Why universities should remain viewpoint neutral

June 16, 2023 • 12:16 pm

The Atlantic, which used to be pretty woke, is getting more and more sensible. The article below, which you can access for free by clicking on the screenshot (I also found it archived here), explains why universities and their departments should  should not make official pronouncements about morality, ideology, or politics. This has been one of the foundational principles of the University of Chicago since the famous Kalven report of 1967, but it was an informal practice well before that. I’ve written about it many times (see collection here).

And it’s been enforced, even in the last few years when deans and departments were falling all over themselves to issue statements of political fealty.  The administration made those statements disappear. In short, the reason why administrators, departments, and the University cannot take official stands on public issues is to keep speech free. If, say, a department takes a political stand on something like the perniciousness of Donald Trump (something I absolutely agree with), it might chill the speech of students, faculty (especially untenured ones) or other members of the university, people who don’t want to get demonized by disagreeing with what seem to be University-endorsed issues. Since official positions might change over time depending on the political climate and who runs the university and its departments, it’s best just to not make any statements “official”.

This policy should be enforced as widely as the Chicago Principles of Free Speech, which have now been adopted by over 80 colleges. But as far as I know, only one other school has formally adopted the principle of institutional neutrality: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Ceiling Cat bless them!).  There are some exceptions allowed for us: our university can take official stands when those stands are necessary to enforce our own goals and principles.  We endorsed DACA, for example, because it goes against policy to report students who came here illegally, and we also don’t want to lose the academic advantages that such students give us.

I should add that individual faculty are welcome to speak about anything on their own behalf, even using their title, so long as they make clear that they’re speaking for themselves. (It goes without saying that statements by top administrators like the President and Provost might blur the lines between public and private utterances, and so they generally keep mum.)

Now Robert P. George, a professor at Princeton, a legal scholar and philosopher, and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions (a conservative program) has written a piece in the Atlantic which explicitly explains and endorses Kalven:

Princeton itself sometimes violates the Kalven Principles, for they’re not official policy there.  Here’s an example, one that wouldn’t stand at the University of Chicago:

After the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization early last summer, Princeton University’s Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies issued a statement fiercely condemning the ruling. The director stated that the program stood “in solidarity” with the people whose rights had been allegedly stripped away by five conservative justices doing the “racist” and “sexist” bidding of the “Christian Right,” causing women to endure “forced pregnancies,” and waging an “unprecedented attack on democracy.”

It might have been unanimous, but it doesn’t matter, for it could chill the speech of any opponent who would join that department, or even the University. George gives an example of what would happen if conservatives or pro-lifers controlled a department.  (I fully agree with the statement above, but I would fight hard to keep it from becoming an official policy statement of my university.)

I am myself the director of an academic program at Princeton—the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. A majority of those associated with the Madison Program believe that elective abortion violates the rights of unborn children. So: Would it have been appropriate for the program to put out the following statement?

The James Madison Program of Princeton University applauds the Supreme Court of the United States for rectifying a long-standing constitutional and moral atrocity. The so-called constitutional right to abortion, which had been imposed on the nation by the Supreme Court nearly 50 years ago in Roe v. Wade, lacked any basis in the text, logic, structure, or original understanding of the Constitution of the United States. It was “an act of raw judicial power,” to quote Justice Byron White’s dissent in Roe, which deprived the American people of their right to work through constitutionally prescribed democratic procedures to protect innocent children in the womb from the lethal violence of abortion. The Supreme Court has, finally, relegated a tragic error to the ash heap of history alongside such similarly unjust and ignominious decisions as Dred Scott v. SanfordPlessy v. FergusonBuck v. Bell, and Korematsu v. U.S.

The Madison Program put out no such statement. Nor did I, as director, consider even for a moment issuing such a statement or asking my colleagues to do so. My understanding of what is proper was and is that, although I may certainly speak for myself, and identify myself as a Princeton faculty member while doing so, it would be wrong for me and my colleagues to identify the university or one of its units with a view of the rightness or wrongness of the Dobbs decision, or to make sweeping pronouncements on the justice or injustice of abortion.

George clearly realizes the reasons why such statements should be forbidden, and it’s beyond me why any public college or university that claims to promote free speech hasn’t adopted Kalven. (Religious schools, which require fealty to certain moral or religious views, might be exempted.)

