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We Didn't Sign at the Office

Two university presidents take a vow against joining petition request lists

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May 7, 2013

This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on May 6, 2013.

By Barry Glassner and Morton Schapiro

Sitting in our inboxes and on our desks are two piles of petitions we've received as university presidents. One pile consists of petitions we are being asked to sign; the other contains those telling us what we should or should not do. We aren't signing those in the first group, and we are declining the entreaties requested in the second. Here's why:

As university presidents, seldom does a week go by when we don't receive a petition. The range of topics is broad. Some recent petitions would have us stop all purchases from Adidas; demand that Michelin stop discriminating against overweight employees; divest from Israeli companies; resist calls to divest from Israeli companies; urge elected leaders to enact a variety of gun-control measures; join in an urgent plea to save the Pell Grant; and eliminate from our school endowments any holdings in companies dealing with fossil fuels, including Exxon Mobil, Alcoa and Mitsubishi.

The last of these causes has received the lion's share of public attention, largely, we suspect, because substantial numbers of students at some prominent schools, like Harvard, have signed onto the cause. A nationwide tour by the movement's most famous spokesperson, environmentalist and Middlebury College scholar in residence Bill McKibben, has also boosted the cause.

From our vantage point, the petitions to divest in energy companies deserve no more attention than many of the others we receive. Proponents of other causes are every bit as passionate in their beliefs. In our experience, there is little correlation between the merits of the argument in a petition drive and the number of signatures or media attention it receives.

While we have great respect for many of these causes and their advocates, we choose not to sign petitions or answer them. Sometimes we feel terrible about saying no, especially when the request comes from a close friend or colleague, or from earnest students we hold in high regard.

But we eschew petitions because, as researchers and teachers, we know that any important issue deserves more serious thought and discussion than can be captured in a list of demands. And as leaders of educational institutions, we decline to add our own names to petitions for another reason: the other stack on our desks demanding that we, or our institutions, do something or stop doing something.

How can we give a cold shoulder to any of the many such petitions we receive if we have signed petitions to legislators, corporate CEOs, and others?

Were we to succumb to similar pressures ourselves, how would we support students—some nearly in tears—who come to us or our staffs after having been ostracized by their peers for failing to endorse the petition du jour? We certainly sympathize with students who experience such pressures, having been vehemently criticized by friends and associates for declining to sign onto their causes.

Disturbingly, few of these critics seem to appreciate that someone can take a strong stand on an issue while shunning petitions. Though we agree with Bill Bowen, the former president of Princeton, that "neither individuals nor educational institutions should be compelled to take a position on every issue that others regard as highly consequential," we are hardly bystanders when it comes to taking stands on controversial issues.

One of us has contributed well-publicized research on the need for better gun laws, and the other has spoken directly with state and federal leaders about the same subject. One of us has testified before Congress about his research on the impact of Pell Grants, and, as it happens, one of us has published on discrimination based on weight.

In the end, we believe that direct involvement in our publications, our lobbying activities, and the learning opportunities we provide on our campuses will be far more effective than signing a long petition, particularly when petitioning has literally become an industry. Click around the website Change.org, the organization from which several of our petitions come, and you'll find photos of 164 employees. A page labeled "We're Hiring!" lists more than two dozen additional positions. "Like most companies," the site proclaims, "Change.org has a business model that allows us to grow rapidly and be financially self-sustaining, providing tens of millions of people with a free empowerment platform for change."

Change.org also sells advertising -- though it calls them "sponsored petitions." We're considering buying one that calls for divestment in companies that propagate petitions. We suspect others will enthusiastically sign on.

- Barry Glassner is president and a professor of sociology at Lewis & Clark College, and Morton Schapiro is president and professor of economics at Northwestern University.