A plea for “institutional neutrality” from Princeton

August 18, 2022 • 9:15 am

As I’ve written several times, one of the foundational principles of the University of Chicago—institutional neutrality on political or ideological issues—is embodied in the Kalven Report of 1967. The report, which has become a stated policy of the University, is that no unit of our University, be it the administration, departments, or official units, can take official positions on ideological, moral, or political issues—with the rare exception being any issue that directly impacts the mission of the University as outlined in the Report’s first paragraph below. Ergo, there can be no statements about candidates or elections, Supreme Court decisions, wars, Critical Race Theory, the unacceptability of speakers, and so on.

Here’s an excerpt from Kalven. The second paragraph is a classic:

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

Over the years, the University has taken a hard line on this, angering both Right and Left by refusing to condemn Communism, the Vietnam War, the war in Darfur, having Steve Bannon as an invited speaker, and refusing to let politics influence the University’s investments.

The purpose of the Principle is to create a climate for enacting one of our other principles, the Chicago Principles of Free Expression, which guarantee free speech. Those principles have been adopted by over eighty universities in America. The Kalven report is in place to allow people to speak freely without fear of retribution. If departments or the University itself took official positions on controversial, debatable issues like abortion, it would chill the climate needed for free speech.

For example, if departments issued statements damning Dobbs and favoring Roe versus Wade, as Princeton and The University of California have apparently done (see below), those who are “pro life” wouldn’t feel free to speak. Can you imagine a grad student or untenured faculty member, opposed to Roe v. Wade (which, by the way, was a decision I favored), feeling free to express an anti-abortion position? You would become an apostate, not to mention having your tenure or degree endangered. (This isn’t just hypothetical; it happens all the time in universities.)

Kalven, then, is one of our two pillars of free speech: creating a climate in which speech isn’t chilled, and then promoting the right of people to speak freely.

In December of last year, I reported how two Princeton University undergrads called out their own school for repeated violations of institutional neutrality, though Princeton doesn’t have the equivalent of our Kalven Principles. It took two undergrads to lecture the faculty about how speech should be handled. Here’s one violation:

[The students] Anthony and McKnight give several examples of the violation of “basic neutrality”, but concentrate on one at their own school: an official statement by Dean Amaney Jamal of the School of Public and International Affairs, issued after the Rittenhouse verdict.  Conveyed by email to the entire study body of her department, Jamal’s statement went like this:

[Dean Jamal decried] Kyle Rittenhouse’s not-guilty verdict. She lamented with a heavy heart the “incomprehensib[ility] . . . of a minor vigilante carrying a semi-automatic rifle across state lines, killing two people, and being declared innocent by the U.S. justice system.” Furthermore, she situated the verdict within the context of the racism embedded “without a doubt . . . in nearly every strand of the American fabric,” thus implying that defenders of a not-guilty verdict are defenders of racism.

A Princeton dean has no business making an official statement decrying a jury verdict, whether or not Rittenhouse was found innocent. He happened to be found innocent, so the Dean was officially kvetching about what a jury decided.

This is the kind of stuff that shouldn’t be happening in universities, but it’s happening everywhere, including even Chicago. It takes constant vigilance to ensure that these statements are not made officially. (Private statements by faculty are fine, though I’d be wary of, say, a University dean or president speaking about politics in public giving his/her university identification.)

It would be great if other universities would follow Chicago—not just in our principles of free expression, but in adhering to the Kalven report. One has already started: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose Trustees adopted both our free speech and Kalven principles just last month.

Now we have a statement by Princeton academic Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University (his Princeton bio is here), urging his university to adopt Kalven. Click below to read his short statement (it’s not a political statement, but one that bears directly on the mission and principles of Princeton):

He begins by noting that Princeton does seem to have have a Kalven-ish principle, but apparently violates it regularly, although his own program does not:

It had been my understanding that units of Princeton University were not permitted to adopt official positions on matters of ethics, public policy, constitutional law, and the like. So, although I have in various forums both on and off campus freely expressed my own opinions on such matters, the Madison Program has refrained from taking positions on them and I have been careful never to associate the Madison Program with my personal beliefs. Others connected with the Madison Program have done likewise.

