Atlantic article on why universities shouldn’t make official political or ideological statements

November 27, 2021 • 11:45 am

I swear, maybe I should try writing some of my website posts as articles for magazines, where I could actually get paid.  It’s not that I need the dosh, but getting a check is a special form of love in return for one’s words.  Don’t worry, though, I’ll never monetize this site.

The reason I thought about this is because monetized sites, like the Atlantic piece below by Conor Friedersdorf, often have articles about the very same topics I’ve written about days before. You’ll know about the several posts I’ve done about universities like UC Irvine and UC Santa Cruz making unwarranted statements about the Rittenhouse verdict (opposing it because it’s supposed to be an instantiation of “white supremacy”), when they should not be making any official statements at all.  Such statements violate the spirit of the University of Chicago’s “Kalven Report”, which prohibits my university from making official statements about any ideological, political, or moral issues unless they directly impact the mission of the university.  Why? I’ll reiterate what I wrote a week ago:

There are actually two principles of free speech that should be proclaimed and adhered to by every college and university in America, whether they be private or public. (Religious schools, of course, must exempt themselves.)

1.) There must be freedom of speech for all as that freedom is described by the First Amendment and construed by the courts.

2.) The university must remove itself from making official pronouncements on morality, ideology, or politics, except when those statements affect issues that could impinge on the mission of the university itself: teaching, debating, and learning.

The second principle is there to protect the first one. For if the University makes political statements, like the one we’ll discuss today, that chills or quashes the speech of other people who might fear punishment from the administration for their opposing stands.  If an administrative or departmental website puts out a statement supporting the goals of Black Lives Matter, or that the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict demonstrates white supremacy in action, or that science is structurally racist and misogynist, what student or untenured professor is going to contradict that in public?  We already know that about 55% of college students feel that the climate on their campus prevents them from saying things they believe. That goes for professors as well, though the percentage would be lower. Ideally, the figure should be 0%.

The University of Chicago has adopted both of these principles. The first is the famous 2014 “Report on the Committee of Free Expression” headed by Law Professor Geoffrey Stone, with the committee convened by the then President Robert Zimmer. Now called the “Chicago Principles“, the statement has been adopted in its entirety or near-entirety by over 80 American colleges and universities.

Now if I’d had the gumption, I’d have proposed a piece on Kalven and its violation by Rittenhouse-dissing universities. Sadly, the laws of physics prevented me. However, they didn’t prevent Friedersdorf, who undoubtedly got a big wad of green stuff for the piece below (click on screenshot). However, I’m not all that jealous because a.) he did a much more thorough job than I of collecting statements and parsing their meaning, and b.) He’s a better writer than I. So read the article (it’s free); you will find even more examples of miscreant university administrators, though his conclusion is the same as mine: universities should abide by the Kalven Report:

Friedersdorf summarizes several places where administrators issued negative statements on the Rittenhouse aquittal; these include UC Santa Cruz, UC Irvine, and the “progressive” New School, whose President, Dwight McBride, published an official statement that violates Kalven seven ways from Sunday. Friedersdorf’s take on McBride:

At the New School, McBride described a starkly different ethos:

I don’t know immediately how to parse the Rittenhouse verdict at a university where students, faculty, and staff work so tirelessly and passionately for social justice. Therein may lie the answer in this moment: when we don’t know yet what to say, let’s take solace in each other. Let’s unite in our shared commitments and values. I am grateful to be part of this community that is so driven to confront inequality, unpack systemic racism, challenge oppression, and create positive change.

Tellingly, McBride continued:

While we don’t know what to say, we know what to do, which is to act to build stronger communities, unite amongst ourselves, and use our scholarship and research in service of social justice.

He’s not calling for searching, candid discussion among people with diverse views. He’s presuming that the community is united in one collective view––and, what’s more, that the community is somehow united both in not knowing what to say and in knowing what to do about it! And what about professors and students who disagree that the verdict was unjust, or feel upset by inaccuracies in media coverage, or believe that Rittenhouse was a victim of prosecutorial misconduct, or worry that widespread criticism of the verdict is undermining the jury system?

Now deans and departments at my own University of Chicago have issued similar verboten political statements, though none that I know of about Rittenhouse. They’ve concentrated on systemic racism, and they all violate the Kalven Report. In that sense we’re hypocrites, for while ex-President Bob Zimmer recently reaffirmed that departments of our University cannot issue such official political statements, they’ve done it anyway, and the administration is too timorous to order these statements removed.

If nothing is done, the University of Chicago will go the torturous way of the New School and the University of California campuses, issuing statement after statement that gives “official” positions or, like the New School’s statement, tells all the students what they do or must believe and how they must act.  Parents of prospective students, I think, won’t be keen to send their parents to such woke schools, for they’ll get no instruction about what free speech means, much less how to exercise it.  And I’m sad because the unique aspect of the University of Chicago: it’s near-absolute encouragement of free speech, will erode away to nothing.

