In 1967, President George Beadle of the University of Chicago (a Nobel-winning geneticist and also an avowed atheist) convened a committee whose charge was to “prepare a statement on the University’s role in social and political action.” This was the result of many people calling for the University to take positions on political issues like the Vietnam War, security hearings in the U.S Congress, and so on. The Committee was convened in February and produced its report, remarkably, by November. The report took its name from Harry Kalven Jr., the Committee chair, a famous legal scholar, and a professor of law at the University’s law school.
The document is only a bit more than two pages long, and you can get a pdf by clicking on the screenshot below. You should read it whether or not you think that universities should take official political positions.
The basic conclusion of the Kalven Report was that the University as a whole comprises scholars who are supposed to provide the opinions, but the University itself should not—with two exceptions (see below). This was a landmark document that the University has basically adhered to for over half a century—though I suspect those days are ending.
First, the meat of the document (bolding is mine):
The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge. Its domain of inquiry and scrutiny includes all aspects and all values of society. A university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices, and institutions. By design and by effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.
The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.
Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.
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. And this neutrality as an institution has its complement in the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest. It finds its complement, too, in the obligation of the university to provide a forum for the most searching and candid discussion of public issues.
I agree with that, though I can envision some circumstances that adherence to it would make me a tad uncomfortable (e.g., divesting from harmful causes). But as far as I know, the University has adhered to this pretty scrupulously over the years. And the statements I’ve put in bold show why; it’s hard to argue otherwise. “The University of not a lobby.” The Kalven Report ranks with the Principles of Free Expression of the University of Chicago (chaired by Geoff Stone, another law school professor) as the two pillars of academic freedom and freedom of speech that has made me proud to be associated with this university.
The report does cite two exceptions, which seem reasonable. The first are cases in “which the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry.” In such instances, the University is justifiably obliged to combat the threats to its underlying principles. The second is more mundane:
There is another context in which questions as to the appropriate role of the university may possibly arise, situations involving university ownership of property, its receipt of funds, its awarding of honors, its membership in other organizations. Here, of necessity, the university, however it acts, must act as an institution in its corporate capacity. In the exceptional instance, these corporate activities of the university may appear so incompatible with paramount social values as to require careful assessment of the consequences.
Economist George Stigler, also on the committee (and also a Nobel Laureate some yearslater), took exception to this last bit and added his own coda:
Special Comment by Mr. Stigler:
I agree with the report as drafted, except for the statements in the fifth paragraph from the end as to the role of the university when it is acting in its corporate capacity. As to this matter, I would prefer the statement in the following form: The university when it acts in its corporate capacity as employer and property owner should, of course, conduct its affairs with honor. The university should not use these corporate activities to foster any moral or political values because such use of its facilities will impair its integrity as the home of intellectual freedom.
I think Stigler’s comment is an improvement.
Now, however, I worry that the Kalven Report is being forgotten, or deliberately ignored, as social pressures are applied to the University to make official statements about politics and ideology. Most of these I’ve agreed with in their content, for they are liberal and I am a liberal. I won’t mention the statements, perhaps because I’ve been treated well here, am proud of my school, and don’t want to single individuals out for criticism. Suffice it to say that the increasing wokeness of the University is seeping into its official statements, and this politicizes the University in a way that the Kalven report feared and prohibited.
Will the University of Chicago become, in terms of wokeness, a high-class version of The Evergreen State College or Middlebury College? I hope not, but I’m worried. Wokeness seems to be a one-way ratchet, for if you oppose it you risk being tarred with all kinds of names and labels.
Well, I’m older and won’t be around forever, but I hope to Ceiling Cat that (as Harvard did do), the University of Chicago won’t start producing “social justice placemats” to put in its dining halls. We seem to be creeping in that direction.