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The story is inspiring. It is also, unfortunately, untrue, more fairy tale than history. It is untrue in 2022, and it was untrue in 1967, when the Kalven Report at the University of Chicago — from which all of the quotations above were taken — was authored by seven men. That report, which has become a kind of sacred text within traditional academic circles, describes a particular form of idealized university that has never actually existed.
Any doubts about that fact should be erased by the following assertion in the report: “The sources of power of a great university should not be misconceived. Its prestige and influence are based on integrity and intellectual competence; they are not based on the circumstance that it may be wealthy, may have political contacts, and may have influential friends.” The fact that the most powerful and prestigious universities are also the most wealthy, with the most political contacts and the most influential friends, is, I suppose, a coincidence. And if the university is a community “only for the … purposes of teaching and research,” what are we to make of all those stadiums and fraternities?
The more closely one examines the history of the American university, the more clearly one sees that it has never been truly independent of political and social “fashions, passions, and pressures.” Rather, it has, like other institutions, been very much embedded in society, subject to and influenced by the same forces that shape society more broadly. Compared to other spaces and institutions, the university has indeed been a place of less political partisanship, more informed debate, and more thoughtful inquiry. But through both its actions and (maybe especially) its inactions, the university has also functioned as something other than — more complicated than — a disinterested community of scholars open to the widest possible range of viewpoints, though it has often done so in ways about which it is reluctant to speak.
In 1967, white Americans were more than twice as likely to be enrolled in any form of degree-granting postsecondary institution as were Black Americans, and men were nearly twice as likely to be enrolled as were women. How diverse, one wonders, were the viewpoints then represented at the University of Chicago? And how independent was that university — or other universities — from social and political forces?
Decades earlier, many of our most elite universities enacted admissions policies to limit the number of Jewish students. None made an openly anti-Semitic statement (at least in public); they simply did anti-Semitic things. Princeton’s quota for Jewish students in the 1930s was seemingly 200 (the quota for African American students prior to the end of World War II was zero). Some viewpoints were apparently less welcome than others.
Make no mistake: In deciding what voices to include and exclude, “the university” was very clearly taking a form of “collective action,” not by issuing presidential statements but, much more consequentially, by making real policy choices with real impact. It was not, as the Kalven Report suggests, simply fostering “discontent with the existing social arrangements,” but was in many ways choosing to accept and reinforce those arrangements. Its “obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints” had its limits, and those limits were very much in line with the prevailing views of the time.
Understanding this history is important at a moment when there is intensifying debate over whether the university should take particular stands on contested social and political issues, perhaps because nearly every social and political issue seems these days to be contested. Racism and xenophobia, climate change and voting rights, the future of democracy and the response to a pandemic: No day goes by without demands on some campus that the institution take a position and competing demands that taking a position is inconsistent with the role of the university.
No day goes by without demands on some campus that the institution take a position and competing demands that taking a position is inconsistent with the role of the university.
Some clarification of terms here might be helpful. When people speak about a university “taking a position” on social and political matters, they generally imagine a statement issued or other action taken by its president or, less frequently, its board of trustees. Occasionally they think about a change in policy or a vote of the faculty. Never do they imagine unanimity of opinion within that complex thing we call a university community, comprised of faculty and staff members, students and parents, alumni and donors. Such unanimity is neither possible nor desirable. I would invite those who believe that presidential statements stifle dissent or disagreement to spend some time perusing any college newspaper or the minutes of any faculty meeting. A stronger case could be made, I think, that presidential speech provokes more than it inhibits debate.
Clearly it is possible for the university to become too engaged with social and political matters and thereby to stray from its core purpose. It is also possible, however, to hide behind the guise of neutrality when the absence of action is in fact very clearly “a position.” Rather than framing this debate as a conflict between neutrality and its absence, which strikes me as an over-simplification, it seems more helpful to ask the following: Under what set of conditions should the university take a position on matters about which reasonable people might disagree, and in what manner should it express that position?
