Vanderbilt’s Chancellor sticks up for institutional neutrality

May 16, 2023 • 9:15 am

To me it makes eminent sense for a university to maintain a position of institutional neutrality—that is, to avoid taking public stands on moral, ideological, and political issues.  By taking such stands, the University, which is supposed to be a place where questioning and free speech are encouraged, chills the speech of its members. What graduate student or untenured faculty member would risk punishment by publicly taking issue with an official University position on, say, abortion, DEI, gun control, and the like? (Evidence of such punishments are widespread; I’ll mention a few below.) Official University statements serve to “chill speech”, which is inimical to the very purpose of a university.

In fact, up to now there were only two colleges in America that took an official position in favor of institutional neutrality. One was the University of Chicago, which has held that position since 1967, when the Kalven Report became policy. As I wrote two years ago:

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.)

The one exception for us is that official statements may be all right if they bear on the mission of the University of Chicago. So, for example, our University supported the DACA program because kicking out students whose parents arrived here illegally would be unfair to students already in college and also force the university to vet the immigration status of applicants. But these exceptions are rare.

I’ll give one quote from Kalven, my favorite bit:

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.

The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.

Can you seriously oppose those sentiments? If you do, then you see the University as a venue for taking sides in public debates at the expense of chilling the speech of its members.

I should add that nothing prohibits university members from taking personal stands on these issues; the statements just cannot carry any university imprimatur. (And because the university president’s stands may be conflated with “official stands,” it’s probably best for those at the top to keep their views to themselves.)

The second school that abides by Kalven, which recently adopted this policy, is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But now we apparently have a third school: Vanderbilt University. Its Chancellor, Daniel Diermeier, recently declared that his school would embrace a possibility of “principled neutrality”. This is described in the Wall Street Journal op-ed below by Lamar Alexander, former President of the University of Tennessee, U.S. Senator from the same state, and U.S. Secretary of Education.  Yes, it’s in the conservative op-ed section of the WSJ, but do you really expect to see a defense of institutional neutrality (ergo free speech) in the liberal mainstream media? Click to read:

(Diermeier had laid out the basis of his stand in a short Inside Higher Ed piece in 2022.)

In this case, Diermeier’s declaration was prompted by the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, which outraged many (including me). Urged by his faculty and students to officially weigh in opposing that decision, Diermeier refused, declaring his principle:

When the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, the University of California’s president denounced the decision as “antithetical” to UC’s values. Vanderbilt University’s new chancellor took a different approach. Daniel Diermeier, who was appointed in 2020, reaffirmed Vanderbilt’s commitment to “principled neutrality,” in which the college and its leadership refrain from taking positions on controversial issues that don’t directly relate to the function of the university.

If “principled neutrality” sounds anodyne, you haven’t been paying attention. Mr. Diermeier’s stand is boldly reassuring. That his policies are an exception among elite universities isn’t.

Even within Vanderbilt, Mr. Diermeier’s stance is under attack. “Many of us—faculty, students, staff and alumni—are ready for a divorce from the chancellor’s position,” Brian L. Heuser, a Vanderbilt professor, argued in an Inside Higher Ed column. Mr. Heuser wants the university to take a stand against the Tennessee Legislature’s votes on a variety of issues.

(I’ll deal with Heuser’s arguments in a moment.)

Diermeier’s stand arose from the same roots as Chicago’s: repeated demands that the University take stands on public issues. At the University of Chicago this began decades ago, when people demanded that our university take a stand against Communism and then the Red Scare. It refused, and likewise refused when asked to make statements opposing Vietnam, Darfur, and the like. From the WSJ:

Mr. Diermeier’s commitment—as well as the university’s embrace of free expression on campus—is a legacy from the time when I was a student at Vanderbilt. In the 1960s, the university was being pummeled from the left and right for hosting controversial speakers like Allen Ginsberg, Stokely Carmichael and Strom Thurmond. Chancellor Alexander Heard said at the time: “A university’s obligation is not to protect students from ideas, but rather expose them to ideas, to help make them capable of handling and, hopefully, having ideas.” Vanderbilt doesn’t take positions on abortion, guns or climate change, but it will ensure that on its campus you are free to state your position and hear others’ viewpoints.

