University College London handles political controversy the right way

May 25, 2021 • 9:45 am

I’ve written in detail about one of the Foundational Principles of Free Expression of the University of Chicago, the one embodied in what we call the “Kalven Report“.

The principle of this report, as summarized yesterday by my Chicago colleague Brian Leiter, is that our University should take no official position on any ideological, moral, or political issue except for those issues that directly impinge on our academic mission. The principle grew out of calls from faculty and students for the University to take positions against Communism, against the Vietnam war, and other issues du jour. The principle is there to guarantee that nobody is cowed from speaking their minds by “official” university statements that might chill one’s speech.

In response to several of us seeking clarification, President Bob Zimmer clarified last October that the prohibition against taking such positions applies not just to the University administration, but to its units: departments, schools, and so on. Nevertheless, many departments and statements from administrators continue to blatantly violent this prohibition (see a list of violations here). For reasons beyond my ken, the administration has yet taken no action to remove these statements. That means that the Kalven Principles are unenforced, are eroding, and may disappear. And if they go, so goes academic freedom at our school. What a pity that would be, since freedom of speech and academic freedom are points the University makes to sell our school to prospective students. It would be a shame if students came here under false pretenses.

Brian’s nice post quotes the Kalven report, and I think all universities should adhere to these words. I’ve put the crucial bit in bold:

A university has a great and unique role to play in fostering the development of social and political values in a society. The role is defined by the distinctive mission of the university and defined too by the distinctive characteristics of the university as a  community. It is a role for the long term.

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.

One school that has just adhered to this principle is University College London, which of course probably isn’t even aware of Chicago’s avowed policy. During the recent fights between Israel and Palestine, UCL’s Provost has rightly decried bigotry of students against each other, but refuses to take a stand on the matter of the war. Click on the screenshot to read Provost Michael Spence’s take:

What he should have said and did say:

The first question concerns why my message of earlier this week called out antisemitic activity when issues of prejudice remain a problem for so many in our community, not least our Palestinian students. The answer to that question is that we had had several incidents involving direct threats of serious physical violence against Jewish students. That was a situation to which the University needed urgently to respond, and for which there was no immediate parallel.

However, it goes without saying that the University takes every form of discrimination with the utmost seriousness. In the last few days, I have been made aware of reports of Islamophobia, of prejudice against Palestinian students, and of some feeling unsafe. I want to be clear again that we unreservedly condemn abuse, harassment or bullying directed at any member of our community. There can never be a justification for this behaviour, and we will take action where necessary.

That’s very good: internecine bigotry of one group of students against another affects the University’s mission and can be properly criticized.

But what makes Spence’s position almost unique is what he says about any University position about the war itself:

The second question that has been raised with me is whether the University should adopt an institutional stance in relation to the current situation. Given that so many of our staff and students feel deeply about the conflict in Israel/Palestine, and some have personal experience of its effects, I understand the desire that we should. But it is my strong conviction that to do so would be incompatible with the purpose of a university in a liberal democracy.

. . .It follows from this conception of the university, which I share, that it is not a participant in public debate, but a forum in which that debate takes place. While our staff and students should loudly argue for their conceptions of truth and value, the university, as an institution, should refrain from doing so lest it chill the exercise of the ethical individualism of its staff and students. This does not mean that we have no strongly held normative positions about our own collective life; we must, and we should, do so. But it does mean that the University, as an institution, ought not to become an advocate in public debate. I believe this to be the case even, perhaps especially, where a majority of UCL staff and students are of one mind on a given issue.

For this reason, I do not think it would be appropriate for UCL to comment on the rights and wrongs of the current conflict in Israel/Palestine. That is a task for our staff and students. It is the University’s role to ensure that we remain a community of respectful debate in which it is possible for them to do so. And on that front, I remain deeply committed.

This is pretty much UCL’s version of the Kalven Principles, and I believe wholeheartedly that Spence is right. I’d recommend reading the rest of Leiter’s take on how the University of Chicago has dealt with the Kalven Principles lately; it’s a short read and you can find it here. I am not aware of any school other than ours that has an official policy of not taking institutional positions on ideological, political or moral issues that don’t affect the mission of the University: to teach, to learn, and to learn to think. If you know of such schools, do let me know.

h/t: Coel

18 thoughts on “University College London handles political controversy the right way

  1. “I believe this to be the case even, perhaps especially, where a majority of UCL staff and students are of one mind on a given issue” – Spence puts it very well, although it shouldn’t need saying.

  2. I look at the Kalven principles the same way we should look at political/campaign financing. It keeps the institution out of the fight or above the fight if you wish. Individuals should not be able to hide behind the institution to present any opinions on issues. Lets hope it never makes it to the Supreme court for any ruling or it will be dead. Just look at what happens now with money and politics. The court has decided that institutions are the same as people and they can pump out money to the politicians and we do not even need to know where the money comes from. It is government by cowards. If the Kalven standard goes away it is also pure cowardous. You can hide behind your school with your opinion.

  3. It follows from this conception of the university, which I share, that it is not a participant in public debate, but a forum in which that debate takes place.

    I think that the social media companies would do well to consider whether they want to be participants or forums. I think most of their users would see them as forums. As Spence suggests, an organization’s accepting a role as a participant would likely override its members views. Reading something like this that is also well-written is increasingly a pleasure as it seems more and more rare. I’ve picked up a complete works of Lincoln, which I read for the same feeling.

    1. What they consider is how to make the most money. They’ll shout to the rooftops how much they support a cause, if they think that’s what will bring in more users and clicks. They’ll also shout to the rooftops their neutrality and dedication to the free flow of ideas if they think that will get them more clicks. And when they think you aren’t looking, they’ll shout both at the same time.

