvious merit. They know their position. Many times, they think it self-evident that Western should formally align with their position. And, almost always, I turn down the request.


First, out of respect for you who are Western. Taking a position as "Western" means, at some level, taking a position for you. That must be done with great respect for all who are Western. We are a marvelously rich community of diverse backgrounds, beliefs, priorities, and passions.

The basic rule is simple: to ask how directly the issue affects the interests of Western as Western Washington University. And, what defines Western as WWU? In my use of the phrase, it is not the particular political, environmental, or social interests we might hold in common. No, Western is defined by what we have, together and formally, agreed is Western's mission.

So, the pertinent question to ask is not: is the matter directly relevant to something we all care deeply about? The question is: is the matter directly related to Western's effectiveness in pursuit of its mission?

Most often, that rule is easily applied. There are any number of matters where we, as Western, have a direct interest: e.g., the many legislative matters in Olympia on everything from regulatory rules to personnel policies to budgets that directly bear on what we are most about: providing high quality higher education. On such matters, we do not hesitate to have the University state a formal position.

Similarly, we regularly speak up on national issues involving such matters as federal financial aid.

There are also any number of issues where there is absolutely no direct interest for Western.

There are also cases where, by law, we may not take a position if state resources are being used in so doing: any ballot measure, for example. Imagine, as has happened, a ballot measure is proposed inimical to the success of our university. We cannot use state resources to take a position. I cannot. You cannot. But, we can certainly lay out the facts and the consequences as we see them. And, we do.

The rub comes where there are issues of genuine significance to each of us as citizens but which do not directly connect to Western's ability to fulfill its mission.

Recently, a colleague encouraged me to take a position on a national issue, one of great importance: the proposed Keystone XL pipeline (the "Tar Sands Pipeline" from Alberta, Canada to Texas and proposed to cross the Ogallala Aquifer) That we should inform, debate, and seek to influence outcomes as scholars, as citizens, as stewards for the future is undeniable. But, as Western Washington University qua WWU, there is no clear connection between that issue and Western's ability to serve its mission.

This can be very difficult for some to understand because, as I have said, these are important issues and people care deeply about them, as they should. And we, as a university, should encourage them to so care.

First is the pragmatic concern: there are myriad issues out there about which people feel strongly. They arise every day. Once we start down the road of taking positions where people (including ourselves) feel strongly, where do we draw the line?

There is also, though, the disappointed reaction I sometimes get when saying "no" to a person who cares deeply about an issue: taking no position on, say, something like the Keystone XL pipeline project is the same as taking a position – taking a position for it. Or, so it is asserted.

With this reasoning, I heartily disagree. It's a manifestation of the fundamentally flawed logic: "you are either for us or you are against us." But, it does remind me of the need to constantly emphasize what is our responsibility as Western Washington University: to assure we are a place, perhaps the most important place, for informed, passionate, and educational debate.

Elsewhere in an earlier blog, I have written of the shortcomings I fear we may have in fulfilling that critical role.

I have a corollary to the "only if Western's fulfillment of its mission is directly affected" principle.

Western has a huge local impact: be it the size of our workforce, our payroll, the local economic impact conservatively estimated at over a quarter of a billion dollars annually. The contributions we make to the cultural vitality of our area, the almost 1,000,000 hours of community service we, all of us together, provide annually.

We have a huge impact. With that, though, goes the risk of being the 800-pound gorilla. We have a responsibility for contributing to our community's visionary leadership. But, we must do so thoughtfully and through mutually respectful partnerships.

So, on local issues, I think we must be particularly careful not to usurp our community's responsibility for forming positions as we apply the "only if Western's mission is directly involved" rule.

Consider the issue of landlord licensing, a matter of some local controversy. Western is regularly asked to take a position. And, this is a subject of obvious concern to people who are Western, most obviously of concern to our students. And, our SGA took a position, as they should have.

But, as a university, Western's position was simple: this is a matter for the city to decide, not for Western to pick a side to throw its weight behind. In part, this follows from the basic rule first articulated: landlord licensing does not impact, in any meaningful way, upon Western's capacity to fulfill its mission. But, the decision to take no position also follows from that "800-pound gorilla" corollary.

I view the matter of the proposed SSA Terminal Facility ("the coal terminal") similarly. We must be a key player in providing the place, the means, the experts for thorough and informed inquiry, passionate debate, and full civic engagement. But, we will not step on our community's toes by taking a position as Western.

While all of us who are Western have critically important interests in the issue, ask what interests Western has beyond those we all share as citizens of the area? The only direct connections I can think of to our capacity to fulfill our mission are a stretch and, actually, cut several ways.

Best, then, to leave such matters to the community to decide: each of you who so choose, speaking as a part of that community, but Western not deciding to take that responsibility from you by speaking for you. And, certainly, our constituent governance organizations may choose to take a position on this or on any other matter.

I will conclude by noting one of the considerations that is NOT part of the rule we apply: that the matter is just too controversial to take a stand on.

As I noted in the blog cited earlier, I think one of the shortcomings of academia generally is that we are not controversial enough.

Certainly, being controversial for its own sake is puerile. That's not what I have in mind. We have an obligation to embrace the controversial in ways that clearly connect to fulfillment of our academic mission. We take on the controversial in order to open up minds through the integration of evidence, logic, reason, and coherent value systems. Merely taking positions can result in the opposite: causing minds to snap shut.

Think about our recent decision regarding Liberty University and their participation in a university-sponsored event. Having already blogged about the subject, I do not want to go over the details once again.

Yes, we excluded them because they explicitly reserve the right to discriminate in employment and admissions on the basis of homosexual conduct.

So, they could not be a part of a University function, given university policies. Many applauded the action because of the position they saw us standing up for. And, in so doing, they may have missed the point.

We have taken a position as Western on such discrimination, strongly against it. And, that is because we see such discrimination as anathema to the fulfillment of Western's mission. That is our policy and it applies to the functions we host.

But, what about our position as a place for the full exploration of the controversial –particularly positions we, as a university, stand against?

Anybody can use our campus for free speech. You may be surprised to know that, even as we turned down the invitation to Liberty University to be a part of the university function, we also offered to help them arrange for a table outside the event.

I wish they had taken us up on that offer. In part, because I think there would then have been folks appalled at such a presence. And, that would be a teachable moment: an opportunity to explain what universities, ideally, are about as places for the pursuit of important and controversial matters about which people care deeply.

And, for those outraged because we would have, in this scenario, allowed Liberty University a table outside the event? Those so outraged would be offered an adjacent table so that they might make their very important points. And, fact is: both are fully entitled to have such tables. Entitled in Constitutional law. Entitled, just as importantly in my view, by what it means to be a university worthy of the name.

So, it is not the potentially controversial we should shy away from.

There will always be gray areas and cases to be decided one at a time. Still, I assure you, as those decisions become necessary, we will maintain as paramount these three considerations: to respect your right to speak for yourself and not inappropriately speak for you; to speak for you who are Western where the mission that drives Western is directly involved; and to encourage the thorough and passionate exploration of all matters of societal importance.

So, as this blog is intended to do, I have shared the principles and analytical process we go through not because I think them perfect. Just the opposite: I do so in order that the thinking and practice can be improved by your critical consideration. When it comes to deciding when Western should take a position and when it should not, let me know what principles you would apply.



Page Updated 01.24.2014