A few more quotes from George, for I am weary with duck rescuing and have run out of steam:

No one in the university or any of its departments should be made to feel like an “insider” or “outsider” depending on his or her views about abortion or the moral status of unborn human life. No one should be counted as “orthodox” or “heretical” in the Madison Program or in any other department or program of the university for his or her views—whatever they happen to be. We are, after all, a university—an academic institution—not a political party, or a church, or the secular ideological equivalent of a church. And especially in a moment when American society is deeply polarized and people of different political perspectives are more likely to demonize than to engage one another, universities like Princeton must provide a model for a healthy community where people of different viewpoints can engage each other in a civil manner and coexist.

And then he quotes Kalven. I really think more people need to learn about this principle, for it really undergirds the principle of free expression by freeing people from the fear of punishment if they say “unapproved things”:

To my mind, the University of Chicago arrived at the right answer more than 50 years ago, when it adopted, in the midst of the Vietnam War controversy and other matters of contention, the report of a committee chaired by the law professor Harry Kalven. The Kalven Report committed the university and its various units to institutional neutrality on political questions, encapsulating its rationale in the helpful dictum: “The University is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.” The Kalven Report did not forbid faculty, students, or staff in their individual capacities from stating their opinions publicly, or even from identifying themselves by their academic titles and affiliations when doing so. It did, however, generally forbid anyone from committing the university or its departments and offices to particular points of view on controversial political questions.

The Kalven Report embodied a particular understanding of the role of the nonsectarian university and of the conditions required for it to play that role. The university and its departments serve the cause of truth-seeking by providing a forum for members of the community to have full, fair, and open debates on fundamental issues without any institutional influence. Political tribes or sects can form within the university and its departments, but no tribe or sect may take control and make itself, in effect, the established religion on campus.

It is also a strong argument against committing the university and its units to a particular position unless doing so is absolutely necessary. (That would be a rare occurrence, perhaps a state law forbidding universities from hiring people who hold certain views or banning, say, the promotion—or “teaching”—of certain ideas. It would not extend to such matters as the Israel-Palestine dispute; the Ukraine War; abortion; the death penalty; how a jury ought to decide, or ought to have decided, in a criminal or civil trial; marriage and sexual morality; fracking; or whether to defund the police, legalize drugs, move to a single-payer health-care system, or abolish the FBI, etc.—all issues on which departments at Princeton or other nonsectarian institutions have released statements in recent years.)

You get the point, and I guess The Atlantic does, too. If you are in any position to suggest that your university adopt a principle of institutional neutrality (with limited exceptions as outlined above), and you agree with the principle, don’t just sit there: suggest it to the Powers that Be!

Oh, and you might want to read Geof Stone‘s person story about Kalven when he dean at at our Law School, “Darfur and the Kalven Report: A Personal Journey.” (Geof later became Provost, but now is back at the Law School.)

5 thoughts on “Why universities should remain viewpoint neutral

  1. My public secular university is building a church. They’re calling it a First People’s House (not sure about the apostrophe). The administrator who made it happen has called it a “sacred learning space” where we expect a lot of sweetgrass and smudging and spiritualism.

  2. I have no special expertise in this or many of the subjects discussed here. I am, however, reasonably well educated, and have a lot of time to ruminate on these articles.
    Part of the ideology problem today seems to be that a great many people do not seem to believe in opinions at all. There is holy truth, or heresy.
    Just accepting that others might hold a different opinion because of differing experiences or lifestyle is a step many seem unwilling to accept.
    Probably because implicit in such a belief is the possibility that one might be wrong about something, in the sense that if you had more or different information about a subject, you might change your view on it.

  3. For those of us who have spent a lifetime acting on and voting for various propositions associated with the Left, the last decade in academia has been an embarrassment— and a stimulus to re-thinking. Despite the whinging by some about “corporatist” sway, reputable academic departments of music or anthropology or botany have never officially endorsed private capitalism, or officially denigrated alternative schemes. Nor have any ever imposed statements of fealty to Wall Street Journal doctrines as a condition for employment or promotion, but today many require DEI loyalty. And the current atmosphere of self-censorship in favor of Leftish clichés is more oppressive. if anything, than the different orthodoxies of the supposedly fearful, “McCarthyite” 1950s.

    This all flows from a nominally Leftist, “Progressive” monoculture that is far more pervasive in academia today than any “Conservative” consensus of the past, at least since the 1920s. The outcome is the MaoCarthyism of the last decade. Could it be that the character of life in East Germany under the Socialist Unity Party was simply the natural outcome of the ascendancy of clichés of the Left?

  4. Except that, as anyone following the Madison Program’s twitter feed knows, this claim of neutrality is entirely false. They routinely espouse explicitly far right, religious, Christofascist views. They’re also funded by dark money whose source they refuse to reveal.

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