That freedom is of course chilled when the powers that be have official stands that differ from your own. And so Diermeier embraced Kalven, though the Kalven Principle, sadly, isn’t mentioned in this op-ed:

Principled neutrality isn’t enough to prepare students to be good and thoughtful citizens. Too many are “taking cues from the polarized culture around them,” Mr. Diermeier says—they’re declaring that those with opposing views aren’t merely incorrect but immoral. Such “moral tribalism” and a culture of condemnation has severely impeded the free exchange of ideas that is higher education’s lifeblood.

Colleges today, Mr. Diermeier believes, must teach students how to debate constructively and “avoid the us-vs.-them dynamic that can lead to a breakdown in discourse.”

Did I mention that Diermeier was Provost of the University of Chicago for four years before he took the Chancellorship of Vanderbilt? I like to think that his ideas are drawn in part from the Kalven Principles that reign here.

Now the existence of a mere three colleges embracing institutional neutrality out of the 4,000 degree-granting colleges in America is a pathetic proportion: 0.075%. (In contrast, nearly 100 colleges have adopted a version of Chicago’s 2014 Principles of Free Expression). Other schools really must join Chicago, UNC, and Vanderbilt lest America’s universities change from institutions of learning, teaching, and discussion into instruments of social change. Make no mistake about it: this will happen until college administrators wise up and make free speech their most important guiding principle.

Finally, have a look at Deirmeier’s opponents, exemplified by Vanderbilt Professor Brian Heuser in his Inside Higher Ed piece, “A Critique of ‘Principled Neutrality‘.” Heuser insists that universities must take stands on political or ideological issues to stave off threats to the well being of American citizens:

Despite the chancellor’s insistence that “staying neutral requires courage,” many of our university stakeholders are experiencing significant fear as Nashville’s social conditions have deteriorated for women and members of our LGBTQIJewishBlack and immigrant communities. In this context, such neutrality is better understood as a toxic form of indifference to the lived realities of our citizens. We have also experienced horrific gun violence arriving on our doorstep, and our undergraduate students have taken the lead in defending our community’s safety. In this context, such neutrality is better understood as a brutal fear of governmental intrusion into our affairs.

Due in large part to our exceptional stock of human capital and economic impact, universities can be powerful—even profound—actors in the public discourse. But adeptly leveraging this potential requires transformational leadership, political acumen and a steadfast commitment to prioritizing the common good. Universities can—and often do—create significant social cohesion by using their knowledge capital to shape the public’s understanding of and commitment to inclusive causes. But this potential must also be activated by administrators who believe that it is worth their time and effort to engage with their larger communities on difficult issues.

[Note the woke Social Justice language: “toxic indifference”, “lived realities”, etc.]

The problem here, as you’ve probably seen, is that all the positions that Heuser thinks the university should take are liberal or leftist positions. I happen to agree with them, but that’s not the point. The point is one that Christopher Hitchens always made when opposing censorship: who decides which positions are the official and approved ones?  What if a Catholic chancellor decides to issue a statement opposing all abortions? That would be allowable if institutional neutrality weren’t in play. Or, what if a Southern university issues statements opposing gun control because it’s in America’s interests for its citizens to protect themselves?  As political and moral views change, so must the university’s “official” stands, and those who oppose them risk being punished. It’s better to avoid taking any official stands, allowing free speech to proliferate on campus. Colleges are not, as Kalven states (again), instruments of political change:

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.

No, a university is not a club, a trade association, or a lobby; neither is it a political party.

