The Kalven Report of 1967, supposedly ensuring the political neutrality of the University of Chicago

June 5, 2020 • 10:30 am

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.

33 thoughts on “The Kalven Report of 1967, supposedly ensuring the political neutrality of the University of Chicago

  1. Stigler’s proposed re-wording of part of the Klaven report is only two sentences. I find the first confusing and perhaps contradictory to the second. Regarding the first, he states that the university in its corporate capacity should conduct its affairs with honor. It is unclear to me what he means by “honor.” He then goes to say that “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 take this to mean that the university should have no qualms in investing in any country or enterprise, regardless of the activities they may engage in, if it is to financial advantage for the university to do so. Thus, for example, the university should have no qualms in investing in a notorious polluter if it seems like a very sound financial move. How does this square with the university conducting its affairs with honor? If the university should refuse to invest in the polluter for moral reasons and makes this publicly known, Stigler seems to be implying that such an action would stifle the intellectual freedom of pro-polluters on campus. Unless I’m missing something, I can’t buy the argument.

    1. Yeah, I had a similar reaction. Is it even possible for a university to remain neutral when it comes to investing its endowment? Is return-on-investment all that matters when financing companies that appropriate blood diamonds or engage in deforestation or promote the transportation of tar-sands oil through leaky pipelines?

  2. Reading both these documents is like reading the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution: Damn, these guys were smart!

  3. Great section in bold.

    Playing devil’s advocate, I’m guessing the pro-woke University President response would go something like this:

    1. Attracting the best students is a ‘corporate function.’
    2. Students want a woke university administration and atmosphere
    3. Therefore, having the University as an institution adopt wokeness falls under the corporate function exception and should be allowed.

    Personally that sounds to me like the heckler’s veto (we can’t remain neutral, the students won’t like us and we might make less money!). And I’m really skeptical that a top flight university would actually see a drop in applications if they weren’t woke. I’m skeptical both that students would be bothered that much by it, and I’m skeptical because right now the demand signal for a good university education is outpacing the supply. So I don’t buy the argument I’ve outlined above. But it seems to me it’s the sort of argument administrations are making.

  4. Beadle must’ve been an extraordinary person to be a Nobel Laureate as well as an exceptionally competent university president. I don’t think that combination occurs very ofen,

    1. Zimmer, the recent Pres. at UChicago, was also a very good researcher in a very, very deep and competitive area of pure mathematics–(I am, or at least was, a professional pure mathematician for about 99 years, so claim to be able to judge that!) Perhaps UChicago is particularly lucky that way.

      But I also wonder whether the opposite examples you are thinking of might have been people in a social science or, say, English Lit. Without wishing to insult anybody, I have run across situations there where a high research reputation seems to me to have been approximately worth the cost of the paper it was written on.

      Myself I was stuck early on with at least one non-academic and not all that competent university head honcho–but generally over the years was pretty lucky in that respect.

  5. I am not sure Stigler’s re-statement really works. The University may not “foster any moral or political values”, but every decision potentially has its moral or political side. Does that mean you don’t divest from oil and coal?

    1. I did not know that universities are entangled in that sort of thing. But it does not surprise me. For whatever its worth, they should be allowed to do so as long as it is profitable, while also taking care to not steer away funding from climate change research or funding in research for clean energy.

  6. In a very bleak scenario in which a near civil war breaks out, which is not as unlikely as anyone would have thought, should the university become corporately involved? Say, take a side, where one side is fascistic and the other democratic? Kind of like the rebellion vs empire. If they say nothing, are they not saying – both sides have some very fine people?

    1. I do not recall ever reading about Spanish universities during their civil war which put Franco in power. Perhaps some interesting matters there. Were they largely dominated by the Catholic church then?

  7. We have not yet arrived at the point at which universities (other than perhaps Evergreen and Oberlin) explicitly join one ideological faction. But there is a growing tendency in a direction recently pioneered by some student groups at the University of Washington. Their “demands” included the jaw-droppingly absurd claim that all black students should qualify for “disability” status, i.e., the special treatment formerly reserved for students with such less serious troubles as blindness, impaired hearing, or traumatic brain injury.

