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November 8, 2013

LoBianco: Gay marriage debate draws in higher education leaders

Should our leaders take political stances?

In the Indiana higher education community, a world meant to promote free thinking and debate, a seemingly lower-level question of how university officials weigh in on hot-button issues is being pondered.

Indiana University President Michael McRobbie took the unusual step last week of throwing IU’s official support behind an effort to keep the state’s ban on gay marriage out of the constitution.

“Equality, compassion and respect for individuals have long been the bedrock of Indiana University’s educational mission, and the lack of tolerance implicit in HJR 6 (the amendment) runs counters to IU’s deeply held values,” McRobbie said in a statement announcing the university’s stance.

Business leaders, lawmakers, veteran activists and many other people and organizations have been taking sides in the upcoming gay marriage battle. Supporters of amending the ban into the constitution say it is needed to prevent the courts from effectively legalizing gay marriage in Indiana, but opponents say the step would enshrine inequality in the state.

But the involvement of Indiana’s higher education community is still somewhat unusual. Purdue University President Mitch Daniels decided the state’s other flagship university would not be taking sides in the debate.

“Over the years, Purdue has traditionally declined to comment on social issues that have been contended in the public arena,” Purdue Vice President for Public Affairs Julie Griffith told the Lafayette Journal & Courier. “Any departure from this policy should be undertaken only after careful consultation with the university’s many and diverse stakeholders.”

Daniels drew attention to the role of leaders and politics last year when, as part of his high-profile selection as president, he announced that he would refrain from commenting on certain political issues. That vow, offered in the middle of the 2012 election cycle as he was rounding out his term as governor, has led to questions of how it is applied.

Speaking last week at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, Daniels offered his thoughts on everything from the Keystone XL pipeline to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who won re-election Tuesday. But he also said his “vow of political celibacy” would keep him from weighing in on certain issues, like Virginia Attorney General Ken Cucinelli’s race for governor.

“Partisan means just that — Republican versus Democrat. The president has not participated in campaign politics of any kind. He sat out the 2012 election completely and has turned down every invitation from any partisan committee or candidate,” Purdue spokeswoman Shelley Triol told The Associated Press in an email responding to questions of how Daniels applies his vow.

Peter Wood, president of the conservative National Association of Scholars, has consistently defended Daniels in higher education forums and argues his voice is needed most in traditionally left-leaning academia. Wood wrote last month that Daniels was wrong to apologize for a paid appearance at a conservative Minnesota think tank and should not shy from public debate, despite Daniels’ political vow.

He noted that other university presidents, like Harvard’s Drew Faust and Spelman’s Beverly Tatum, have not shied from appearances at liberal think tanks like the Center for American Progress.

“Such ideological lockstep isn’t good for higher education,” he wrote last month on The Chronicle of Higher Education website. “It conveys to students that the range of views that can be openly discussed on campuses is limited. It drives faculty members underground. And it tells the public pretty vividly that colleges and universities are not the havens for open-minded inquiry that they pretend to be.”

Open commentary is hardly the same as throwing a university’s name behind a political stance, but McRobbie’s decision last week elevated the question of involvement for at least the duration of the gay marriage battle.

Tom LoBianco covers Indiana politics for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter @tomlobianco.

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