It has, however, been brought to my attention that some units of the University have, in the wake of the Dobbs decision, adopted and proclaimed on their websites official positions on the constitutional law, public policy, and morality of abortion. If in fact, as I had supposed, the University is committed to a policy of institutional neutrality on such questions, then these units are in violation of that policy. But perhaps I have been mistaken about whether that is indeed the University’s policy. I have therefore entered into conversations with appropriate University officials to have the matter clarified.

As I noted above, it’s one thing to enact a principle of institutional neutrality (I had no idea that Princeton had one), and another entirely to ensure that principle is followed. Academics these days simply can’t refrain from making “official” statements about politics. They must pronounce on the Dobbs decision or the Rittenhouse verdict, though it’s not a University or department’s business to make such statements. Still, those determined to do so will always try to find some way why it’s the University’s “mission” to take such a stand, but that is really a form of weaseling—indeed, of authoritarianism and indoctrination. Very few such statements actually do bear directly on a University’s mission, which according to Kalven is “the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge.” The mission is not to enforce ideological conformity or make pronouncements on debatable issues of politics, morality, or ideology.

To end, I’ll put up one excerpt from George’s statement favoring institutional neutrality, even though he knows that it may not be enforceable at Princeton. Academics are too eager to parade their virtue. Emphasis is mine.

The question is whether those of us who lead University units may associate those units with, or commit those units to, particular positions on the vast range of moral, political, constitutional, religious, and other issues in dispute among reasonable people of goodwill on our campus and across our country.

I have made clear that my own preference would be for the University and its units to respect institutional neutrality. I think that such a policy best serves the mission of universities such as ours by fostering for our students as well as our faculty the conditions of robust, civil debate. Where institutional neutrality is respected, no one is a heretic for deviating from an official party line. What the university and its units provide is a forum for the presentation of reasons, evidence, and arguments by people representing different views—a forum in which there is a genuine engagement among equals with no institutional thumb placed on the scales.

To my mind, the best policy is the one set forth in the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report, which was issued in 1967 and whose principles have guided that distinguished institution ever since:  https://provost.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/documents/reports/KalvenRprt_0.pdf(link is external). As it happens, and entirely independently of recent developments such as the Dobbs decision, the Madison Program’s Initiative on Freedom of Thought, Inquiry, and Expression, under the co-directorship of Professors Keith Whittington and Bernard Haykel, is planning a day-long conference on the Kalven Report this Fall.

Princeton would do well to follow Professor George’s advice.  And I wish they’d invite me to that conference—I’d have a thing or two to tell them!

h/t: Anna

20 thoughts on “A plea for “institutional neutrality” from Princeton

  1. (I’m sorry that this post is so long. I’ll shut up for the remainder of the day.)

    > The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.

    I generally agree with the idea of institutional neutrality. I am starting to wonder if it has limits regarding university administration itself – limits that were noted in the Kalven Report itself (quoted below).

    With it looking like we’re entering the Second Cold War, I’m thinking about government limits on foreign students of certain nationalities (North Korean, Cuban, etc.). I’m not sure if those limits currently exist, or to what extent. It certainly prevents potential students from engaging in free inquiry. I think it would be appropriate for a university to issue a statement of regret that they are unable to enroll certain students, and why. To some extent, college rejection letters framed with ‘We regret’ do just that.

    Also, I am an opponent of university spectator sports. The analyses I have seen consistently show them to be a drain on university and public resources. When I was a student, I felt the chilling effects of not wanting financial resources to be wasted on the program. The decision whether to host and encourage spectator sports is a financial question with political implications (especially in state-supported schools), and it reflects a formal university policy – an inherently political official university policy.

    Both of these points reflect an important limitation discussed in the report:

    From time to time instances will arise in which the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry. In such a crisis, it becomes the obligation of the university as an institution to oppose such measures and actively to defend its interests and its values. 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.

    Many free speech opponents will use this paragraph to try to shut down free inquiry, claiming that they are proactively silencing people who would otherwise shut down their free inquiry. We are seeing the trend both from the New Right AND the New Left. I am not hopeful.

    While I have the soap box, I’d like to encourage people to watch the 1994 film PCU. We thought it was a parody then; how little we knew.