      Which, I suspect, is also the thought process behind some University position statements too: any edge to compete for customers.

  4. How much hemlock-laced kool-aid can a university’s units — its “departments, schools, and so on” — imbibe before, like Socrates, it expires?

  5. Freedom of speech and other attributes of liberal democracy such as the right to vote can only exist when within a given society the political and social divisions are relatively mild. That is, divergent speech of other individuals and groups can only be tolerated by other individuals or groups when the latter doesn’t perceive what the former says as an existential threat to their cultural, psychological, or economic well-being. We do not live in such a time. Rather, rightly or wrongly, significant groups in society are under great psychological stress, making them susceptible to the appeals of demagogues and authoritarians. This makes democracy, or which free speech is an essential component, is in grave danger. Lamenting about the threats to free speech does little to solve the problem. Unfortunately, I have not seen any feasible plan (because there may not be one) to resolve the crisis. Similar crises in the past have only been resolved by extreme violence, such as the Civil War and World War II. The current culture war has reached such an extreme that peaceful resolution is not on the horizon.

    At the Politico site, sociologist James Davison Hunter is interviewed regarding his view that the culture wars can break democracy. This article is one of the most important I have read in some time. He explains how our current situation is how democracy will be readily discarded by those who view their cultural opponents as an existential threat to their way of life.

    This paragraph sums up his view:

    “‘Democracy, in my view, is an agreement that we will not kill each other over our differences, but instead we’ll talk through those differences. And part of what’s troubling is that I’m beginning to see signs of the justification for violence,’ says Hunter, noting the insurrection on January 6, when a mob of extremist supporters of Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overthrow the results of the 2020 election. ‘Culture wars always precede shooting wars. They don’t necessarily lead to a shooting war, but you never have a shooting war without a culture war prior to it, because culture provides the justifications for violence.’”

    1. A necessary condition for democracy is that the losers have to accept that they have lost, at least for the time being. The Republicans in the United States are no longer prepared to accept that they have lost. Either they will wither into insignificance, or democracy in the USA will die.

      1. For many, this is correct. I have never in my lifetime seen so many sore loser political signs displayed and public denial statements made this long after an election and inauguration.

        I think much of the radicalism on the left these days is due to the fact that, for decades, the Dems have been acting as “the adults in the room”, following the rules, being reasonable, while the Reps (I’m looking at you, Moscow Mitch and Newt Gingrich) have sh!t on the rules and norms and handed the Dems their heads. (Voldemort was the logical conclusion to this.) I have heard many Dems saying we need to “take the gloves off” or “play by their rules” or similar things.

  6. I really do not see where violence is necessarily going to follow, at least not in a big way. The cult, the republican party and others have already left any thought of democracy and our current government far behind. They pray only to the pathetic dictator called Trump. Power is all they want and they are sure he can provide it. No violence necessary. That little thing on 6 Jan. was just to insure he was still in charge.

    1. I very much hope your are correct that violence need not necessarily follow, but I remain unconvinced. Yesterday I was passed by an excessively large truck of the kind that leads one to believe some sort of genital overcompensation was on display. The back window was plastered with a large sticker that red “FUCK Joe and the Hoe”, with FUCK spelled out with various guns. I do indeed fear the potential violence of such small-minded folks, more so than I do from the violent threats by riotous “peaceful protesters” chanting “no justice, no peace”. What I fear the most though is that both sides have already made it clear that they see violence as justified and only await a reason, a single spark, to set off the political powder keg that the leftists and the right wingers have been building up for decades. I’m not sure what could possibly defuse the situation, except maybe a serious existential threat from outside the nation. Actually, no, not even that. The coronavirus was one such thing and it was immediately a “racist” virus and a “fake” virus, depending on your political ideology. I’m sure even a pending impact from some dinosaur-killer sized asteroid would be seen in much the same way, as a Chinese hoax sent to destroy our guns and bibles or an example of system racism sent by White people to destroy BLM.

      1. ‘…a “racist” virus..’

        Perhaps explain that with examples to one, like me, who perhaps is unaware of some important incidents.

      2. Because you see some nut on the road or even refer to a conspiracy or two does not tell us that civil war is just around the corner. Climb down from hyperventilation and look at the reality. One of the parties in congress has already surrendered to the Trump cult. No lives were taken to accomplish this. Next, a very structured game of removing voter rights is underway in many states to assist the republicans in winning elections. That does not include all the gerrymandering still to be done and again no bodies in the streets. As the democrats sit on their cans and watch all of this happen there is no need for violence. Just because you see some right winger on the news does not mean the guns are hitting the streets.

        1. I hope you are correct.

          The “mostly peaceful protests” of all of last summer may just be an opening move. We’ll see. What happens when the radical left doesn’t get the Marxist utopia they dream of? What happens when Voldemort is shut out of politics again?

          As Historian notes above, culture wars precede shooting wars. I was too young to remember the 1960s; but this is as bad is it has been in my (remembered) lifetime.

          Concealed-carry permit applications are way, way up, along with gun and ammunition sales. I’ve never seen so many people carrying firearms as in the last 4+ years.

          And yet, a large percentage of shootings are young black men shooting each other.

          We shall see (I hope we live to see things retreat from the edge we seem to be on — I’m 60).
          Reminds me of the purported Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.

    1. If you were replying to me, I was replying to Historian, it just didn’t work out that way.

  7. Rebutting bad ideas takes energy – thought, research, and coherent articulation.

    It’s just ever so much easier to stick your fingers in your ears.


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