Academic Freedom Alliance criticizes mandatory statements of University “values”

November 7, 2021 • 11:30 am

UPDATE: I learned that Dorian Abbot of my university (the scientist whose talk was canceled at MIT) and two colleagues have written about this very issue in a new-oped in Newsweek. It mentions our university’s Kalven Report.

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The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) is a new but powerful organization which characterizes itself this way:

. . . a non-profit organization whose members are dedicated to protecting the rights of faculty members at colleges and universities to speak, instruct, and publish without fear of sanction or punishment. We uphold the principles that are required if scholars are to fulfill their vocation as truth-seekers and colleges and universities are to be faithful to their mission as truth-seeking institutions.

You can see the leadership here, the members (a good cross-section of academics) are here, and, what gives this organization teeth is their stable of lawyers and legal experts at the disposal of anyone whose freedom of speech and academic freedoms are abridged (the list is here; scroll down).

They’ve just issued a statement in response to the proliferation of university and college affirmations, testaments, and “what-we-believe” statements on university websites. As I’ve written before, my own university is almost unique in prohibiting these statements unless the values affirmed are those that directly promote education and discourse—like affirming free speech. Our Kalven Report, one of our “foundational principles,” forbids the issuing of departmental or official university statements that promote an ideology, morality, or political view, no matter what it is. We do not officially denounce people, no matter how odious they are, and no speaker is ban-able, not even Steve Bannon.

The purpose of this is to avoid “chilling” speech: if a department or university issues an official statement on political or ideological issues that doesn’t affect our academic mission, it will inhibit those who disagree with such statements: graduate students, undergraduates, and untenured professors. Indeed, almost anyone! As we know, many college students are reluctant to voice their opinions. A 2020 survey by the Heterodox Academy showed that more than 60% of college students were reluctant to discuss at least one of the five “hot potato” topics: politics, race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. Why? Because they’re afraid the’ll be ostracized or demonized if they don’t express the “right” opinion. Thus the self-censorship that obviously was part of the Republican’s victory in Virginia last week.

The AFA statement reprises the Kalven principles, which I believe should be followed by all universities that claim to support free speech. Click on the screenshot to see a pdf of the whole statement, and go here to see the AFA’s blurb on it.

I’ll give just a few excerpts and then show some violations by my own university.

Excerpts:

Many universities have drafted statements emphasizing the value of diversity, inclusion and equity or a commitment to anti-racism or other politically contested sets of values. Such statements are frequently offered to faculty for possible inclusion in their individual course syllabi. Faculty are perfectly free to incorporate such statements, to the extent that they are relevant to the conduct of a class, into their course materials, whether or not such language is recommended by campus officials. x

But it is a serious intrusion on the freedom of speech of the faculty to mandate or otherwise direct that such statements must be included in individual course syllabi or otherwise adopted or embraced by individual professors. The inclusion of anti-racism statements in course syllabi must be voluntary and left to the conscience of individual professors. Mandatory anti-racism statements currently being developed are in principle indistinguishable from myriad other statements of belief that university officials have sometimes attempted to force members of the faculty to endorse in the past. No matter how widely shared or normatively desirable any particular statement of values might be, individual professors should not be directed or coerced to endorse or accept such statements. For public universities, mandating that professors embrace such statements is a clear violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. For private universities that have chosen to accept as their own comparable standards of individual conscience, such mandates violate those commitments. For private universities that have adopted broad principles of academic freedom, such mandates are at odds with those principles.

Mandatory anti-racism statements currently being developed are in principle indistinguishable from myriad other statements of belief that university officials have sometimes attempted to force members of the faculty to endorse in the past. No matter how widely shared or normatively desirable any particular statement of values might be, individual professors should not be directed or coerced to endorse or accept such statements.

For public universities, mandating that professors embrace such statements is a clear violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. For private universities that have chosen to accept as their own comparable standards of individual conscience, such mandates violate those commitments. For private universities that have adopted broad principles of academic freedom, such mandates are at odds with those principles.

What I believe they mean here is that anti-racism statements can be acceptable if they foster the University’s aim of teaching and discussing, so statements like “the University of X does not countenance discrimination against any group” are fine. It’s when you get into things like Black Lives Matter, the “duty” of white people to oppose racism, the prevalence of “structural racism” in a university, and so on, that things get sticky. Since there are views on both sides of issues like these, it’s best to avoid official positions.

Two more statements from the AFA:

For universities to require faculty to communicate and affirm contestable statements of political and social value falls outside the scope of what universities can appropriately require in the name of the effective functioning of an institution of higher education. Even values that are fundamental to many modern American universities, such as the commitment to the ideals of inclusion, free speech, democracy, sustainability, human improvement, and economic growth, can be questioned, challenged, and criticized by members of the faculty, and a university that values freedom of thought will not mandate what thoughts faculty members are obliged to have or profess.

Many private universities have voluntarily bound themselves to the same principles of free speech and individual conscience that are found in the First Amendment. As a consequence, for many private universities their own preexisting understanding of academic freedom on their campuses is incompatible with mandatory statements of belief. Moreover, broad principles of academic freedom that are generally recognized by American universities are inconsistent with requirements that faculty affirm contestable statements that impinge on either their personal beliefs or their scholarly judgements.

Statement by departments or universities imply that everybody in the organization is on board with the statement, and that chills speech. Some examples are at the bottom.