    1. The University of Chicago has taken into account the effect on our mission of limiting students. One of the few “political” statements it made, for instance, was in support of DACA, because otherwise students enrolled in the University could have been deported.

    2. I think it’s fair enough for a university to look after its enrolled students, but it seems too much of a stretch for it to comment on policies affecting potential overseas students. If, say, another country were debating whether to use public money to subsidize students going abroad, then US universities should surely stay out of the debate, even though it could affect potential students of theirs.

    3. Princeton is actively funding a lawsuit in favor of DACA. Even though it had only 4 students affected by DACA at that time, and zero students whose attendance at the university would be affected (foreign students attend the University every day).

      A university doesn’t get any more politically active than that. Eisgruber uses Princeton’s funds and reputations for his personal political action committee. It is absolutely shameful what Princeton has become.

  2. Good to see Princeton law professor Robert George make this plea for institutional neutrality. Adopting this position will make Princeton a better place to work and study.

    1. Princeton would be an even better place to work and study if former professor Joshua Katz brings a lawsuit against Princeton and wins a large settlement.

      1. Katz should definitely sue; whether he would win in the current climate is hard to predict, but Princeton’s truly egregious Eisgruber (every bit as spineless as Yale’s Salovey) deserves opprobrium as well as mockery.

  3. I support institutional neutrality in education. That wouldn’t touch the problem of a professor or grad-student with an unpopular viewpoint. The Harvard Crimson last month released survey results showing that less than 1.5% of faculty (publicly) identify as conservative. What is needed is for trustees, administrators, and faculty to make clear that different viewpoints will be respected and that mobs will not dictate what can be said, written, seen, or heard.

    1. Emphasis on publicly. But a university will have faculty that teach business classes, and its hard for me to imagine that most will be lefties.

  4. I feel that a version the Kalven Report can and should be adopted by professional associations. I’m thinking of my own, the American Library Association, which has a long history of spending countless hours drafting and making toothless political pronouncements that are not directly related to the association’s mission and that have always been largely performative along politically correct progressive lines. And I’m going back to the 1960s when the ALA issued a proclamation opposing the Vietnam War. On the other hand, similar to Jerry’s example of U of C’s support of DACA, ALA’s opposition to the USA PATRIOT ACT is entirely in keeping with its mission to support and promote the freedom to read and to view.

  5. Contributing I think to the increasing number of universities weighing in on political or social matters is the growing number of assertions that certain policies or situations “dehumanize” some of the people effected. After all, a university’s academic mission surely requires that its students be protected from being considered cockroaches, vermin, or bacteria. The Rittenhouse verdict dehumanized black people; the Dobbs decision dehumanized people-with-uteruses; every less-than-total acceptance of Gender Identity dehumanizes trans people. My guess is that, each time there is an Official Position, some marginalized group was said to be in danger of being stripped of their humanity.

    With rhetorical stakes this high, perhaps universities are more likely to think taking a stand is the only human choice.

    1. Claims of dehumanization do not, and never will constitute evidence of dehumanization, or anything else. Neither is it obvious in the charter(s) of the respective schools that they opine on dehumanization at all? Where have you found such a position staked out?

      The political arguments you advance are what institutional neutrality thwarts.

    2. I feel offended therefore I have a license to demean others at will?
      Who buys that?
      How did we ever get even close to this point?

  6. Princeton would do well to follow Professor George’s advice. And I wish they’d invite me to that conference—I’d have a thing or two to tell them!

    Both of those things would be excellent!

  7. Professor George spoke at Chautauqua at 2 this afternoon on the state of illiberal attitudes in universities: “what causes and what might cure campus illiberalism”. Unfortunately I did not read the heads up email until 3:15 and missed the live broadcast. If I find a recorded broadcast of his talk, I will alert weit readers if it please our host.

  8. My favorite overblown proclamation from a university department was one from the U. Chicago music department during the 2020 frenzy. If I remember correctly, it called for, inter alia, abolition of the police. I looked forward to a proclamation from the U. Chicago school of law, calling for abolition of 16th notes and renaming of the French horn; to my disappointment, no such edict was issued.

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