With respect to official positions quashing free speech, Heuser’s argument, I think, is dead wrong:

To be clear, the chancellor and I agree that universities require significant internal freedom—academic freedom—to enable the continuous free flow of ideas that leads to everything from drug discoveries to political revolutions. We also agree that universities have an obligation to safeguard the intellectual freedom of our stakeholders—especially when their views are offensive—so long as it is exercised in constructive and nonviolent ways. However, his assertion that advancing institutional positions on political and policy-making issues somehow undermines an institution’s commitment to free speech and open discourse is utterly wrong. To the contrary, it is impossible to guarantee the free exchange of ideas without first assuring the participants of those exchanges that their basic human rights will be protected and defended, internally and externally. Failing to publicly defend those rights permits faculty, students and staff to be interrogated (and marginalized) on the basis of their human identities, rather than on the merits of their ideas and scholarship. From this vantage, “principled neutrality” is intellectually unprincipled and incongruent with the tasks of assuring personal safety and equal opportunity for all members of our university community. It is best interpreted as a privileged position of political convenience rather than a requisite for rigorous intellectual engagement.

This is a “free speech but. . . ” argument.

Given the many examples of professors being deplatformed, sanctioned or even fired for taking positions against DEI and other university-approved positions, it’s risible that Heuser argues that free speech won’t be chilled by institutional non-neutrality. Has he heard of Joshua Katz’s firing at Princeton, or the three professors at Texas’s Collins College fired for making political statements? (Some of these statements, by the way, were from the Left, showing that “who makes the rules?” is the big objection to institutional non-neutrality.)


UPDATE: I’ve just found that Vanderbilt has published an official statement on Freedom of Expression that includes both free speech and “principled neutrality”.  Welcome to the trio of free-speech schools, and raspberries to Dr. Heuser.

12 thoughts on “Vanderbilt’s Chancellor sticks up for institutional neutrality

  1. Heartening news.

    My comment is on :

    ” “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.”
    No, a university is not a club, a trade association, or a lobby; neither is it a political party.”

    I’d add to the list of things it is not (a non-obviously important list!) :

    The United Nations
    The U.S. House of Representatives
    A vocational-technical trade school

    … those are valuable and important things. They also each are not universities.

    … why do we need to say these things? I don’t know. It seems silly, but it also seems to make sense.

    … and wow, the Kalven report used the word “diversity” before it became fashionable.

    [ thank you WordPress gremlins for the edit function ]

  2. Heuser seems to think that the university, that is, its administration plays a major role in shaping opinion in society at large regarding the important issues of the day. I don’t think this is true. Does a student at University X or the person on the street care what President Y of the university has to say on a given issue? I would like to see evidence if the answer to this question is Yes. For students, their views are more likely to be shaped by the opinions of their teachers, which, as I understand, is perfectly fine under the Kalven principles as long as it is clear that the teacher is speaking in an individual capacity and not for the institution. I think the general public couldn’t care less about what a university administrator has to say. Its views are shaped by the media, friends, churches, etc. Thus, Heuser’s statement that “universities can—and often do—create significant social cohesion by using their knowledge capital to shape the public’s understanding of and commitment to inclusive causes” strikes me as having little foundation in reality. Heuser’s article struck me as muddled – he seems confused between the role of a university administrator and faculty, the latter acting in an individual capacity.

    Institutional neutrality serves the purpose of fostering free speech. It allows for the presentation of opposing views. How many people’s minds are changed by hearing a viewpoint of which they do not initially like is questionable, but, nevertheless, the role of a university should at least allow people to be exposed to views that could make them uncomfortable.

    1. That’s a good insight. In places like Canada where universities do voice an official institutional viewpoint and impose discipline on faculty who stray too far from it, the goal seems not to influence society so much as to reassure activists that the university sympathizes with them, so please don’t vandalize our buildings or frighten away sensitive tuition-payers who might be harmed by having to face uncomfortable thoughts. The driver is mere parochial cowardice, not social leadership or influence over government policy.

      Ontario and Quebec have both passed laws requiring provincial universities—there are almost no private degree-granting institutions in Canada—to respect the Chicago Principles, although not Kalven-like viewpoint policies, but like so many things if it doesn’t come from within—if your heart’s not in it—the impact is modest. Canadian schools would also do an end-run around Kalven, were it imposed on them, by arguing as they do now that certain political positions regarding the operation of the Canadian state are so central to their academic mission of “who we are” that the Presidential pronouncements would be fully compliant.

