How to lead a university in times of polarization

In his new book, Sanchez-Tabernero lays out his vision of how to build a great institution

James Breiner
5 min readJan 24, 2024

“Cancel culture is a disease that has emerged in a good number of American universities. It aims to limit freedom of expression in order to overprotect students from supposedly harmful or dangerous ide as.”

Alfonso Sánchez-Tabernero, former president of Universidad de Navarra, Spain

Alfonso Sánchez-Tabernero, EUNSA photo

I had the pleasure of working with Alfonso Sánchez-Tabernero while he was president of the University of Navarra in Spain. He combined political savvy with academic excellence and down-to-earth friendliness.

“Call me Alfonso,” he insisted when I first met him. This was a bit disarming, given that university presidents in Europe often go by grandiose titles. (One I knew in Italy was addressed by his colleagues as “Magnifico”).

So “Alfonso” it was during the seven years I worked with him. Sánchez-Tabernero, 62, retired in 2022. He has just published a book on how to run a university, Gobierno de Universidades: Desafíos, modelos y estrategias. Eunsa, 2023 (“Governing universities: Challenges, models, and strategies”).

He gave an interview about the book to a former journalism student of his, Daniel Ramírez, for the online news site El Español. Ramírez described the book as a memoir and a treatise on how to run a large institution.

Sánchez-Tabernero has a heritage of academic leadership. His great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather both served as president of the University of Salamanca.

The University of Navarra has a budget of $650 million a year and employs more than 6,000 people. All of the quotes I’m using here are a translation of Ramírez’s text, with his permission.

Some milestones

When asked to describe his successes, Sánchez-Tabernero said, “I was president from 2012 to 2022. In those years, thanks to the work of a great team of professors, researchers, managers and other professionals, the University of Navarra built a contemporary art museum, launched a new clinic in Madrid, inaugurated a postgraduate campus in Madrid, built new research centers and doubled the number of international students.”

In addition to running the university, he still taught courses in our department — Communication, which included journalism, marketing, and media management. And he usually attended our weekly meetings, where he deferred to the department chairman, but we always wanted to know what he thought.

An adept diplomat

I recall a moment in 2015 when he had to deal with a delicate political situation. A coalition of Basque politicians had won the recent provincial elections. Some opposed continuing public subsidies to a private Catholic university. Professors, administrators, and students were worried. The financial impact on families might be severe. Rumors were flying.

At the opening ceremony of the academic year, Sanchez-Tabernero addressed an audience of nearly 1,000 that included those politicians, other public officials, as well as professors and students. Seated next to him on the dais was the leader of the Basque coalition, Uxue Barkos.

He nodded to Barkos as he told the audience: “We are ready to cooperate with and collaborate with whoever the local officials are.” He was telling his staff, in effect, calm down, already. Don’t worry. We’ll survive. And he was telling the Basque coalition that he was ready to find common ground, shared interests and values. This was his practice in many critical moments.

Cancel culture

Sánchez-Tabernero’s diplomatic skills were evident in his approach to dealing with pressure from extremists on the left and right politically. Here are some highlights from the interview with Ramírez:

Overprotection. Asked whether there was cancel culture at the university, he said no. “Cancel culture is a disease that has emerged in a good number of American universities and that aims to limit freedom of expression in order to overprotect students from supposedly harmful or dangerous ideas.”

Few limits on speech. “Universities must be free territories in which no professor, researcher, or student with a little common sense feels coerced. Obviously, not everything can be allowed: one cannot vandalize the furniture, nor insult others, nor advocate racism, violence, or any kind of discrimination. The limits on what can be done or said must be few, clear and indisputable.”

Woke” values. “The proper thing to do in academia is to listen to a variety of opinions, to debate and argue with respect, to be interested in other people’s points of view. The Woke culture believes that young people are so fragile that a heterodox or confused point of view can destroy them. Instead, it seems to me that we only grow up when someone challenges our convictions, when we listen to a variety of perspectives, when we discover that we are not always right.”

The guiding principles. “The University of Navarra bases its teaching and research activity on the great proposals of Christian thought. This reality means that we prefer truth to lies, solidarity to selfish behavior, a job well done to shoddy workmanship, freedom to oppression, hope to despair. I would also add another essential principle: to help each person as much as possible, to treat them with the utmost concern, regardless of their ideas.”

Our collaboration

One week Alfonso came to our department meeting and said that recent failures of newspapers in Spain made him worried about the survival of quality local journalism. I piped up — we Americans are famous in Spain for piping up — and said I had seen some signs of the opposite trend. He challenged me to come up with examples.

And as happens at universities, we decided to work together on a paper to identify viable business models. Joining us was our colleague Mercedes Medina, whose office was next to mine. She and I kicked around ideas every day.

Ultimately we identified 20 publications producing quality journalism from four regions — Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the US, and Latin America. And we identified three different business models that were working in their markets.

We spent more than a year drafting the research, submitting and re-submitting it to peer-reviewed publications. Our meetings at Alfonso’s office always included some savory snacks, sweets, and drinks. It was fun, and I learned a lot about the business of academic publishing.

Published, not perished

Our work was finally published in 2021: “Some Viable Models for Digital Public-Interest Journalism”, in El Profesional de la Información.

I doubt that Alfonso needed to add this paper to his CV and buff his academic credentials. He already had published works that set a high bar in the field. But he liked the project, and he used the latest theories of business models and value creation to give context to the research. And I think he wanted to help Mercedes and me get some exposure.

A leadership lesson

All of this goes toward saying I admired Alfonso’s leadership style. American university presidents might do better by adopting some of the principles that he laid out in the book and interview.

Ramírez asked him if he would consider inviting a convicted terrorist to the campus. He replied, “Any academic debate must be based on respect. It seems to me that a necessary condition for inviting anyone to campus is that they have renounced violence and, of course, murder.”

Originally published at on January 24, 2024.



James Breiner

Helping digital media entrepreneurs produce trustworthy journalism. English-Spanish. ICFJ, Poynter, DW Akademie, SembraMedia