On University administrators and departments making political, ideological, or moral statements

December 16, 2022 • 12:30 pm

At the University of Chicago we have a policy, based on the 1967 Kalven Report, that prohibits official units of the university from making moral, political, or ideological statements—unless those statements are about issues that directly affect the mission of the University. This includes university departments. The purpose is to promote freedom of speech by preventing the chilling of speech, for “official” university statements, by the nature of their “offficial-ness”, make those who disagree with them reluctant to speak out, including students, grad students, postdocs, and untenured professors. The University has refused, over the years, to issue any statements about stuff like Darfur, the Vietnam War, Communism and the Red Scare, and now about various forms of social unrest.  (Over the last few years I’ve written many posts on this issue.)

We are in fact the only university I know that has an official policy of viewpoint neutrality, though the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is in the process of enacting the policy, too. But that’s it. In the article below, form the Inside Higher Ed (click to read), various universities ponder making viewpoint-neutrality policies, but they all chicken out in the end and simply proffer “recommendations” which, if implemented, could create a viewpoint-neutral university. But there’s no requirement for such a policy anywhere except here and at UNC-CH.

The article centers on two schools: the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and the University of California system.

Here are the “guidelines” passed by the UIUC Senate:

The UIUC Senate guidelines include five major recommendations, beyond the ultimate counsel against broad departmental statements on external matters:

  1. Academic unit bylaws should detail a clear process, based on shared governance principles, for issuing any statement expressing the position of that unit.
  2. Any faculty members who believe a departmental statement violates their academic freedom can appeal to standing faculty committees.
  3. To avoid giving a “false impression of unanimity, in many cases (especially on highly contentious and controversial issues),” it’s better to issue a statement signed by specific signatories and to include any dissenting views.
  4. To “prevent any misunderstanding,” statements should include a disclaimer that the unit doesn’t represent the university as a whole.
  5. As specific academic units don’t own their websites, departments “should not post on their website, or disseminate through university-affiliated departmental social media sites, statements that are not directly tied to the unit’s core academic research and teaching activities or addressing matters of university policy.”

UIUC’s Senate approved the policy committee’s work 76 to 19, with 22 abstentions.

While #5 recommends that departments cannot post on their websites statements unrelated to their mission of teaching and research, remember that this is only a recommendation, not a requirement.

Here it’s required, and in the last several years ten University of Chicago departments or units have published ideological statements on their websites. Nine of them have been forced to remove those statements. Only one remains, and people are discussing it. In the end, UIUC can still issue departmental statements, as the guidelines are merely recommendations.

Note as well that UIUC allows the administration and University officials to make political/ideological statements, but according to a “clear process” that hasn’t yet been developed. In other words, the President of UIUC can say what he wants about politics or social issues and so on. So can other officials like deans and provosts.

It’s similar at the University of California, which has these rules:

The University of California’s Academic Council, part of the system’s Academic Senate, also approved new recommendations for departmental statements in May. Drafted by the University Committee on Academic Freedom, these recommendations say that:

  • Departments should develop clear but flexible standards for developing and issuing statements on controversial topics.
  • Departments “should be transparent about who is included when the department speaks as a department” and whenever possible vote anonymously to “minimize chilling effect or pressure on members of the department with minority views.”
  • All statements on controversial matters should explain the position taken and who is taking it.
  • Departments ideally should consult with their campus Committee on Academic Freedom prior to publishing a departmental statement on a controversial issue.

Brian Soucek, professor of law and Chancellor’s Fellow at UC Davis, and former chair of the systemwide academic freedom committee, said the points are “guidance, not regulations or mandates. The gist is that departments should develop procedures for how statements on controversial issues get made. They need to think about—and make clear in the statement—who those statements are speaking for. And they should include a disclaimer making clear that they are not speaking on behalf of the University of California.”

Again, there are no prohibitions here, merely a recommendation for developing “clear but flexible standards for developing and issuing statements on controversial topics”, and it’s recommended that such statements should include who, exactly, stands behind them.

These schools are cowardly. Viewpoint neutrality, like freedom of speech, is a principle that has a clear purpose: fostering free expression. There is not much wiggle room here, and the University of Chicago has almost none (the University did support DACA because overturning it would mean that we’d lose some of our students). The reason schools are so timorous about implementing Kalven-like regulations is because departments and faculty INSIST on having their say, on University websites, about politics and ideology. They have a burning, aching need to parade their virtue and weigh in on issues of the day.

Well, they can have their say on private websites, or in letters to the school newspaper, or in non-official statements.  Viewpoint neutrality of colleges remains, in my opinion, the best way to maintain freedom of speech at a university, as well as at many other institutions.

I’ll give one quote from our Kalven Report that I love:

5 thoughts on “On University administrators and departments making political, ideological, or moral statements

  1. It seems to me that public statement of a department, indicating who is in agreement, and, tacitly, who is not, is potentially a way to single out staff. It’s one reason open voting is considered to be intimidating.

  2. Harry Kalven was a professor of mine in the early ’60s. A great man. We lost a lot when he died much too soon.

  3. I believe there has been a trend to populate the upper-most reaches of administration with outside business leaders, rather than from academia. Although this can certainly be criticized, since they would tend to view higher education from the standpoint of a profit motive, perhaps they would be better placed to see the need for free speech when it comes to allowing differences in opinion from other directions rather than just from the left.

    1. My university last year created a new position for a vice president of equity & inclusion. We hired into that job an alum who was a business consultant. The new VP is highly credentialed (MBA from our university, PhD from a California online diploma mill) but has zero practical or business experience and has never run anything larger than a home office. But the person has pronouns in their bio, and is from the correct ethnic group and gender background. Given all that, and the “equity & inclusion” part of the job title, none of my colleagues expect the new VP to be a source of sober second thought about freedom of speech, although the new VP does seem to have lots of other good qualities and we hope for the best.

      Didn’t have to be that way either, which is the really sad part. Your model is quite a good one, and would work, but my university has embraced JEDI principles instead.

  4. I agree that the statements are weak. In both cases you examine, it seems that the administrations want to reserve to themselves the option to make ideological statements when they deem it necessary. They are loathe to issue any requirements at all (as is typical in academia) and, in particular, any requirements *that they themselves* must follow. They are also terrified that their faculty departments will rebel at being muzzled. They are afraid to go all the way.

    All that said, it is in my view a step in the right direction. It represents at a minimum the recognition that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. But they haven’t gotten as far as the U of C yet.

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