Finally, on the sticky issue of diversity (the reference at the beginning is to the courts’ rejection of loyalty oaths to the government that were once common for university faculty):

If professors have a constitutional right to express views advocating the violent overthrow of the American government in their classrooms, then they certainly have the constitutional right to express other controversial views with which students, university administrators, and government officials might disagree. If university officials can mandate that professors affirm statements regarding the value of diversity or the reality of systemic racism, then they can equally mandate that professors affirm statements on a wide variety of other contested political and social issues. They could mandate that faculty specifically deny the existence of systemic racism or endorse the view that all lives matter or profess belief in color-blind neutrality. Such loyalty oaths are inconsistent with the fundamental values and purposes of a modern university. Universities should be places where professors can freely disagree about and debate over precisely such questions. Universities that accept the First Amendment and broad principles of academic freedom should not be places that mandate orthodoxies or require faculty to express their agreement with ideas that they do not believe or dictate that faculty record their allegiance to a roster of propositions.

Beyond the assertion that all people should be considered morally and politically equal, and treated with fairness, everything else about groups, races, and “tribes” is debatable, which is why statements about “systemic racism”, “white guilt,” and the things mentioned above should not be part of University mandates.  For we want these things debated!

You can find University of Chicago statements that violate the Kalven Principles and the AFA guidelines here, here, here, here, and here. (There are others.)  None of these “official” statements should have been posted, and all are chillers of speech.

14 thoughts on “Academic Freedom Alliance criticizes mandatory statements of University “values”

  1. “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

    (Supreme Court’s Barnette ruling, that schools may not require students to take the Pledge of Allegiance.)

    1. Coel said: (Supreme Court’s Barnette ruling, that schools may not require students to take the Pledge of Allegiance.)

      Does that apply to all schools? Or only publicly funded schools in the United States?

  2. I was particularly charmed by the last of our host’s examples of U. Chicago official statements: the manifesto by the Music Department, which clamors for the dismantling of the police. I was hoping for a reply by the Chicago Police Department, demanding abolition of the alto clef in musical notation. Alas, the Police failed to do so. The lamentable inclination of police to mind their own business reveals “police fragility”, which the School of Social Work will perhaps protest in its next manifesto.

  3. Do professors have a “constitutional right to express views advocating the violent overthrow of the American government”? That bit seemed surprising. Otherwise I am making notes on this.

    1. I find it fascinating that California’s Levering Act has been upheld for years; it forces all public employee citizens (including professors at public universities) to swear an oath to defend the United States. Pacifists have refused to swear to defend the US and have been fired over it. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levering_Act

      1. Good grief – I had no idea!

        Such oaths have occasionally been a point of controversy. In 2008, a Quaker teacher was fired by California State University East Bay because she edited her loyalty oath by writing “non-violently” in front of “support and defend [the U.S. and state Constitutions] against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The office of the California Attorney General said that “as a general matter, oaths may be modified to conform with individual values”, suggesting that the teacher’s modification was acceptable.

        A bit late by then, but I’m surprised that she didn’t pursue the matter in the courts.

        1. ‘Fraid so. I’ve described the Levering Act and asked people to guess which state enacted it. They usually guess ‘Texas’ and are shocked to realize it is California. It’s not just a race to the bottom between the New Left vs. New Right; this has been going on for decades.

  4. I think such statements are also vulnerable under the “No religious test” clause in Article VI of the constitution: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Courts, especially the Supreme Court, have interpreted this broadly to apply to all matters of opinion and conscience, not just religion. I think a good case could be made especially that hiring procedures in which diversity statements are used to weed out candidates *before* their actual qualifications are reviewed are particularly vulnerable to challenge under that clause. The requirement to demonstrate political action and voice agreement with debatable politico-religious propositions, before you can even begin to describe how well you might do the job, is surely nothing but the imposition of a politico-religious test, and in a public university, should therefore be unconstitutional.

    1. Absolutely! The sooner an applicant rejected for a California academic slot brings this into court, the better. It is also worth noticing how much more despotic the Diversity Statement system is than
      anything during the reputedly terrifying Red scare of the 1950s. The loyalty oaths of that era never went so far as requiring “Americanism Statements”, summarizing an applicant’s activities on behalf of the federalist system, the 2nd Amendment, the Electoral College, and the Commerce Clause. Had there been any such requirement, it would have been taken to the courts in an instant.

  5. AFA is a breath of fresh air. Meanwhile in Britain:

    Free speech is a fundamental foundation of a free and fair society. But let’s be honest and have the guts to unpick who gets to speak, where, and why.
    Reni Eddo-Lodge, journalist and author

    The phrase ‘free speech’ is nothing more than a political ploy, a ruse, a term the far right wilfully abuse to spread hatred.
    Owen Jones, The Guardian

    We must not fetishise ‘debate’ as thought debate is itself an innocuous, neutral act. The very act of debate in these cases is an effective rollback of assumed equality and a foot in the door for doubt and hatred.
    Nadia Whittome, Member of Parliament, Labour Party

  6. A few other resources:

    The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, a crown agency that (among many other duties) oversees the Ontario Campus Free Speech Policy. Since 2019, the Ontario government has required all colleges and universities to develop and adhere to policies modeled on the U of Chicago’s Statement on Principles of Free Expression.

    https://heqco.ca/research/freedom-of-speech/

    The Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship
    https://safs.ca/

    and the “far-right pressure group” that left-wing talking heads love to hate, The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom. Primarily law-focused, not academic, they have run off on the wrong track litigating vaccine mandates and public-health measures, too often in the guise of religious freedom. But I will donate to them again once they stop doing that. They have litigated some good cases involving arbitrary academic discipline of students for hurting other people’s political feelings.
    jccf.ca

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