Brian Leiter defends the Kalven Report

October 13, 2023 • 12:30 pm

Brian Leiter, a law school professor here and my partner in crime in finding Kalven Report violations, is touting Kalven’s Principle of institutional neutrality in this new letter from the Chronicles of Higher Education. Click to go to the site, but I’ve reproduced the letter below.  As instantiated several times this week, college administrators who try to make political or ideological statements not only chill speech by doing that, but also get themselves in trouble if they don’t phrase their ideological pronouncements exactly right. The several convoluted and controversial statements made by administrators trying to be on the right side of history just demonstrate more than ever why every college and university in America should adopt Kalven. (Only three have done so.)

As usual, Brian doesn’t pull any punches. It’s worth following his website, Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog.

To the Editor:

I find it baffling that anyone would want to hear from a college president or senior administrator about any domestic or international issue (“Here’s What Colleges Are, and Aren’t, Saying About the Israel-Hamas War,” The Chronicle, October 10). Administrators should be seen and not heard, unless they are speaking about college business. That is one of the ways in which the Kalven Report proposes to secure a wide open space for members of the college community to express their views, without fear that they are running afoul of institutional orthodoxy.

You again quote Brian Rosenberg, a visiting professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education and president emeritus of Macalester College, who claims that, “You cannot escape politics.” This statement doesn’t become less idiotic the more times it is quoted. If a college president remains silent about a political controversy and focuses on administering his or her college and its core functions of teaching and research, then he or she has indeed “escaped politics” in the only sense that matters in this context. If, instead, the president uses the bully pulpit to pontificate about politics, then he or she has injected politics and the pall of orthodoxy into the institution. That is exactly what the Kalven Report wants to avoid.

Brian Leiter
Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence
Director, Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values
University of Chicago

11 thoughts on “Brian Leiter defends the Kalven Report

  1. As I’ve opined about before, professional associations should also adopt a version of the Kalven Report. To paraphrase Prof. Leiter, professional associations should be seen and not heard, unless speaking about business germane to their missions.

  2. The aphorism “You can’t escape politics,” does not mean it’s impossible to remain silent on political matters. Of course you can keep your mouth shut. We all can. Most of us do. Most of the time. That’s not necessarily to our credit.

    “You can’t escape politics” means that silence is itself participation in politics as a tacit endorsement of the status quo. That’s fine if the status quo is morally tolerable. But what if it’s not?

    For example, in the last century many many college and university administrators remained quiet and “apolitical” on the practice and promotion of eugenics. For that they should be nothing but ashamed.

    I agree that, for the most part, administrators should let their communities take the lead on political speech. But there are times when silence is not ok. A blanket ban on participation in political speech is no better than a knee-jerk defense of Hamas by a left-wing student organization. These are difficult and complex issues. Above all, we should treat them as such.

    1. Perhaps some of those last century administrators would have spoken in favour of eugenics. Would that have been acceptable to you? Should it have been acceptable to their staff to have a powerful, senior official to present an official college opinion on their behalf, regardless of their individual thoughts?

      There’s nothing to stop administrators, as private individuals, from joining ad hoc organisations to fight for their preferred policies, so no, they don’t have to remain silent; but they can’t presume to speak for others without their consent.

      ‘[F]or the most part’ and ‘there are times’ are not very helpful criteria for determining which issues administrators, as officials, can and can’t address.

      1. Ummm. Supporting eugenics would be wrong just as being silent on eugenics would be wrong. I hope that clears it up.

        And no, I can’t give exact advice to cover exactly every situation a university administrator might encounter. That’s precisely the point and precisely why I think it’s a bad idea to dictate that an administrator should ALWAYS be silent on “political matters” (whatever those are).

        As I said, though, I do agree with the general principal.

        1. Actually it doesn’t clear it up and your example shows why the Kalven principle is so important.

          Why would a university president who is, say, a chemical engineer, or a professor of 18th-century English literature, be expected to know enough about eugenics to come out and speak knowledgeably for the entire university community of scholars that eugenics is wrong. At some point someone is going to ask him, if she dares, “When you said that, on behalf of us all, did you stop to think that mothers want to abort fetuses that carry a wide variety of genetic abnormalities, that they have amniocentesis and other investigations specifically to discover those defective fetuses? Are you saying that our medical school’s entire department of maternal-fetal medicine ought be cast out because it makes this service available? Or at least keep its mouth shut about what it is doing on pain of banishment?”

          I’m trying to think of the external circumstance that would prompt a university president to sit down at his keyboard and fire off a broadside on eugenics. Just because he felt like trashing eugenics that morning? Since he probably doesn’t write about eugenics every morning (being an engineer or English professor by training), does every day he doesn’t criticize it on behalf of the university count as being “silent” about it?

          Suppose the government proposed a law that would prohibit amniocentesis and all other forms of pre-natal diagnosis on the grounds that it smacked of eugenics. Because this could have a major impact on the operation of a unit of the university — the aforementioned maternal-fetal medicine service — the president then would be on solid ground to criticize the government’s plans. But he would have to express support for what the government was calling eugenics!

          The Kalven principle prevents him from sounding like an ignoramus who has to eat his words. University presidents should be grateful for it.

    2. This interpretation of the phrase is also implausible. Not speaking out about X is not an endorsement of X unless there is already an expectation that one should speak out. That is exactly what the Kalven Report removes from the table. Sometimes silence is just that silence: not taking any side.

    3. Eugenics is an inescapable subject! Due to the astonishing progress in genetics (embryo selection is already practiced by educated people), developed countries will soon be in a situation where almost every baby will have at least some genetic modifications and most congenital disabilities are preventable. I like academics like Singer who want to discuss this topics honestly. I recall how Dawkins got unfairly criticized for stating that is in principle entirely possible in humans.

    4. I disagree that silence equals tacit endorsement of the status quo. Since reading the Kelvin Report here on Jerry’s website, I’ve been forwarding copies of it to people wrestling with period we’re in where every damn institution.. be it a health care facility, a livrary, a university, a place of worship, you name it.. feels the need to take a stance on whatever is in the headlines.
      With respect to universities, specifically, the moment they state their position they go from being an institution of learning to one of indoctrination.
      By all means. Keep your mouth shut.

  3. It appears that Hamas intentionally murdered children. It has also promoted the view that “there are no civilians” in a “settler colony like Israel.”
    When members of a university community (e.g. student groups) extoll the actions of organizations like Hamas, for the university president to remain silent, as proposed in the Kalven Report, would seem to sow even more confusion.
    Am I misinterpreting Professor Leiter’s viewpoint?

    1. Yes I think you’ve misinterpreted his viewpoint. But it’s an important misunderstanding that is related to how our culture carries out discourse. In this climate, all individuals and orgs are assumed to have opinion, each issue has only two sides (one of which is right), and partisans on both sides deliberately choose to view silence as endorsement of the other (wrong) side. Silence on an issue is not taken as simply discretion. Instead partisans fill that gap by guesses or flimsy inferences about what the organization “really” supports. Fear of criticism from both sides leads to the kinds of vague equivocating that most university presidents have engaged in this week. Leiter is encouraging those presidents not to give in to that fear, and to say nothing on behalf of the institution and its members (but to speak out as individuals and citizens of course), because in most such situations it’s not possible to say anything without infringing on the rights of members who might disagree with the university’s official position.

  4. Correct. More universities need to adhere to the Kalven Report guidelines. Administrators will save themselves and their audiences a lot of grief. The Kalven Report guidelines *protect administrators* from being pressured to issue statements on subjects not in their areas of expertise. And, of course, they protect the pursuit of knowledge unencumbered by politics or ideology.

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