  3. Well, three is better than one…or none. But, boy, it’s discouraging that so few universities recognize the importance of neutrality and that so many people oppose it.

  4. Professor Heuser believes the university’s function is to “shape the public’s understanding of and commitment to inclusive causes”. He would no doubt have felt right at home in Soviet universities, where the inclusive cause was the vanguard party’s monopoly of all power. That was Inclusive on everyone with a capital I, Or Else.

    We used to tell ourselves that this set-up under Communist parties did not provide adequate experimental testing of the ideas of the Left, because those various police states were not independent tests—they were all imposed by the USSR, so they were really only a single test. But since the USSR’s implosion, we’ve seen at least three fully independent tests of the Left’s tropism for dictatorship. One is exemplified by Venezuela under the Unified Socialist Party. The second by Nicaragua, under President-for-Life Ortega and his Sandinista Party. The third case, an extensive one, is exemplified by Prof. Heuser and his many academic colleagues who favor “commitment to Inclusive causes” Or Else, for everyone in academia.

    Of course, these tests don’t invalidate principles underlying the various programs within the Left. But they do at least suggest some caution, at least in respect to measures that
    lead toward uniformity—like sweeping institutional proclamations by universities.

  5. To the contrary, it is impossible to guarantee the free exchange of ideas without first assuring the participants of those exchanges that their basic human rights will be protected and defended, internally and externally.

    On the surface, this seems reasonable enough. If students are being tortured, killed, enslaved, or refused access to the law it would seem difficult for the university to give them an education.

    The problem, of course, is that some basic human rights, such as “equality,” are open to many interpretations as to the best way to get there. Heuser invokes images of danger and fear — as if the time to debate is passed — but, outside the circumstance of being in the midst of an actual war, this is too easy for either side to do. Witness the “Holocaust of the Unborn” as the counter to “women losing their bodily autonomy.” Neutrality is pretty much necessary if we’re thrashing this out.

  6. Thank you for this, Jerry. If speech is required to toe an official line, or if there’s even the slightest whiff of there being a line that it would be wise to pay attention to, it ain’t free speech or the free exchange of ideas. And if universities aren’t there for that, what on earth are they for?

  7. In general, I agree that institutional neutrality is the correct position for universities to take but there may be some issues where this is not possible. The question of whether an elite education should be available to all, irrespective of race, class, creed, etc is a political and moral question and whether an elite institution implements policies to broaden its intake or says ‘you can only come in if you get the grades and can pay the fees and nothing else matters’, it is taking a position. I don’t see a way round that. That should not, of course, mean that the university authorities should obstruct or limit the ability of its staff or students to express views either in support of or opposing the policies it has adopted.

    1. That’s what Jerry means when he describes Kalven as allowing institutional positions that bear directly on the university’s role. Someone has to pay the bills. If the university does it by obtaining donations and getting its staff to work for low salaries, then it can be free and non-selective. If it wants to be elite and draw students with money who come to make connections that will help them in business or politics, that allows a different financial and “moral” structure. But Kalven doesn’t prevent any of that. Kalven just means the university doesn’t take a position on, say, strip-mining for coal or free Medicare for all. The medical school could take a position on how Medicare funds post-graduate residency positions in hospitals because this would bear directly on its ability to educate its post-graduate students.

      1. Yes, apologies, I overlooked that sentence of Jerry’s. I am not sure that I agree that it is a particularly rare scenario, though, as my example bears on all universities and is perpetually on the political agenda. Your explanation on how Universities need to pay the bills was superfluous. I didn’t comment on what position universities should take and I am perfectly aware that different policies have different implications in terms of how they can be financed.

        1. But you did comment. You brought it up. You said that a university’s taking a moral position on how it ought to finance itself and select students could run afoul of Kalven neutrality principles. Not what particular position it took but the fact it took any position at all. My only point was that it has to decide on some set of policies in order to come into existence, I wasn’t mocking you.

Leave a Reply