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Commenting on matters of public policy

WashU Danforth Campus looking north toward Brookings Hall

Our country and our world have become increasingly divided over matters of public policy. The information age has made it ever easier for citizens to participate in policy debates, which in and of itself is a good thing, even despite the rise of misinformation. Today’s mainstream use of social media means that everyone can have their say. We regularly see “influencers,” celebrities, institutions, and community leaders using social media as a tool to advance policy agendas and brand loyalty. In fact, it seems the notion of leaders from all realms taking high- profile stances is something we have come to expect. I’d even go as far as to say it has become a cultural norm.

Here we are in 2020, consumed by a pandemic, an economic recession, and issues of racial injustice and xenophobia — all set against the backdrop of another highly polarized election season. This year especially, each news cycle is yet another opportunity to provide a statement for or against a different issue. And so it’s not surprising that, in the last seven months or so, the requests of my office to address these issues through policy statements have skyrocketed.   

Washington University is a world-renowned institution of higher education. We are guided by and known for our mission, and that is to use our distinction in education, research, and patient care to improve lives in service of the greater good. We are an institution filled with people who are committed to making the world a better place. Both because of our mission and our location in the heart of St. Louis, it is in our institutional interest — and more importantly, in the best interest of our community — to be deliberate when we use our influence and take a position on public policy issues directly advancing that mission.

In this post, I want to reflect a bit on what this means to me as Chancellor of Washington University, and to provide a clearer window into the times when we do comment on policy issues and the times we don’t.

Before I delve into the nuts and bolts, the first question we must ask ourselves is this: “What role should higher education institutions like Washington University play in matters of public policy?”

When it comes to taking positions on the campaigns of political candidates and parties, the law is clear. We cannot, and we do not. As emphasized in our Guidance on Political, Campaign, and Lobbying Activity, “Washington University enjoys tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and thus is prohibited from engaging in the campaign of any candidate or political party. Federal Election Commission regulations also restrict certain partisan activities. The University may engage and comment on issues critical to its tax-exempt purposes and on issues of public policy, including participation in referenda and ballot initiatives.”

On the other hand, when it comes to the issue of whether the university takes a position on a specific policy issue, the answer is quite complicated. What I do know, however, is that here at Washington University, we are grounded in our mission. And to that end, our mission is central to every decision we make, including those times when we choose to comment (or not comment) on policy issues. Therefore, as stated in our Protocol for Washington University Positions on Public Policy, there are several principles that help guide us in making these determinations: “If the public policy in question has an effect on the university’s core mission of teaching, research, and clinical care; and if the public policy directly impacts the university’s campuses and/or our students, faculty, or staff.”

While this is our protocol, I realize it allows a lot of wiggle room for political agendas to be cast or interpreted as “mission-centric” or “community-minded.” In fact, I’m sure many local policy issues could in some way loosely tie to these two principles. And so, the cycle continues when we again ask ourselves, “What role should higher education institutions like Washington University play in public policy debates?”

The way I see it is this: using our mission and the health and well-being of members of our community as central guiding principles, Washington University will work hard to choose wisely the policy issues on which we decide to take a stand. This is because, as an institution with influence in the community, throughout the region and state, and nationally, our influence diminishes if we choose to comment or lobby for every single cause — as does the weight of our words. Indeed, we could spend a great deal of time drafting and posting policy statements (at the risk of not getting much else accomplished). But at some point, if we were to venture into each policy debate, no matter its implications for the university’s mission, those words don’t mean very much and eventually start to ring hollow. I should also mention that we work collaboratively with national higher education associations of which we are a member, because our collective voice is often stronger than going it alone.

We must draw difficult lines and use our voice when we believe the stakes are highest. Our recent advocacy on behalf of Medicaid expansion in Missouri is one such example. As we stated following the passage of Amendment 2, it is “a tremendous victory for a quarter-million Missourians who no longer have to live in fear of getting sick or hurt because they will now have healthcare coverage when they need it. In addition to improving access to life-saving care for our most vulnerable citizens, Medicaid expansion will inject billions of dollars into our economy, create thousands of new jobs and benefit communities across our state at a time when it is needed most.” Our advocacy for Medicaid expansion is a clear example of an issue central to our patient care mission and to our role and impact in the region and state. Our position on the since-revoked ICE policy was also an obvious decision as it would have had a serious, negative impact on international students at WashU and across the country, thwarting their ability to achieve their academic goals and depriving our country of their contributions. Both of these issues went to the heart of our mission as a world-class university. 

It’s also worth noting that when issues are brought to our attention — whether it be through student activism, faculty governance, from university leadership, staff members, the media, or via higher education associations — our decisions about these matters are often the result of thoughtful discussion amongst members of the University Cabinet or University Council; colleagues in Government and Community Relations; colleagues leading diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives; members of the Board of Trustees; and others. Together, we come to a collective decision — and even then, it is often the case that we are not all always in agreement.

While this post provides more context around the reasoning behind our protocol for developing university positions on policy matters, it’s also important to remember that the Washington University community is home to enormously passionate people — many of whom are active as private citizens in their local communities and on the regional and national political scene. Many of our students, faculty, and staff serve in positions in their local municipalities and on boards and governing bodies that have positive impacts on the world. In addition, we have faculty and staff who are actively engaged in using cutting-edge research to help inform policy. Indeed, members of our community speak on and advocate for numerous issues. Such civic leadership is so important. While they are not taking an official position for the university, we embrace their advocacy, even in those moments when many in the community don’t agree. It makes me extremely proud to know that members of our community are so deeply involved. One of my highest priorities is to ensure the university is a place — and provides the space — where our community can pursue their interests and passions.

We are a diverse community, and therefore, we are not always going to agree. What we must do, however, is allow our community members’ voices to be heard, especially when those voices aren’t necessarily the loudest. And once we make decisions on these matters, there will be times when our choices and our words resonate with some members of our community more than others. No matter what, though, I can assure you that we are doing our best to determine when the university’s voice should be used and leveraged. Particularly right now under the circumstances in which we live, it seems every day comes with a new decision. Once again and as always, we will continue to use our education, research, and patient care mission, along with the direct interest of the WashU community, to guide our decisions.