Those “official” statements are unnecessary anyway. Their main (if not only) purpose is to affirm the virtue of the writer by setting out ideological and behavioral principles that jibe with the progressive Zeitgeist. By doing that, though, they’re chilling the speech of anybody who thinks that, for example, the Rittenhouse verdict was correct. The uselessness of these statements is limned by both Friedersdorf and Glenn Loury:

But most top-down proclamations from administrators are unnecessary: As the Brown University professor Glenn Loury explained last year, they either affirm platitudes or present arguable positions as certainties. “We, the faculty, are the only ‘leaders’ worthy of mention when it comes to the realm of ideas,” he insisted. “Why must this university’s senior administration declare, on behalf of the institution as a whole and with one voice, that they unanimously—without any subtle differences of emphasis or nuance—interpret contentious current events through a single lens?”

It really is crazy—and totally unnecessary. Professors and administrators can write their own personal statements on websites and the like—that is free speech. But they need not, and should not, present those opinions as official views of their universities.

So I echo, and have anticipated, Friedersdorf’s conclusions, which are that universities should adhere to the Kalven principles. The Atlantic has a huge and intelligent audience, and though the Chicago Principles of Free Speech are widely known—and have been adopted by over 80 American universities—the Kalven Report is much less known, and Friedersdorf sets out its history as well as its principles. The report is here, and every university that has adopted the Chicago Principles of Free Speech should also adopt the Kalven Principles. They are simply two arms of the same endeavor: to allow free speech without intimidation. Friedersdorf has one a service by simply bringing this issue to the nation’s attention. But of course administrators at schools like Williams, Berkeley, and Santa Cruz simply can’t restrain themselves from weighing in on politics, thereby making themselves look empathic and sensitive.

Friedersdorf’s beginning:

At universities, the recent acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse should be an opportunity to study a divisive case that sparked complex debates about issues as varied as self-defense laws, guns, race, riots, the rights of defendants, prosecutorial missteps, media bias, and more. If administrators were doing their jobs, faculty and students would freely air a wide variety of viewpoints and have opportunities to better understand one another’s diverse perspectives. Instead, many administrators are preemptively imposing their preferred narratives.

And his ending:

Indeed, there are as many different views of what’s wrong in the world as there are individuals on a campus. People also differ widely in which news events, if any, they find upsetting. Students and faculty should challenge university leaders who, as if speaking for their entire communities, put forth subjective assessments and notions of what everyone else thinks or “must” do. These administrators tell the group what they think it wants to hear, create incentives for people to hide other views, and harm everyone’s ability to inquire and to learn from one another.

I wish that all the readers who fight for free speech at universities would also fight for the prevention of official statements on politics and ideology by those schools which, by giving “official views”, chill everyone’s speech. We already know that many professors and students—more than half of the latter in the U.S.—are intimidated from speaking freely about certain topics. That’s no way to get an education, much less produce a good citizen.

16 thoughts on “Atlantic article on why universities shouldn’t make official political or ideological statements

  1. These statements seem more about declaring power than virtue. The New School statement might have well ended with something like: “We set the one opinion you must have but decorum prevents me from stating that opinion here. Please check with your Opinion Leader if you are unsure of your assigned opinion or just need it updated.”

  2. I do agree 100% with Jerry that, although higher officials need to be able to make official statements which directly concern the institution for which they work, they must not stray into (other) politics, etc.

    However, suppose that Joe Blow truthfully begins a statement thus:

    ‘I’m the President of Harvard, but I speak not for the university, I speak personally instead when I say that the non-guilty verdict etc. etc…’

    That would for many other persons, if aspiring to, say, become Dean of Science there, to hold their tongue about themselves speaking personally with the opposite opinion. It would be interesting to hear others’ opinions on that: Should becoming a ‘higher up admin person’ in a university constrain someone to wait at least till the appointment finishes before coming on strongly concerning outside hot political topics?

    1. It’s a good question, since surely even an upper Admin. figure gets to have their own opinions. For what it’s worth, I would come down on saying “no”, however. This comes from the view that they should have bought into living under a cloak of neutrality while they are on this very public and influential job. Especially if they preface any statement by identifying themselves as someone with this lofty university position. There is simply no way that their opinions, however couched, would not be stifling to underlings who don’t agree with it.

    2. Or, if deans/professors of law schools were to say, ‘Judge X misdirected/ failed to direct the jury on the correct interpretation of Statute Y, which is …, and this has led to an unsafe verdict…’

      I see such statements as a defensible part of their teaching function, both for students and the general public, though possibly the opinion that the verdict is unsafe is less defensible. Is this chilling speech?

      Edit: the moniker should have been davelenny.