The answers to these questions are … murky. It appears to be widely acceptable for colleges and universities to express support — through public statements and amicus briefs — for affirmative action, a policy with obvious social and political implications about which plenty of reasonable people disagree. Yet when a committee at the University of Massachusetts at Boston drafted a mission statement that highlighted a commitment to antiracism, consternation and newspaper headlines ensued. Harvard and MIT successfully challenged one of the Trump administration’s many xenophobic policies in court, yet about a stream of other, similar policies, higher education was largely silent. The attempt to subvert a free and fair election? Attacks on science from a major political party? One can find a presidential statement here or there, but for the most part there is a commitment to “neutrality.” Are these actually issues about which reasonable people can disagree? And is the absence of engagement disinterested inquiry or a tacit acknowledgment some issues are either too politically risky or too unimportant to merit engagement?
And here, I think, is where things get tricky, and where some hard and fast allegiance to an idealized “neutrality” comes up against the varied ways in which a term like “educational mission” might reasonably be understood. The mission statement of Macalester College, where I served for 17 years as president, reads as follows: “Macalester is committed to being a pre-eminent liberal-arts college with an educational program known for its high standards for scholarship and its special emphasis on internationalism, multiculturalism, and service to society.” During those 17 years, I would have been happy to have someone define for me a clear distinction between external issues that “related directly” to that mission and those that did not.
No one did.
One response might have been to adopt the position described in the Kalven Report and to avoid entirely taking positions on “the issues of the day.” No position on affirmative action or on school shootings; none on the murder of George Floyd, which took place a few miles from the Macalester campus, or on the attempt to keep immigrants of Muslim faith out of the United States; none on the attempt to repeal DACA or the on the claim that there were “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville. About all of these matters there was heated disagreement beyond the confines of the campus.
Institutional silence on all or most of these matters strikes me as unacceptable: as something perilously close to the “lack of courage,” “indifference,” and “insensitivity” that are dismissed in the Kalven Report as possible reasons for the university’s neutrality. Each of these instances requires someone or some group to use their judgment and decide whether the external circumstances “relate directly” to the educational mission of the college or university. Sometimes the answer will be no, and sometimes yes; sometimes the appropriate response will be silence, and sometimes it will be speech or some other form of action that makes it clear that the institution is not neutral.
Sometimes the appropriate response will be silence, and sometimes it will be speech or some other form of action that makes it clear that the institution is not neutral.
It is unfortunately tempting to identify the rule guiding universities in these situations not as commitment to an educational mission but as the following: Disinterest is secondary to self-interest. Why affirmative action and not voting rights? Because the banning of affirmative action would not only turn many admissions practices upside down, it would create a good deal of legal exposure for colleges and universities. Why the ban on international students and not the broader ban on immigration from many countries where the majority of the population is nonwhite? Because many colleges and universities rely heavily on the tuition revenue from those international students.
The clearest way to demonstrate the falsity of this argument would be to take principled positions in cases where there is some risk involved and when it is not obviously conducive to the self-interest of the university. When President Michael Roth of Wesleyan University writes that higher education must defend voting rights or President Patricia McGuire of Trinity Washington University writes that higher education bears some of the blame for the events of January 6, each is understanding the mission of the university more broadly than did the authors of the Kalven Report and as including a commitment to equity and honesty. They are insisting that without such a commitment, there can be no true respect for “free inquiry and … a diversity of viewpoints” on a campus.
My guess is that there are members of the Wesleyan and Trinity Washington communities who disagree with both the particular views of these presidents and with their decision to take a position. And that’s OK, unless one believes that academic freedom ends at the door to the president’s office.
In the end this leaves us with a conclusion that might seem unsatisfying but at least has the virtue of being accurate: While the university generally refrains from taking a position on social and political issues, sometimes it does not; while the necessary condition for taking a position is relevance to the mission of the university, the nature and understanding of that mission will vary from institution to institution and from leader to leader. If one believes that the purpose of higher education is not limited to “teaching and research” but also includes preparation for “public participation in democracy and civic life” — a common though not universally held view — then the university must consider how and when, as in institution of great privilege and influence, it models that participation.
One last point: Bowen argued that institutional neutrality on outside issues helped “protect the internal academic freedom of the university from outside interference.” Perhaps this was true when he wrote those words in 1978. By 2022, that ship, as they say, has sailed, and outside interference is coming at the university from all directions, in a variety of ways from progressives and in very direct and aggressive ways from conservative legislatures that want to control everything from the curriculum to scientific research to tenure policies. The university might want to stay out of politics, but politics is coming for the university, and every leader, every institution will need to decide whether neutrality — in this deeply polarized time — is even a realistic choice.