“Silence is the best policy”: The Washington Post endorses institutional neutrality for universities

November 13, 2023 • 11:15 am

How many times on this site have I urged colleges and universities (and other institutions, too) to adopt one of the University of Chicago’s foundational principles, the Kalven Report? You can find the original Report here, and this is what the University says about it now:

The Kalven Committee was appointed in February 1967 by President George W. Beadle. This faculty committee was charged with preparing “a statement on the University’s role in political and social action.” The resulting Kalven Report now stands as one of the most important policy documents at the University of Chicago. It affirms the University’s commitment to the academic freedom of faculty and students in the face of suppression from internal and/or external entities while also insisting on institutional neutrality on political and social issues.

In short, the University can make no official pronouncements on political, moral, or ideological issues unless those issues directly affect the workings of the University.  No statements passing judgement the killing of George Floyd, the shootings of Kyle Rittenhouse, the Vietnam War and, of course, about the Israel/Hamas war. (See the University’s short and neutral statement on the war here.) Now occasional administrators have slipped up over the years and issued statements in violation of Kalven, but a whole bunch of faculty now stand poised to quash them, regardless of whether they agree with the statements or not. For example, I would fight the adoption of a University statement saying that Donald Trump is a danger to America, even though I think he is.

The reason for Kalven is to preserve another foundational principle we have: our Report on Free Expression, which ensures that freedom of speech, strictly along First Amendment lines, is preserved. If, say, your department head speaks out in favor of Hamas’s actions in the current conflict, the speech of other faculty and students might be chilled, for you risk being penalized by bucking the Powers That Be. You might anger a professor who has power over you, or have trouble at tenure time.

Kalven has worked very well, for it doesn’t put the University in a bind when there are difficult political or ethical issues that arise.  We didn’t get into the pickle that Harvard and Penn did, for example, by not denouncing Hamas sufficiently strongly.  We therefore lost no donors, as did those two schools, for we weren’t expected to hew to any line.. The University leaves it up to the faculty and students to develop and promulgate their own personal opinions without being afraid of contradicting some “official” statement

I hope I’ve played some role in spreading the Kalven doctrine over the years, as it’s simply sensible. And if you value freedom of speech, one of the highest values of a university, you have to have something like Kalven.  So far only three schools do: my own, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and one other I’ve forgotten. Other schools, like Williams College and Harvard, have made noises that maybe they should adopt a Kalven-ish principle, but so far they haven’t. (Over 100 schools, though, have adopted a free-speech principle based on Chicago’s.)

Now the Washington Post has an op-ed, written by the entire editorial board, which not only mentions Kalven, but endorses it for universities. And they’re RIGHT!

Click headline to read. If you don’t subscribe and are paywalled, you may find it archived somewhere but I can’t point out where from France. I can just give a few quotes from the op-ed:

The piece begins by noting the two-step shuffle colleges did about the Hamas attack, and how that led to “donor boycotts” and repeated revisions of official college pronouncements—three revisions in the case of Harvard!

The solution:  Kalven!

This can turn into an endless cycle unless colleges and universities decide to end it now. Higher education needs to find its way back to a place where institutions do not weigh in, as institutions, on the controversies of the day. Silence is not necessarily complicity. Rather, it is a sound practice consistent with academia’s role in society, which is to foster open inquiry.

study in 2021 by the professional association for student affairs administrators found that 230 of 300 institutions of higher education surveyed issued statements in the two weeks after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. More than half addressed broader debates around institutional and structural racism. Harvard University not only issued such a statement but also flew the Ukrainian flag over Harvard Yard after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Then-President Lawrence S. Bacow declared, “Harvard University stands with the people of Ukraine.” The University of California system’s president called the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade “antithetical to the University of California’s mission and values.”

When a university starts proclaiming that it has a mission or values beyond advancing teaching, learning, and research, or says that it has “university values” beyond the values I’ve just named, you know it’s in trouble, and needs a shot of Kalven and multiple boosters.  “Preserving our values” is the phrase often used to make proclamations that chill speech.

More from the op-ed:

We support abortion rights, condemned the invasion of Ukraine and decried Floyd’s murder. We of course condemn Hamas’s massacre. The problem with official university statements is that, however valid and well-intentioned, they imply there is an orthodox view of those matters — and related policy issues — within a particular school. This can deter debate and set off competition for a university’s moral imprimatur, as we are seeing now.

Universities need to recommit to the principles in the University of Chicago’s Kalven report of 1967. Drafted during a similar period of conflict and upheaval, the report says: “The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. … It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.” When a university takes a “collective position,” it says, this inhibits the “full freedom of dissent on which [the university] thrives.” After Oct. 7, the University of Chicago adhered to the Kalven principles. Its president, Paul Alivisatos, did not speak out on the Hamas attacks or the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Two university leaders sent a generic message to students, notifying them of relevant travel advisories and pointing them toward the university’s support services.

See above for our statement, which says in effect that “there’s a war on, it has upset many people, and if you need help about that, here are our resources.” That’s all she wrote, and all she needs to write.

All rules have exceptions, and the Kalven principles are, well, no exception. Religious schools such as Catholic University, Yeshiva University or Zaytuna College may choose to take stands consistent with their founding doctrinal commitments. The Kalven principles allow universities to weigh in on issues that “threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry.” The best interpretation of this exception would confine it strictly to policy questions touching on academic freedom, though admittedly there are gray areas. Racial diversity in admissions is an issue of both social justice and academic practice, about which several institutions weighed in after the Supreme Court ruled against race-conscious admissions.

And the op-ed has a great ending:

However, for secular institutions committed to unfettered and contentious speech, silence is the best policy. Paradoxically, nonintervention by university leaders can empower students and faculty members to speak their minds and register dissent from the prevailing wisdom. When administrators take sides, they are sending a message to students and professors that there is a right way to think. The role of colleges and universities is not to tell students what to think, much less what the administration thinks. It is to teach students how to think.

I couldn’t have written it any better, but Kalven & Co. did, and you’d be well advised to read the short original report.

14 thoughts on ““Silence is the best policy”: The Washington Post endorses institutional neutrality for universities

  1. “When a university starts proclaiming that it has a mission or values beyond advancing teaching, learning, and research,…” But, of course, nearly every academic institution has
    made precisely this proclamation: the mission and values of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion sometimes augmented by Belonging or other equally mysterious ingredients. These sacred missions, values, and ingredients were found in a sudden burst of discovery, 6-8 years ago, that swept through academia in exactly the same way that pop-music crazes sweep through less exalted precincts.

    Incidentally, we can probably count on Harvard to resist any trend toward adoption of the Kalven principle of institutional neutrality. If it adopted Kalven, that would undermine Harvard’s truly unique position in the FIRE free speech rankings.

  2. Well done!

    Recently, a unit at the University of Washington sent an awful e-mail to its constituents, citing alignment with Hamas’s “fight for freedom.” You can read a brief report here: https://mynorthwest.com/3937227/rantz-uw-inclusion-staff-shockingly-anti-semitic-email-students/. Apparently, the mail was against university policy and the perpetrators at the College of Education will be disciplined in some way. (I don’t have the original mail, nor am I aware of any follow-up.)

    This was my opportunity to put in a call for adopting the Kalven Report. My mail to the President of the university started by asking whether she really wanted to be known for this (which I won’t include here). But I did include the following paragraph:

    “Incidentally, the University would do well by implementing the principles described in the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report (https://provost.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/documents/reports/KalvenRprt_0.pdf). Not only would adhering to these principles prevent the sort of debacle described in the MyNorthwest.com article, but it would also give you the cover to not feel compelled to take positions on controversial events in the news. This is particularly true here, where the letter writers seem not to be able to tell the difference between right and wrong.”

    Trying to do my part as well.

  3. It might also be noted for those unfamiliar, that George Beadle was a (corn) geneticist and Nobel Laureate.

    (Sidebar: I don’t think that many Nobel Laureates have gone on to become university presidents.)

    (And as a further digression from Nobel Laureates, I just learned last night that Thos Hunt Morgan’s daughter Isabel was probably two yrs ahead of Jonas Salk in 1949, when she gave up science to get married, and quit polio research over qualms with testing on children.)

  4. I guess this is positive fallout from the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Numerous colleges and universities had painted themselves into a corner over the years by issuing political statements and positions on a variety of topics. This topic finally made it clear to them what’s wrong with that.

  5. That’s a good op-ed from the WaPo – an archived copy is here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/11/10/campus-israel-gaza-free-speech/

    I mentioned recently that the London School of Economics has adopted a Kalven-style policy, but I couldn’t find anything explicitly saying it applies at the departmental level. (Which is arguably the most important level, since it is the one at which dissension from the dominant view might most easily be perceived and pressure applied accordingly.) I’m told that the School’s policy does indeed cover departments, although I suspect it will need to be assiduously monitored to ensure compliance by ideologically zealous departments such as the Department of Gender Studies, which I know has form in this area.

  6. I think it’s very dangerous to allow the administration to silence faculty departments. There’s nothing in the Kalven Report that says it should apply to faculty rather than solely to the central administration, since its purpose is to protect faculty speech. And it’s important to note that the Kalven Report is meant as a moral guide, not as an absolute rule that prohibits any statements. So if it applies to faculty, it should only be as a guide, not as a prohibition enforced by others.

    It is terrible that WaPo offers the usual God exception for religious colleges to have lower moral standards than other private colleges. And I do find it ironic that an editorial board devoted to making statements for a media institution is opposed to institutional statements. If universities shouldn’t have an official voice, why should newspapers?

    1. Phrases like “I do find it ironic” are so often part of a non sequitur.

      There’s nothing ironic about this. IDK what you mean by “silence faculty departments.” Nobody is silencing individual faculty members. You’re misrepresenting what Kalven does and doesn’t prohibit. Read the report.

      The whole point of Kalven is to ensure that individual faculty members can say what they think and follow their heart or their conscience without having to risk disagreeing with an official institutional view or statement or stance.

      But “the department” just like senior administrators acting in their role as such should not issue collective statements on behalf of all department members as if every one of them agrees with the stated view. As the report says, “The university…is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby”, and it’s not a union hall where members can be intimidated into agreeing to go along to avoid professional sanctions.

    2. Individual faculty members can speak freely. But departments should not be issuing statements on behalf of the collective. One reason is that there are untenured professors in most departments. If a department chair issues a statement on behalf of the department, the chair is effectively telling the world what the department’s position is on X. But if untenured faculty members do not agree with X, those professors will remain silent. Junior professors will not dare disagree publicly with the position of their department lest they risk being granted tenure. Those junior professors are effectively silenced.

      1. Norm– Your meaning is perfectly clear, but I was amused by thinking of “lest they risk being granted tenure” as saying the punishment for disagreeing is getting tenure– doomed to a career in an awful department! 😉


        1. Hi Greg. Yes, I mean that speaking out against the boss can hurt your chances for tenure. But as you amusingly point out, there is that other meaning of being assigned golden handcuffs and not being able to move! 🙂

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