Chronicle op-ed gives arguments for institutional neutrality

June 28, 2023 • 12:00 pm

If you’re an academic and your college or university has issued a ringing statement in favor of political, ideological or moral positions, that might make you feel good. But in the long run it’s bad, for taking institutional positions (as opposed to personal ones) acts to chill the speech of others.  As I’ve said many times, institutional neutrality is the position of the University of Chicago, codified in the 1967 Kalven Report. While some “stands” are allowed by the University and its units and departments, those are limited to positions that further the university’s educational mission. You can see, for example, a 2020 pro-DACA statement issued by our former provost, and its rationale as part of the University’s mission.  Of course, Chicago encourages its members to speak freely as individuals, but not as official units or representatives of the University. I can say what I want about Trump, but my department or the University cannot.

For decades, we were the only university in America that had this policy, but now we’re joined by an enlightened University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  That’s two—out of nearly 4,000 degree-granting institutions in America—and that’s pathetic. Schools just can’t restrain themselves from proclaiming their political and moral virtues, but it’s at the cost of stifling free speech. That’s the rationale for Kalven.  I’ll bet that if you’re at a “progressive” school like Berkeley, Oberlin, Harvard, or Smith, you’ll have seen these statements all over the place in the last five years.

This short op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education by David Bell, a history professor at Princeton, gives the arguments for institutional neutrality as they apply to colleges and universities. But the policy could usefully be applied in many institutions.

Here are the kinds of statements that universities and departments make:

The claims about moral obligation are eloquent, passionate, and heartfelt, and often invoke shameful aspects of a discipline’s political past. For instance, the “Statement on Anti-Racism” issued by the Princeton English department after the killing of George Floyd decried “literary study’s long history as a prop to the worst forces of imperialism and nationalism, and its role in underwriting crimes of slavery and discrimination.” The department of religious studies at the University of Iowa promised: “We will work to acknowledge and expose the racist histories of our discipline and of the religions that most of us have studied and taught.” A statement from the UC Berkeley School of Public Health lambasted the role of public-health professionals in promoting “slavery, Jim Crow, scientific racism, eugenics, and other structural atrocities.” Taking a slightly different tack, the department of classical studies at Boston University spoke to the present day, condemning “the appropriation of classical antiquity as a tool of white supremacy, nationalism, and gender or class-based discrimination.”

The supposed rationale and the problems it raises:

By invoking their discipline’s political histories and uses in this manner, the statements imply that taking a stance on current affairs constitutes a self-evident and morally necessary corrective, a form of reparation for past political sins. The statement by the Princeton English department, for instance, asserts that the discipline’s history “compels us … to actively dissociate literary studies from their colonial and racist uses.” But in taking this stance, the statements leap over several crucial questions. Why should academic units of a university, as opposed to individual scholars or disciplinary organizations, be making these pronouncements? What if certain members of the unit do not agree with them, or consider them factually flawed? What if they feel that their unit should be issuing statements about a different issue than the one chosen, or disagree about the language of the statement and the specific actions called for? What if something in the statement violates their moral convictions?

And why universities should NOT be making these statements. I’d think this would be self-evident, but it’s clearly not, because we have to keep making these point over and over again—even at Chicago!

The statements I have quoted mostly do not bear individual signatures and say nothing about the process by which they were produced. They generally use the first-person plural and leave the impression that they express unanimous, collective sentiments.

I am sure that in many cases they have indeed expressed unanimous viewpoints. But how can anyone be sure? Imagine a case in which a department chair and the most senior, influential, tenured professors all insist passionately that their department needs to issue a statement on a burning issue of the moment. How likely is it that a pre-tenure or non-tenure-track professor would dare to oppose them? We do not need advanced cultural theory to understand how intimidating it can be for an untenured instructor to speak out against powerful senior colleagues.

Public statements become still more problematic when they go beyond expressing a view on a current issue, and pledge members of the unit to engage in particular sorts of academic work — for instance, scholarship that exposes the racist histories of major religions, or classroom teaching that is explicitly antiracist. The Princeton English department, for instance, pledged to “strive for active antiracism in our classrooms and our scholarship as a means of raising awareness and changing consciousness.” To be sure, vulnerable junior scholars are always going to feel pressure to write and teach in ways that their senior colleagues approve of. But formal statements issued in the name of an entire department, program, or school increase this pressure. And while academic work itself may indeed always have potential political stakes, the choice of political stance says nothing about the quality of that work. Public statements that commit a unit’s members to do certain sorts of work blur this distinction. They can create the impression that the subject scholars choose to work on, and the stance they take on it, will matter as much as how well they do the work when it comes to promotion and tenure.

At the end Bell brings up Kalven again:

It may well be naïve to think that a university can ever be a wholly neutral space, and that it can maintain, as the Kalven Report put it, “an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.” It is not naïve, however, to recognize that universities host scholars with different, often conflicting beliefs, and that these differences need to be respected and protected. Allowing academic units to issue public statements on current affairs erodes that respect and those protections.

Is that so hard to realize? Or do people want universities in which everybody agrees on everything?  I’m baffled by the failure of fellow academics to see this simple point: you can make personal statements all you want, but official ones put a damper on the open discourse essential to a university.  Maybe I should put it in simple language by writing a children’s book: “The Little Professor’s Guide to Free Speech”.

Or, as Stanley Fish already wrote in a book for adults, “Save the world on your own time.”

5 thoughts on “Chronicle op-ed gives arguments for institutional neutrality

  1. It is mysterious that in 2020 no Genetics department, to my knowledge, tore its garments in apology for sharing two syllables and H.J. Muller with the dread “Eugenics”. [Of course, an article in Sci Am discussed on this site in effect advised us to do exactly that.] And even more inexplicably, not a single department of Marine Engineering issued a formal apology for the use of ships in the slave trade. Some disciplines seem so behind-the-times!

  2. Lately I’ve been trying to figure out why NHL hockey teams should or shouldn’t be allowed to make their players wear jerseys supporting Pride festivals. Some players (Russians particularly but also others) don’t support those festivals.

    Now sure, the Chicago Blackhawks are not a university, but it seems to me that a similar set of principles apply. Even if the team wants to take a position on a particular moral issue, I don’t think they should make their employees take the same position.

    1. Them going from “we just want to be married” to “you will wear our colors on your clothes or you’ll be fired!” has made me more sympathetic to slippery-slope arguments. Where will they go next?

  3. Or, perhaps, “The Guide to Free Speech for Small-minded Professors.”

    I am beginning to wonder whether some disciplines are intellectually exhausted and, not content to teach about [horror] the best of their traditions, the practitioners seek new monsters to slay and new “lenses” through which to view the world. It really is an adolescent culture in so many ways.

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