Politically Partisan Speech on University Campuses

February 09, 2017

President Drinan

A message from President Helen Drinan

The inauguration of our 45th President, Donald J. Trump, has aroused strong emotions across our country and across the world. In particular, it has stirred deep feelings within the Simmons community. This has been made evident to me in the comments and messages I have received since November from students, faculty, and staff located on our Boston campus, as well as from those who live, learn, and work in the other 49 states where Simmons programs are available.

Many of you voiced strong support for the January 30th message sharing Simmons College’s stated opposition to President Trump’s executive order on immigration as “discriminatory” and “a threat to the very fabric of our community.” Others of you expressed disappointment that I did not go further and denounce or condemn the president himself; others asked that I refrain entirely from commenting on any political actions because the university and I, as President of Simmons College, should remain neutral. This range of reactions is not a surprise in light of the fact that Simmons is a large and diverse community.

Given today’s volatile climate, I want to take this opportunity to share what I believe to be Simmons’ proper role as an institution of higher learning.

Like other colleges and universities, Simmons fulfills its critical role in society when it provides an environment of openness to, and respect for, individuals and ideas of all sorts and when it guarantees a free and unfettered exchange of those ideas. This is important. At its institutional core, a college or university is a forum for ideas, not an advocate for a particular view. In order to facilitate and encourage inquiry and debate, a university — as an institution — must remain neutral.

The value to our nation of providing a place where ideas can be pursued without fear of repression or retaliation is acknowledged and promoted in our privileged tax status. As an educational institution, Simmons is exempt from local, state, and federal taxes. The millions of dollars we save by not having to pay taxes can be invested in our academic programs, co-curricular activities, student scholarships, and facilities. But our right to these exemptions is tied to an obligation to forbear from partisan politics. A recent example from the American Council on Education illustrates the point:

If a university president were to write a column called “My Views” in a university newsletter in which she stated “It is my personal opinion that Candidate X should be re-elected,” even though this president would have made clear she was speaking as an individual and partially covered the cost of the newsletter from her own pocket, the IRS would still find this impermissible.

The approximately $80 million in student financial aid that Simmons students receive annually in the form of Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), work study, and Stafford Loans is contingent on Simmons’ abiding by rules of political neutrality.

Some may believe that the current political situation requires political action, despite the possibility of losing access to these critical federal funds for students. But I believe, regardless of my personal opinions on matters of public policy, that preserving access to the financial resources by which the majority of our undergraduate students and many graduate students attend Simmons is one of my fundamental responsibilities to Simmons students and to our community as a whole.

I strongly believe that to abandon our institutional commitment to neutrality would be to abandon the very essence of the academy. But, when the actions of political leaders threaten our ability to maintain a free, open, and diverse Simmons community, I will not hesitate to speak out.

As one student recently observed in an editorial in The Voice, “We are strengthened by our diversity, and united by our common drive to lead positive change in the world.” I agree wholeheartedly with the student’s view and will continue to condemn attempts from any quarter to restrict the flow of people and ideas on the Simmons campus.