I’ve written in detail about one of the Foundational Principles of Free Expression of the University of Chicago, the one embodied in what we call the “Kalven Report“.
The principle of this report, as summarized yesterday by my Chicago colleague Brian Leiter, is that our University should take no official position on any ideological, moral, or political issue except for those issues that directly impinge on our academic mission. The principle grew out of calls from faculty and students for the University to take positions against Communism, against the Vietnam war, and other issues du jour. The principle is there to guarantee that nobody is cowed from speaking their minds by “official” university statements that might chill one’s speech.
In response to several of us seeking clarification, President Bob Zimmer clarified last October that the prohibition against taking such positions applies not just to the University administration, but to its units: departments, schools, and so on. Nevertheless, many departments and statements from administrators continue to blatantly violent this prohibition (see a list of violations here). For reasons beyond my ken, the administration has yet taken no action to remove these statements. That means that the Kalven Principles are unenforced, are eroding, and may disappear. And if they go, so goes academic freedom at our school. What a pity that would be, since freedom of speech and academic freedom are points the University makes to sell our school to prospective students. It would be a shame if students came here under false pretenses.
Brian’s nice post quotes the Kalven report, and I think all universities should adhere to these words. I’ve put the crucial bit in bold:
A university has a great and unique role to play in fostering the development of social and political values in a society. The role is defined by the distinctive mission of the university and defined too by the distinctive characteristics of the university as a community. It is a role for the long term.
The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge. Its domain of inquiry and scrutiny includes all aspects and all values of society. A university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices, and institutions. By design and by effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.
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. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. 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.
Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.
One school that has just adhered to this principle is University College London, which of course probably isn’t even aware of Chicago’s avowed policy. During the recent fights between Israel and Palestine, UCL’s Provost has rightly decried bigotry of students against each other, but refuses to take a stand on the matter of the war. Click on the screenshot to read Provost Michael Spence’s take:
What he should have said and did say:
The first question concerns why my message of earlier this week called out antisemitic activity when issues of prejudice remain a problem for so many in our community, not least our Palestinian students. The answer to that question is that we had had several incidents involving direct threats of serious physical violence against Jewish students. That was a situation to which the University needed urgently to respond, and for which there was no immediate parallel.
However, it goes without saying that the University takes every form of discrimination with the utmost seriousness. In the last few days, I have been made aware of reports of Islamophobia, of prejudice against Palestinian students, and of some feeling unsafe. I want to be clear again that we unreservedly condemn abuse, harassment or bullying directed at any member of our community. There can never be a justification for this behaviour, and we will take action where necessary.
That’s very good: internecine bigotry of one group of students against another affects the University’s mission and can be properly criticized.
But what makes Spence’s position almost unique is what he says about any University position about the war itself:
The second question that has been raised with me is whether the University should adopt an institutional stance in relation to the current situation. Given that so many of our staff and students feel deeply about the conflict in Israel/Palestine, and some have personal experience of its effects, I understand the desire that we should. But it is my strong conviction that to do so would be incompatible with the purpose of a university in a liberal democracy.
. . .It follows from this conception of the university, which I share, that it is not a participant in public debate, but a forum in which that debate takes place. While our staff and students should loudly argue for their conceptions of truth and value, the university, as an institution, should refrain from doing so lest it chill the exercise of the ethical individualism of its staff and students. This does not mean that we have no strongly held normative positions about our own collective life; we must, and we should, do so. But it does mean that the University, as an institution, ought not to become an advocate in public debate. I believe this to be the case even, perhaps especially, where a majority of UCL staff and students are of one mind on a given issue.
For this reason, I do not think it would be appropriate for UCL to comment on the rights and wrongs of the current conflict in Israel/Palestine. That is a task for our staff and students. It is the University’s role to ensure that we remain a community of respectful debate in which it is possible for them to do so. And on that front, I remain deeply committed.
This is pretty much UCL’s version of the Kalven Principles, and I believe wholeheartedly that Spence is right. I’d recommend reading the rest of Leiter’s take on how the University of Chicago has dealt with the Kalven Principles lately; it’s a short read and you can find it here. I am not aware of any school other than ours that has an official policy of not taking institutional positions on ideological, political or moral issues that don’t affect the mission of the University: to teach, to learn, and to learn to think. If you know of such schools, do let me know.