In a wide-ranging interview published on Friday by the Florida-based news site TCPalm.com, University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., commented on the United States in the Donald Trump era, “softness” among some of today’s college students, and changes to higher education during his 20-year tenure. The full interview can be read here.
Leahy was previewing a talk he is scheduled to give next month at the Rappaport Center at Temple Beit HaYam in Stuart, Fla. The center was funded by Jerry Rappaport, the Boston real estate developer and philanthropist for whom the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy at Boston College Law School is named. University Spokesman Jack Dunn said Rappaport had asked Leahy to speak at this year’s talk, which is titled “Bridging Divides: Fostering Dialogue & Civic Engagement.” The interview was conducted by Eve Samples, a columnist for TCPalm, who will also moderate the talk next month.
The candid interview is a rare occurrence lately for Leahy, who declined an interview request this fall for a Heights article commemorating his 20th anniversary as University president. According to the same article, he declined similar requests from the Office of News and Public Affairs and Boston College Magazine. He also declined an interview request last March from The Boston Globe for an article about BC’s struggling for-profit sports that ran on the paper’s front page, providing a statement instead. It is unclear if this interview with TCPalm was conducted in person or via written responses to questions.
Leahy said in the interview that he agreed to speak at the event because he thinks there’s an intersection between religious beliefs and ongoing issues in the United States. He said his university background makes him optimistic about Americans’ ability to approach those issues with constructive dialogue.
Leahy brought up several areas of national controversy, some of which have also received considerable attention this year at BC.
“People get emotional, whether it’s around race, foreign policy, free speech, sexual orientation,” he said. “Once you have a common ground, it’s easy to engage and look at the needs of the community.”
This fall, a few hundred students attended a “Silence is Violence” march through campus that specifically criticized Leahy’s lack of a response to an incident of homophobic vandalism on campus. Earlier this semester, a group of graduate students involved in Eradicate BC Racism were sanctioned for their involvement in two unregistered protests that took place this fall. Leahy did not elaborate on specific incidents related to the issues he mentioned, but he did make several comments about general life on college campuses and how higher education has evolved.
He also thinks the Trump administration will move toward the middle, gradually becoming more moderate because Republicans and Democrats will be reluctant to enact extreme legislation. He thinks bipartisan action and compromise are for the good of all, but does worry that Trump is a liability in areas that have fewer checks and balances.
“My concern is more on foreign policy with Trump, where he’s got a lot of latitude,” he said. “Sometimes he makes decisions or statements that seem rash, then he walks them back.”
Leahy added that he sees “painful” contradictions between his personal views on morality and religion and Trump’s rise to power. In November, Leahy signed two statements affirming BC’s commitment to upholding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama administration program that provides protections for undocumented students. Last month, Leahy and other senior administrators issued a statement condemning Trump’s executive order banning travel for seven Muslim-majority nations.
“Here’s the president of the United States saying and doing things that I think are counter to how a mature, moral person should live,” he said.
Asked if he supports the concept of “safe spaces” or trigger warnings designed to protect students from potentially offensive speech, Leahy said he does not. Instead, he thinks “we have to help young people live with realities.”
“I don’t want anybody being harassed or called names—but I think there’s a softness in the American segment of the population aged 18 to 22, where some people don’t want anybody to disagree with them,” he said. “And parents, in so many instances, have protected their children. Life has some tough moments. I think there’s a value in having moments where there’s some irritation, and it’s got to be handled correctly. But I don’t believe in trigger warnings. I think challenge is a good thing.”
Parents sometimes ask Leahy what they can do to instill responsibility in their teenagers. He said he tells them to make sure their kids get jobs that require them to show up on time, put in eight hours, and “experience the joy of accomplishment.” That stems, he said, from his experience growing up on a farm in Iowa, taking care of animals and tending crops.
Leahy compared today’s political climate with that of the 1820s. Andrew Jackson called the election of 1824 a “corrupt bargain” when it was won by John Quincy Adams after a vote in the House of Representatives. When Jackson won in 1828, it was a similar change to Trump’s election this November.
“People feared we had this buffoon coming in from the backwoods,” Leahy said. “America survived the big transition.”
Leahy, who got his Ph.D. in U.S. history at Stanford University, said he “would certainly not hold Jackson up as a paragon of virtue,” but he thinks history has its ups and downs.
“When you take the long view, the pendulum swings and comes back to the middle,” he said.
Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor