U of C President clarifies and affirms University’s refusal to take official stands on political, ideological, and moral issues

October 6, 2020 • 9:45 am

For a while I’ve been dismayed by the posting of statement after woke statement on departmental websites of the University of Chicago, all espousing doctrines adhering to Critical Race Theory or the Black Lives Matter movement, and often castigating their own group for a past history of racism in a University department or school—a history that is often confected or recounts actions no longer in practice. Four examples of these statements come from the English Department, Department of Human Genetics, The Smart Museum, the School of Social Service Administration. There are also official statements from the chairs of the Physics and History Departments along these lines.

While I am in accord with some of the sentiments of these statements, I objected to them solely on the grounds that they violated the Kalven Report of 1967, one of the Foundational Principles of the University of Chicago and one, like the Chicago Principles on Free Speech, that makes our University unique among American schools.

The Kalven Principles forbid the University from taking positions on political, moral, or social issues—with the exception that when an issue impedes or threatens to impede the University in its mission or function, the University can take stands on that issue. (For example, any attempt to exclude foreign students from the University.) The object of the Kalven policy is to avoid chilling speech of members of our community by making them fear that they’re violating “official doctrine.” Imagine, for example, if a student or faculty member in a department had a problem with the Black Lives Matter platform, the claim that George Floyd was murdered by police, or the call for department members to all be active in antiracist movements. If you had a faculty Ph.D. mentor or wanted tenure or promotion, you wouldn’t want to be vociferous about contradicting what passed as official department or school doctrine. This is precisely why Kalven was enacted.

While individual responses to political issues and the like are not only permitted but encouraged, the University itself has avoided taking official stands. So, for example, when there were calls by faculty and students to ban Steve Bannon from speaking here a while back, the University refused to make any statement beyond affirming its commitment to free speech. Likewise, during the Vietnam War, the Communist-hunting period of McCarthyism, the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, and the situation in Darfur—all prompting some faculty and students to demand that the university take a stand—the university said nothing. It was up to individuals, they argued, to make their own feelings known.

One issue that was never clarified by the Kalven Report was the role of departments, schools, and divisions in making representational statements. So while the President or Provost, for example, couldn’t say anything about the University’s position on Vietnam or McCarthy, what about departments? Could they issue official statements on behalf of the department—statements that were not just views signed by department members, but unsigned statements apparently representing department views? Kalven didn’t spell that out, though Geoff Stone, a former Provost and Dean of the Law School (and head of the Free Speech Committee), wrote a statement in 2007 arguing that the Law School, a division of the University, should not have made any statements about the call to divest from Darfur. He implicitly argued, then, that Kalven applied to a unit of the University.

If the Law School is subject to Kalven, then surely the other departments or schools of the University are, too. And that’s what I and some other faculty members thought. After all, the very unit where the chilling of speech could occur is not in the Administration Building where the President (Bob Zimmer) and the Provost (Ka Yee C. Lee) reside, but in departments, divisions and schools. That’s where promotions occur and where students are trained. If Kalven is to apply anywhere to promote free speech, it should be these units. And if Kalven applies to units of the University, then surely all six statements in the first paragraph violate the policy. Have a look, for example, at the Department of Human Genetics statement, which surely takes ideological positions. See how many you can identify in it. Even this brief excerpt gives an idea of what violates Kalven:

The Department of Human Genetics at the University of Chicago condemns police violence against Black people, a long-standing epidemic in American society that is finally – and painfully – being broadly recognized for what it is: an institutionalized system of brutality, intimidation, harassment and control by the state against its own citizens. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed, and Tony McDade are just a few recent victims of murder by police in the context of systemic dehumanization, oppression, and discrimination that has lasted for centuries. We add our names to the growing chorus of voices saying, “Enough.”

. . .As scientists, we commit to the work of identifying how that history influences the research and teaching that we do today, including study design, scientific focus, and the structure of basic concepts like heredity, adaptation, genetic disorders, and genetic variation within and between populations. We seek to weed out the remnants of systemic racism from our field, so that we can pursue genetics research in ways that further our values of diversity, dignity, equity, and justice.

We recognize that police violence is just one symptom of racism that pervades every level of society, including academic institutions. We will redouble our efforts to increase diversity and to identify and eliminate any individual, institutional, and structural racism within our department.  We commit ourselves, as geneticists and human beings, to the effort to achieve justice and self-understanding in our society.

Now there’s nothing wrong with a department saying, “We adhere to principles of nondiscrimination against members of ethnic groups, diverse genders, and the disabled, and commit to giving them equal opportunity.” That, after all, is in line with official University (and government) policy and our mission. But statements like the one above (check out this one from SSA, too, which tells white and “non-black people of color” how to act), go far beyond that to make statements of fact that are questionable, calls for actions, and statements of official department commitment to ideological positions. Every one of them violates Kalven.

We know now that they do indeed violate Kalven because our President, Bob Zimmer, yesterday affirmed that all units of the University must abide by Kalven. Various people, according to his new statement below, have sought clarification about Kalven, and also expressed opinions about the English Department’s new policy of admitting only grad students in Black Studies next year (that decision was okay by me, as it didn’t violate Kalven).

Click below to read the entirety of Zimmer’s statement.

Here’s an excerpt with the affirmation that some of us were seeking (I’ve put it in bold):

We are at a complex moment in our society, with a pandemic, social unrest, and an impending national election. Each one of these raises serious questions for individuals, communities, organizations, and governments. At such a moment, particularly with emotions high and each of these forces being brought to bear on all of us, it is important that we reaffirm key and defining principles of the University – in particular free expression and open discourse, as articulated in the Report of the Faculty Committee on Freedom of Expression, now widely known as the Chicago Principles, and on a related topic, the relationship of the views of individuals, namely faculty, students, and staff, to any particular position the University might take on matters external to the University.

The latter was the core focus of the Kalven Report, a report of a faculty committee that warned against University positions on political and social action, with the exception of matters that threaten the very mission of the University, its commitment to freedom of inquiry and its basic operations. The Kalven Report explains that the very taking of a position by the University might chill the environment for free expression and academic freedom, and that it is essential that the University remain a place where individuals can explore and hold whatever positions they wish. The report states, “The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.”  The principles and values outlined in the Chicago Principles and the Kalven Report are intrinsic to the University’s exceptional capacity to create and sustain an environment of intellectual challenge and freedom, and are critical to our University’s approach to both education and research. For students, this enables the development of habits of mind and intellectual skills that reflect our aspirations for our education, and for faculty, this promotes an environment of freedom and intellectual challenge that enables their research to flourish.

The principles of the Kalven Report apply not only to the University as a whole, but to the departments, schools, centers, and divisions as well, and for exactly the same reasons, i.e., these essential components of the University should not take institutional positions on public issues that are not directly related to the core functioning of the University.  Of course, faculty, students, and staff, either individually or in groups, are free to take positions as individuals or as collections of individuals, but this expression must be distinct from expression advanced by official units of the University. This distinction must be maintained, because the process of assessing complex issues must always allow for the broadest diversity of views to be heard and held, and the diversity of views that lies at the heart of a great university must never be chilled by formal institutional positions on such issues.

The last bit of Zimmer’s statement, not shown here, deals with the English Department curricular decision, showing how some people have even construed that as violating Kalven. (As I said, I didn’t, but others must have differed.)

So, these considerations have prompted this open letter, which I’ll just leave here:

Dear SSA, Department of Human Genetics, English Department, Smart Museum, and Drs. Kouri and Young-Kee,

Your statements highlighted in this post have been declared as violating the University of Chicago’s Kalven Principles. They should be removed from your departmental websites.

Jerry Coyne
A concerned Emeritus Professor
Department of Ecology and Evolution

12 thoughts on “U of C President clarifies and affirms University’s refusal to take official stands on political, ideological, and moral issues

  1. Announcing department ideologies accomplishes one additional harm. It allows individuals to hide behind institutional proclamations.

  2. I read the entire Zimmer statement that upholds the Kalven Report. My interpretation of the statement is that Zimmer pronounces that the Kalven Report is the university’s official policy and it would be a good idea that the school’s component departments adhere to it. But, I did not get the sense that the administration has any power to enforce the report, even if it had an inclination to do so. In other words, the English Department can tell Zimmer to go to hell and may very well do so.

    1. The thing is – Either you are the boss or you are not. It is not suppose to be up for a vote. The president’s statement gets a little mushy to me. Saying things like, on the other hand or two different views is not the way to put down policy.

    2. I seriously doubt that the English Department will do that. And yes, the administration has the power to enforce University policy through our Legal Department.

      I have a feeling these statements will either disappear or be qualified.

      It would be a very stupid department that told the President of the University to go to hell.

      1. Of course, I was using the expression “go to hell” metaphorically, meaning that the English Department would ignore the president’s dictum.

        Zimmer’s statement didn’t even have the slightest hint of coercion against the English Department. Maybe he thought that an appeal to reason would do the trick. We will need to wait to see what action or non-action the English Department takes and if it continues to repudiate the Kalven Report what action the administration takes.

  3. I wonder if the Human Genetics Department issued a particularly overwrought statement as protective cover because of what they perceived as a particularly exposed position. Human Genetics cannot avoid the fact that human sub-populations differ in allele frequencies in certain genes, almost certainly due to natural selection, rather than to training workshops, educational consultants, or official pronouncements. Human Genetics also suffers a closer historical and semantic association with dread eugenics than that suffered by, say, electrical engineering or astronomy.

    These factors led the USSR to suppress human genetic research for a generation after the late 1930s, as epitomized by the NKVD’s arrest of Solomon Grigorevich Levit, a prominent founder of medical genetics, who was executed in Lubianka Prison in 1938. His history, including his posthumous rehabilitation in 1956, is at:

  4. Thank you, thank you Professor Coyne! I was so discouraged by your last post on this site about Univ Chicago departments weakening free inquiry and I was a vocal fan of your excellent protest letter and so heartened that you actually took action. UoC remains a bright beacon of hope during this national betrayal of liberal principles such as free speech by the left. But one never knows if the administration will cave to the subversion cloaked in virtuous robes. It worked! Chicago holds the line and refuses to betray its time-tested founding academic principles.

    At this dark moment in history when we’re enduring all manner of chaos, this is great news and I’m so happy to see that lighthouse to the west.

  5. Good letter, PCC.

    Unlike Science depts, the English dept is almost totally dependent on institutional funds. They can tell Zimmer to go to hell at their own risk.

  6. When PCC has time it would be interesting to hear updates on whether the departments in question have removed those statements.

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