The Presidents Meet the Media

Photograph: At last week's Presidents' Media Roundtable, Paul Friedman of ABC News (at right) draws reaction from fellow panelists. From left, President Ruth Simmons of Smith College, Ron Scherer of The Christian Science Monitor and President George Rupp. Photo Credit: Joe Pineiro.

Photograph: Barnard President Judith Shapiro, right, makes a point to Alice Dembner of The Boston Globe. Photo Credit: Joe Pineiro.

Photograph: From left, President Tom Gerety of Amherst College; William Honan, The New York Times, and Columbia's Virgil Renzulli, associate vice president for public affairs. Photo Credit: Joe Pineiro.

By Fred Knubel

Higher education met the press last Tuesday, and amiably had it out.

Twelve presidents of colleges and universities and 21 editors and reporters from leading media met for dinner and talk in the Faculty Room of Low Library. The exchange went something like this:

Are you out of step with the country on affirmative action? asked Gabe Pressman of WNBC-TV. I should certainly hope so, replied Ruth Simmons of Smith College.

Why do you let students of different races live in separate dormitories? demanded Mel Elfin of U.S News and World Report. You have to help people feel comfortable when you create a synergy among students from various backgrounds, answered Alfred Bloom of Swarthmore College.

What's your greatest problem as a president? the reporters wanted to know. Repairing the valuable partnerships between universities and the government, said President George Rupp. Creating greater public awareness of the widening disparity among young people who are wealthy and those who are poor, said W. Ann Reynolds of CUNY.

The presidents were from public and private institutions, large and small, across the country. The Office of Public Affairs brought them together with the press for a frank, on-the-record discussion of current issues in higher education. It was called the Presidents' Media Roundtable. Rupp moderated.

Asked for reaction to the passage on Nov. 5 of California's Proposition 209, which limits affirmative action, Robert A. Corrigan of San Francisco State University said he was concerned about "the message that it's going to send out ... to a population that has to be encouraged to come and is now being told they're not wanted."

Tom Gerety of Amherst College said the very question assumed a commitment by higher education to diversity, "on the premise that we ought to be doing this, that we ought to be sure that America's educated class - the intelligentsia in America - is an integrated intelligentsia."

Gerety said he did not think that the California proposition would sweep the country, but Paul Friedman, executive vice president of ABC News and a Columbia graduate, disagreed:

"I think you're underestimating how angry people are about institutions of higher learning, as they're seen as enclaves for spoiled folks ... and that there seem to be advantages being given to minorities. That thing is going to pass in 15 states within a year ... and you guys are going to have to figure out how to deal with it."

Simmons of Smith shot back: "We're very much aware of the anger, but our obligation is to the country and the future of this society." She cited two examples of disadvantaged white students who were admitted to her school and said, "One of the reasons people are so angry at us is that they don't hear these stories, because they honest-to-god think because of what you write that their children don't get into college because some undeserving black kid is sitting there in their seat. We want to be looked at for what we do across the board, not in the way you're doing now where you're singling out many superficial examples and telling the story as if that represents what's going on."

E.R. Shipp, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Daily News and Columbia journalism professor, said she felt it was her obligation as a journalist "to do more study of whether, if Proposition 209 sweeps the country, we will lose blacks and Latinos in such sizable numbers that we cannot tolerate."

Quizzed by Karen W. Arenson of The New York Times and others about presidential leadership, Gerety said, "The hardest thing about being a president nowadays is trying to convince people who are skeptical and suspicious that these are essential institutions, that what they're doing is fundamentally good, that we really are concerned to be economic and efficient and that we are accomplishing these ideals of democratization and the path to upward mobility."

Rupp said the partnerships of universities with government in research, student financial aid and medical care, fundamental in public life for 50 years, are increasingly eroding. "What used to be seen as great opportunities for doing something significant together is instead turning into a kind of quarrel about how the costs can be shifted from government to the institutions," he said. "It's a question of national self-interest that we not mortgage institutions which are the best of their kind in the world."

"Fifty years ago," Rupp continued, "our society was prepared to make very long-term investments that were thought to make a difference for the better for the society as a whole." He cited the post-World War II G.I. Bill and government-sponsored research.

"I think our society now, business and government both, no longer has the social capacity for the same sense of long-term investment," he said. "I hope we recover it again, but I think the kind of investments that need to be made are no longer on the horizon of awareness. Look at the budget-cutting scenarios. We don't have a constituency for the long-term interests of this society."

Hunter R. Rawlings III of Cornell concurred and noted that when Cornell physicists won Nobel Prizes this year, "instead of just patting ourselves on the back, we called up the National Science Foundation and said thank you for funding research that led 25 years later to those Nobel Prizes. As George points out, that's a long-term investment."

H. Patrick Swygert of Howard University gave this overview of higher education's problem with the press: "We have a responsibility to speak out, to advocate. But what we have to say is not given over to sound bites. This program tonight that Columbia has hosted should be replicated in every major city across the nation. That's leadership. That will get the message out. It doesn't happen because the answers are not easy, the answers are very difficult, and it takes time."

Other schools at the roundtable were Barnard, James Madison, SUNY and the University of Virginia.

Other news organizations included Black Issues in Higher Education, Bloomberg News Radio, The Christian Science Monitor, CNN, FOX Television, Lingua Franca, the Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, Newsday, USA Today and WWOR-TV.

Columbia University Record -- November 22, 1996 -- Vol. 22, No. 10