Four Northwestern University profs endorse adoption of Kalven Principle

October 23, 2023 • 9:20 am

As regular readers here know, since 1967 the University of Chicago has had a policy of institutional neutrality, a policy embodied in our Kalven Report. This report forbids the University from making official pronouncements on any political, ideological, or moral issues, with the few exceptions being those issues that directly affect the workings of the University.  So, for example, our school issued no statements about Vietnam, Dafur, anti-communist pronouncements during the Red Scare, the murder of George Floyd, and, lately, the butchery of Israelis by Hamas. (Individuals, of course, are urged to make their views known so long as they’re not made in the name of the University.)

You can see the University of Chicago’s restrained statement on the Hamas attack here, published October 9.  It takes no sides, condemns nobody, and simply says, in effect, “There’s violence in Israel and Gaza; people are upset; the U.S. has issued a travel advisory; and here’s a list of resources for students who need help with this.”

Unlike Harvard, Cornell, and many other schools, we did not get involved in”officially” judging the conflict, for that would chill speech since people have diverse opinions ab0ut what happened. (Yes, there are those who think the Israelis who were killed had it coming!)  The result is that we did not, as Harvard’s President did, have to keep modifying our administration’s view of the attack because the faculty and society weren’t satisfied with our response.  Ergo we lost no donors, unlike other schools like Penn and Harvard.

What I am trying to say is not that people should have personal opinions on the matter, but that their views should not be expressed as official policy, either though university administrations or departments themselves.  Since only two other schools had a Kalven policy, and universities like Harvard had a history of issuing political statements, those schools would be remiss for not condemniong Hamas for its butchery.  The President of Williams College, for example, waffled, suggesting that maybe her school should also become institutionally neutral. But a sudden change of mind by the President about this, right when the school should normally have been condemning the slaughter of Jews, would look very bad.

The best policy, then is for schools to adopt, through the administration and faculty, a rule of institutional neutrality, and not just disgorge it suddenly when  a college would normally be expected condemn something ideologically unpalatable to the “progressive” Left.

But in the past 55 years, the University of Chicago has been the only school to have such a policy. In the last two years, though, we were joined by the University of North Carolna at Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt University.  Given that there are 3,982 universities in America, only 0.07% of them have policies of institutional neutrality. In contrast, FIRE reports that over 100 universities (2.5%) have adopted another of our “foundational principles”: the Chicago Statement on free speech—the most liberal speech policy among all schools.

Given university-president waffling, social-media criticism, and disappearance of donors in the last two weeks, I think schools should realize it’s time (and appropriate) to join the other three schools that have adopted the Kalven Principles.

Here’s an article from Heterodox STEM signed by four professors at Northwestern University right outside Chicago, urging their school to adopt Kalven. I’ll give an excerpt and show the signers (they are not anonymous). Click on the screenshot to read the whole thing:

This letter comes on the heels of a personal statement issued by Northwestern’s President Michael Shill condemning Hamas for the attack.  Since the statement was not “official”, it would be okay under Kalven. However, I still think it unwise for higher-ups at Universities to take public stands on social media, as this too could impede free speech at their schools. (I understand that college administrators may want to make such unofficial statements, and they’re perfectly entitled to do so, even under Kalven, but I think it’s best to refrain.)

At any rate, given that context, here is an excerpt from the professors’ letter and the names of the four signers.  I’ve put the last paragraph in bold because it shows what happens when schools try to get involved in politics or flaunt their virtue. It’s invariably a mess, and it impedes discussion. The penultimate paragraph shows how President Schill was influenced by our Kalven Principles.

. . . . we also agree with President Schill’s decision not to speak for Northwestern University on this grave political matter. This has nothing to do with the present context. If moral clarity were sufficient justification for official pronouncements, it is difficult to imagine a clearer case.

Rather, it is time that university presidents, provosts, deans, and chairs recognize that they should not speak for their students and faculty. As President Schill eloquently observed: “We are a University which celebrates free expression, diversity of people and diversity of viewpoints. This is essential to our role in society. The University does not speak for our faculty, students and staff on these matters — they have their own voices, and I would venture to say, there are no doubt differences among our students and faculty on what Hamas did and how Israel is responding. For me to speak for them displaces their own freedom to speak.”

President Schill admits that he has been influenced by the University of Chicago, where he was Dean of the Law School. Specifically, his position is that recommended by the Kalven Report published there in 1967, during a period of considerable national upheaval. The Kalven Report is stirring and wise and should be read completely. It includes the following propositions: The university’s mission is the “discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge.” “A university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices, and institutions.” “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.” That is, faculty and students are allowed and expected to engage in intense debate among themselves. The university should facilitate this but should not take sides: “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.” The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (formerly Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) has recently endorsed the Kalven report.

Our agreement with the Kalven Report reflects not only intellectual appreciation, but bitter experience. Our previous President believed it was his duty to pronounce, widely and frequently, on issues of the day. He did this even when he had no plausible expertise on relevant matters. The summer of 2020, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, saw a seemingly never-ending flood of missives from the President, the Provost, deans, chairs, and other administrators, about police violence and racial politics. These statements were invariably unscholarly, and they were often factually inaccurate. Importantly, they discouraged rigorous discussion and debate in favor of shallow emoting. They were bad for the Northwestern intellectual community, even if many in our community wanted them. We deeply resented administrators making these statements on our behalf and know plenty of others who felt similarly. We are relieved by President Schill’s intention to abstain from this practice and hope that Northwestern can recover some of the intellectual vibrancy it has lost during recent years.


J. Michael Bailey (Department of Psychology)

Thomas J. Meade (Department of Chemistry)

Richard B. Silverman (Department of Chemistry)

Leif Rasmussen (Department of Computer Science)

Kudos to these four professors! Now that Northwestern’s President has also endorsed Kalven, the school should start the process of becoming institutionally neutral on political issues of the day. That would, I suppose, involve cooperation of the faculty, administration, and trustees. I’m sure the donors would support this, too!

4 thoughts on “Four Northwestern University profs endorse adoption of Kalven Principle

  1. This is obviously a good thing. But making politically tinted or biased _pronouncements_ is not nearly as bad as overtly political _actions_, especially if they reflect political extremism of any kind. In the context of academia today, this is clearly the wokefication of universities, professional societies, journals, etc., including politically mandated purity tests, preferential hiring, admissions, compelled speech, publications or censoring, etc. Yes, I agree that a right-wing equivalent would be just as bad or maybe even worse, but that is not the situation we are in; the totalitarian left is our actual problem.

    Just like with free speech, individuals can choose their ideological poison, if any, and advocate for policies or ideas they like no matter how detached from reality they may be, but do so as _individuals_. But when institutions, especially those ostensibly in the business of creating and disseminating knowledge, start acting that way, society is in real trouble.

    So maybe we need Kalven principles for the actions, not just words.

  2. Good.

    As I’ve mentioned before, adopting the principles espoused in the Kalven Report not only benefits scholarship and free speech. It also benefits the administrators themselves, giving them cover so that they cannot be pressured to issue position statements on subjects for which they are not qualified. One would think that everyone would find the Kalven principles helpful and desirable. What would be the downside?

  3. “The university’s mission is the “discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge.” ” Do they mean to say that the university’s mission is not spreading Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging, and Critical Social Justice into every corner and crevice of academic life? Surely the DEI Committees can be trusted to call the four Northwestern professors in for a little chat—and then launch an investigation of them all.

  4. It’s maybe significant that the four brave signers are professors of serious scientific subjects. One wonders if there will be a pushback from faculty in what are basically non-subjects included within the social studies sector.

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