      1. I’d say it’s defensible so long as it is represented as a personal opinion of a law professor or dean. But NOT as official statement; there’s no need. And it doesn’t have to have a teaching function; it can just be an opinion put out in the ether.

    3. Or, if deans/professors of law schools were to say, ‘Judge X misdirected/ failed to direct the jury on the correct interpretation of Statute Y, which is …, and this has led to an unsafe verdict…’

      I see such statements as a defensible part of their teaching function, both for students and the general public, though possibly the opinion that the verdict is unsafe is less defensible. Is this chilling speech?

  3. I doubt that the jurors enjoyed serving on the Rittenhouse case. It must be especially galling for their efforts to be dismissed because their efforts do not support some ideological point.

    1. There exists evidence of various attempts to intimidate the jurors into delivering the “correct” verdict (such that some might well have been fearful of the consequences of any decision displeasing to the mob), to say nothing of egregious prosecutorial misconduct or of journalistic malpractice in the months leading up to the trial, and setting aside the idiocy of numerous overpaid administrators at various universities.

  4. I suspect that much of the problem of wokism comes from the current practice by colleges of appointing Deans of Diversity and Inclusion, with the result that there are people whose justification for their employment is in finding examples of racism in their institutions. Since few dare question their observations/accusations these are powerful positions.

    1. Indeed. The grotesque bloat of heresy-hunting DEI apparatchiks is an existential threat to the university, at least as it has been understood.

  5. This is just a symptom of the larger problem of universities having to prioritize business goals over education.

    It appears that these statements tend to be made from blue-state schools that have predominantly liberal bases. I don’t see any Southern schools raising the issue.

    In order to stay funded they have to appeal to their main sources of funding, which is a combination of state governments, donors, federal, commercial and other grant-giving agencies, and student tuition. And the metrics by which schools are measured are quantitative, not qualitative, mainly enrollment and graduation rates.

    There is little doubt that every public statement by an administrator is guided by those funding concerns, while what is best for actual education is of secondary importance.

  6. In certain cases in the past, official philosophical pronouncements have been known to grow into specific policies on employment and curriculum. At a meeting in 1948, the chairman of Philosophy at Moscow State University, Z. Beletsky, declared: “Events occurring in biology are largely similar to events which took place in philosophy last year. As in philosophy, so now in biology we are faced with phenomena of the same order. There is a fight between two directions – the bourgeois idealist and our dialectical-materialist.”

    Soon afterward, S.V. Kaftanov, the USSR’s Minister of Higher Education, “called for the country’s university staffs to eradicate completely and most rapidly reactionary Morganism and its concrete carriers from institutions of higher learning”. Kaftanov then issued an order which read: “The Central University Administration and Administration of Cadres are directed to review within two months all departments of biological faculties to free them from all opposed to Michurinist biology and to strengthen them by appointing Michurinists to them.” The order named a number of specific professors at several universities for dismissal, and abolished courses and directed the destruction of texts based on Mendelism-Morganism.

    Of course, we cannot imagine that anything like that could happen here. Or could it?

    1. It’s hard to imagine how many faculty at universities in really ideological dictatorships can feel like they are functioning honestly: many in philosophy and even biology as above, probably most in political science, some in economics, sociology, etc. There must be many stories about secret seminars, betrayals etc. that have passed me by, in my selfish need to spend most of my time thinking only about what most interests me personally, selfish especially now that I’m retired and not being paid to do research.

      As a feeble joke though, it seems that all that’s needed is for Qanon to announce that 1+1=3 in order to have that widely believed, at least in ‘red’ US. So if Trumpism triumphs with establishing their dictatorship, them profs of arithmetic (I won’t say mathematics) better watch their backs!

  7. Hey Jerry, I, too think that it’s a shame that your superb writing and analysis is seldom if ever published in paid content publications such as The Atlantic.
    I have one modest suggestion: have you ever considered um… contacting the editors and asking them to commission some articles from you?
    Just a thought.
    Anthony K

  8. The whole idea that the Rittenhouse case was about racism AT ALL is such a joke! The attackers were ALL WHITE!!! And if you got a chance to see the surveillance footage, it was clear that he ran for blocks in order to evade the attack. and only fired shots when he had already been thrown to the ground and struck , facing MULTIPLE ATTACKERS. Keep in mind that this is a CHILD (legally anyway) who was being attacked by adults decades older. THANK GOODNESS for this common sense victory for Kyle and also for second amendment rights. And the reason for the plethora of new “stand your ground” laws in many states has come precisely due to the “defund the police” movement. You can’t have gun bans and then no law enforcement as well. I have never owned a gun myself, but honestly if things progress any further I might feel that it would be good to get one just to keep at home for self defense. We don’t want to live in a world where we can’t express ourselves freely, and also where we can’t defend ourselves under reasonable conditions against mob attacks.

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