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Should Universities Take Political Positions?
Why institutional neutrality is not possible and what to do instead
In recent weeks debate has intensified over the proper role of U.S. universities in political and social affairs. At the center of this debate is whether universities should offer position statements or remain neutral on matters of world affairs. Here I suggest that there is a middle, pragmatic ground that requires strong leadership and an unwavering commitment to the ideals of the university.
The notion that universities should practice institutional neutrality originally comes from the 1967 Kalven Report of the University of Chicago, which characterized it to be essential to academic freedom:
The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.
By clarifying the contours of its role, a university adopting the Kalven Report and committing to neutrality is better positioned to fulfill its mission of generating and disseminating knowledge. By not tethering itself to a particular position, the neutral university will welcome the fullest range of views — and reap the benefit of the wisdom produced by the resulting debate.
In contrast, writing at The Chronicle of Higher Education last week, Portland State University dean Jennifer Ruth suggested that the concept of institutional neutrality as expressed in the Kalven Report is anything but neutral:
Given the context in which recent calls for neutrality began, I cannot help but wonder whether they are best understood as attempts to neutralize institutions that might otherwise act as voices of reason in an age of climate-change denial, election deniers, and, yes, white ethnonationalism.
Ruth embraces elements of the Kalven Report, but not its call for neutrality:
Is strict adherence to a kind of both-sides “neutrality” what the nation needs from its institutions of higher education? When faculty members with expertise in the relevant areas largely agree (say, about the effect of fossil fuels on climate change, the falsehood of election denial, the history of racism in America, the infringement on academic freedom by some state legislation, and so on), administrators need to be willing to back those faculty members and say so in the name of their institutions.
Institutional neutrality sounds wonderful, but in reality is simply not possible. Instead, universities should adopt a stance of institutional restraint as articulated by William G. Bowen, president of Princeton from 1972 to 1988.
To understand why institutional neutrality is not possible, we need only understand the context surrounding the 1967 Kalven report. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) the Kalven Report was itself not neutral but a response to student demands that the University of Chicago divest from South Africa:
The University of Chicago’s decision to share some student records with the Selective Service program had triggered protests. Students for a Democratic Society was demanding that the university divest from South Africa. In response, the Kalven report defended the idea that universities as institutions should remain neutral on the dominant political issues of the day.
In this instance, neutrality was invoked by the University of Chicago to resist calls from its students for change, and instead, to maintain the status quo. Ironic, right?
There are plenty of examples of university non-neutrality beyond position statements. For instance, many universities have lobbying offices in Washington, DC, where they vigorously advocate for federal funding, admissions offices routinely favor rich, white students, and endowments have hundreds of billions of dollars in investments allocated based on the institution’s values and goals. Here at the University of Colorado every faculty member is required by state law to take an oath of allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Colorado.
Universities are anything but neutral. Nor should they be.
In fact, the entire point of an institution is to pursue certain values over others.1 Even if one interprets the university mission to be narrowly focused only on research and teaching, there can be no fixed boundary between the campus and broader society.
Some assert that non-neutrality imperils academic freedom. However, Robert Post of Yale Law School observes that religious universities, clearly not neutral,
“have a long and proud history of academic freedom. This strongly suggests that the relationship between academic freedom and a university’s public positions depends upon many intervening variables.”2
At the same time, it would be naive to think that an institutional stance on a particular issue has no effect on academic freedom. For instance, various requirements that faculty applicants provide statements on diversity, equity and inclusion have influenced who gets hired and the intellectual atmosphere in many universities. Even debate over the adoption of such statements influences faculty perceptions and the realities of academic freedom.3
But why stop at diversity statements? Why not require faculty to provide statements on climate change, vaccination, and the Middle East?
Turning the university from the one institution in society that vigorously defends academic freedom in teaching and research into a vehicle for pursuing the politics of its administrators and faculty via the institution’s authority and legitimacy is to undercut that which makes universities unique in society.
After all, there is no shortage of groups who advocate for every political cause under the sun as their primary mission. There is only one type of institution centered on academic freedom.
If neutrality is impossible and politicization is pathological, what then? I recommend a stance of institutional restraint, as articulated by William G. Bowen in his 1988 book, Ever the Teacher.
Bowen argues for a
“strong presumption against the University as an institution taking a position or playing an active role with respect to external issues of a political, economic, social, moral, or legal character.”
Bowen offers four reasons in support of this presumption of restraint:
First, “any time that the University as an institution begins to play an active role with respect to an external issue … the commitment of the University to be as open as possible to all points of view is inevitably compromised in some way.”
Second, universities operate under a “social contract” with the rest of society: “The University has asked society to allow it to govern itself, without outside interference from “donors or sponsors, public or private.” The university opens itself up to itself being lobbied and influenced once it takes positions. Further, once it takes some positions, there will be a demand to “declare itself” on other issues.
Third, universities do not have processes for creating institutional positions that are legitimate — “Moreover, the process of reaching such decisions can create antagonisms and divert significant amounts of time and energy from our central commitment to teaching and scholarship.”
Fourth, “the credibility of the University as an institution in society is an exceedingly valuable asset… It must be recognized that the University as such (as distinguished from the many individuals within it) has neither any charge nor any special competence to make judgements outside the fields of education and research.”
Bowen identifies three unique situations where the university may choose to adopt an institutional position:
Related to educational mission. For instance, the university may wish to take positions on how graduate education serves national needs, financial aid policies or policies related to the “autonomy or education quality of the University.” Such institutional positions should in fact be expected.
The survival of the university or society. These “should be recognized conceptually even though they occur exceedingly infrequently and can be hard to identify with confidence in particular instances.” Bowen cites Nazi Germany as an example and suggests that the Vietnam War was not an example of such a situation.
Internal decisions. The university is a stakeholder in its community, and thus may have positions on local land use and zoning, or its own labor practices. The university also is an investor and has fiduciary and other responsibilities.
Bowens guidelines for institutional restraint are not prescriptive — they cannot be applied like a formula in any particular case. What they do suggest is the importance of adopting a very strong presumption of institutional restraint. That means taking institutional positions on matters of education and research related to the university mission and its internal operation, but articulating broader positions related to political and social events would be extremely limited.
There is no hiding behind the idea of neutrality, but instead a need for clearly articulating when the presumption of restraint is overridden in a particular case.
Implementing a stance of institutional restraint requires strong leadership. Demands for the university to seek to be a player in today’s politics come from all directions — from faculty, students, donors and alumni. Resisting such demands and clearly articulating the unique role of the university in society should be a primary job requirement for any university president.
I’ll give the last word to Yale’s Robert Post, who makes a compelling case for institutional restraint:
Universities occupy a special and privileged position in our society. Claims to professional autonomy and self-regulation have been largely successful. For the most part, universities still stand in the United States as pillars of independence. But this independence is justified by the core mission of universities—education and research. The pursuit of goals extrinsic to this mission may invite social interventions designed to weaken university independence. University administrators, who are under a fiduciary obligation to conserve and protect the independence of their universities, ought to use care and prudence in pursuing goals extraneous to education and research.
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“An institution is a pattern composed of culture traits specialized to the shaping and distribution of a particular value (or set of values)” (Lasswell and Kaplan 1950).
Post, Robert, The Kalven Report, Institutional Neutrality, and Academic Freedom (July 20, 2023). in REVISITING THE KALVEN REPORT: THE UNIVERSITY’S ROLE IN SOCIAL AND POLITICAL ACTION (Keith E. Whittington and John Tomasi, eds. Johns Hopkins Press, Forthcoming)., Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4516235
I’ve witnessed this first hand.