Texas Southern University today rescinded the invitation for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to serve as commencement speaker, prompted by online petitions and the threat of protests.
Because no one wants a repeat of the Bethune-Cookman debacle on their campus, right?
So instead, you risk ostracizing the senator who oversees your district, whom you invited in the first place because of what you heralded as his help in securing additional funding for HBCUs. Because he is a Republican, and your students don’t like Republicans.
In the conversations I’ve had about this today, one point has emerged as the loudest: Imagine the headlines if it had been Cornyn’s office which had withdrawn the day before graduation. Imagine how he would have been dragged by the students and the local and national press.
But here’s the thing: You can’t disinvite your senator from campus without there being some backlash down the line. Just like you can’t disinvite your governor and just like you should invite your state or national education secretary. And you should present them with honorary degrees. And you should highlight for them the stories of graduates from your institution who will go on to contribute to the state’s economy.
Before I covered higher education, I worked on government relations training modules for state and federal lobbyists. Several times a month, I advised on the need to engage elected officials on both sides of the aisle who were either sympathetic or could be made sympathetic to your cause, and shared best practices on how to achieve this: Invite them to your campus (or corporate headquarters) and show off your best innovations and your brightest minds. Visit the district office.
Take “leave behinds” they could keep in their offices to keep your cause top of mind. Present them with awards or honorary degrees they can hang on their walls. Thank them publicly for attending. Put on a full show, with all the appropriate regal and pomp and circumstance appropriate for someone who has the ability to influence decisions which impact your future viability.
There seems to be no long-term vision and some tail-wagging-the-dog behind some of these commencement decisions this season.
If their HBCU education has done its job, students are not just armed with degrees, but armed with a spirit of activism and a desire to make a change by the time they ready to cross the graduation stage. Protests are a hallmark of all of their training, and, frankly, a reflection of the current climate of the country. But protests, or the threat of protest, cannot be the reason a campus president decides not to engage in the appropriate level of government relations to advance the institution so that it will stand even stronger once these students have crossed the stage.
Today’s college president has to be the top government relations officer, the top fundraiser, the chief marketing officer and the top student affairs official — simultaneously. And, since many of our schools sit in Red states with Republican leadership, and since the current climate seems to provoke blind protest of all things Republican in order to maintain one’s black card, it is incumbent upon leaders to communicate more effectively with students, faculty and other campus stakeholders about the motivation for inviting individuals to campus, and acknowledge the right of individuals to disagree while heralding the need for intelligent discourse even in the face of opposition.
I mentioned something to this effect on Twitter the other day, and was met with such high and noble responses as not wanting to stand around waiting for the benevolence of white folks and racists not deserving a seat at the table of Mary McLeod Bethune. And those are all very nice t-shirt sayings, but it is the job of leaders to more firmly paint a picture of where we are.
Starting with the fact that neither party in this country has ever really been for black folks or HBCUs, some just know what better to say — so playing partisan politics is a silly, fruitless game. And until every soon-to-be alum who is protesting is in a position to a) give substantially, b) influence their soon-to-be employers to build corporate partnerships with their alma maters which would increase the capacity and resources of the institutions to train future graduates, and c) influence private philanthropists to give enough to make up for the gaps in state and federal funding, there is very little choice but to engage elected officials in the hopes that such engagement will yield favorable program and resources allocation.
But most importantly, leaders have to have these transparent conversation on the front end to avoid backlash, and they have to be able to put their own personal politics aside to achieve a goal. They should encourage students to express their opinions in constructive ways without damaging the broader effort, not threaten them from the commencement stage or put out press releases which mischaracterize the situation on the backend.
Because, regardless of whether students and faculty and even administrators like who is in office right now, these are the people with whom campus leaders must work to not only promote the strength of the institutions, but to secure the strength of the regional and national economies.
For his part, Sen. Cornyn’s office has said he is looking forward to continuing to engage with the university moving forward. I’m not sure how many more rescinded invitations or humiliating shows I would endure if I were in office before turning my back on an entire group, but I’d bet it wouldn’t be many.
Some will argue backs have already been turned in deed and in rhetoric. But as long as there is a willingness to come and engage and listen, I would argue this is not the case. There have been several missteps so far, but there have also been swift corrections — which, if we are honest, has not always been the case from elected officials.
And while we may be tired and weary of waiting on change to come, until there is another way ahead, we can’t shun the people who write the budgets.
Even if we don’t like their politics.