    The petition included two statements that should be taken as significant straws in the wind. ( 1) “…the university is accountable for the success of all of their students.” (2) “The University of Washington will be complicit in the failure of their students.”

    Needless to say, the statement was reflexively endorsed by a woke faculty group, irreversibly addicted to its “allyship”. The statement’s underlying premise—that a student’s progress is entirely the responsibility of the university, and not even minimally up to the student herself—is shared not only by woke faculty, but also by those elements of the administration who worship the holy trinity of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

    To whatever extent the premise influences university policies, the university is embracing a philosophy of human attainment—one in which collective entities substitute altogether for the individual. This is certainly an ideological position.

      1. The paragraph below is copied/pasted from the statement issued by the Black Students group and associated groups.

        “The University has a legal duty to provide academic accommodations to its students with disabilities. The public slaying of Black bodies across our screens, the state-issued violence on our Black men and women, coupled with the disparate COVID-19 related impacts on Black health have left our Black student body psychologically debilitated and disabled. It is nearly impossible to divert energy and attention to anything else other than the attack on our Black community. …We ask that you recognize that Black students, in particular, are experiencing disability and trauma in a way that other students cannot and will not. DRS’ mission statement “recognizes disability as an aspect of diversity that is integral to society and to our campus community”. We ask that you consider the psychological disability of our trauma as a byproduct of the diversity you find so integral to the University.”
        [DRS stands for Disability Resources for Students, the office which provides help to
        students with disabilities.]

  8. I note that the University of Chicago and the New York Times are both in the news for the apparent tensions between their younger Woke people and their the older Liberal people.

    It reminds me of the original tensions in the late Sixties between the Hippies and The Man. I guess generational differences go around and around.

    1. ((Cranky old hippie voice)) In My Day, we used to roll our own joints, and pick out our own stems and seeds. We’d buy from a guy who knew a guy. Now kids these days just get their high grade dope from a corner store! Or they just eat high by eating edible gummy bears! They don’t know what it was like! ((/Cranky old hippie voice)).

      1. I’ve grown my hippy beard back while in lockdown (as have several other men I know). Unfortunately it’s grown back white…

  9. Just a heads up..hope this does not violate roolz… but i thought folks might want to know that the mayor of dc just declared the part of 16th street in front of white house renamed “black lives matter plaza” and has already sign-posted it. City workers and volunteers apparently have painted “black lives matter” in bright yellow block letters each of height the width of 16th street, over two blocks of 16th street leading to the white house.

      1. The large yellow street letters extend two blocks from the perspective of the picture above to lafayette square (park) which separates the deadend of16th street from the white house property proper. It is where st johns church is on the left as you face across the park to the white house and hay adams hotel is on your right. The black lives matter plaza street sign is tothe left in front of st johns as i understand it. It would certainly be clearly visible in any future photo op. Very creative!

    1. On a clear day, that would likely be readable from an airplane at 30,000 feet!

      Hopefully it stays; it seems to me it should be 10 times as effective as a reminder in the long run, compared to the Sharpton eulogy, however much one agrees with what he said outside the religious nonsense.

  10. “Wokeness seems to be a one-way ratchet, for if you oppose it you risk being tarred with all kinds of names and labels.”

    After recent events, I expect to see wokeness on steroids.

  11. I think the Kalven stance was a poor choice and remains so. Neutrality is imaginary and it’s best not to pretend. Note that this is compatible with the Principles of Free Expression (and makes them all the more important). In fact, it’s precisely because you have the Principles of Free Expression that you don’t need official neutrality.

    Gonzo truth-seeking, like “gonzo journalism”, is redundant. That goes for the university as well as the newspaper.

  12. I am curious how the university of Chicago handled itself during the McCarthy era. The argument of the Kalven report would be all the more compelling as an argument against succumbing to the “woke left” now, if U Chicago also stood up to the tyranny of the McCarthyites, then. Thoughts?

    1. Yes, I understand that the University of Chicago refused to demonize or fire any of its faculty who were suspected to be Communists or Communist sympathizers during the McCarthy era. Nor did they, as I was told, issue any statement supporting or damning McCarthy. There was political neutrality, and this was before Kalven.

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