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When the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal calls Sasse’s statement “a model of clarity” and National Review deems it “pretty much perfect in every way,” they mean to underscore the allegedly deficient words of other university leaders. Like elite Ivy Leaguers, they imply, we are moral idiots if we are unable to read the subtext justifying rape and baby-beheading in the statement released, for example, by Harvard’s President Claudine Gay on October 9 — the one where she says she is “heartbroken” by the “death and destruction unleashed by the attack by Hamas that targeted citizens in Israel.” The twisted logic whereby perfectly good statements like this get misread was mainstreamed when The New York Times ran an opinion piece titled “The Moral Deficiencies of a Liberal Education,” in which the University of Pennsylvania professor and vice provost Ezekiel J. Emanuel, purporting to speak on behalf of everyone working in higher education, references a pro-Palestinian student group’s statement attributing responsibility for the Hamas attacks to Israel and declares, “We have failed.”
What remedy is offered for the rapidly assembled consensus that higher education has failed? Should we replace seasoned educators with Republican politicians at the head of the nation’s universities? That’s what’s on offer in some states, certainly, but the less partisan and more reasonable answer coming into focus is deference to the seemingly unobjectionable Kalven Report, the University of Chicago’s recommendation that it remain neutral in political and social matters. Discussing the backlash to Gay’s October 9 statement, the Harvard professor Jeffrey Flier hopes “the events at Harvard will lead our new president to consider” adopting the principles of the Kalven Report. His is by no means the only voice choosing this moment of intense despair to urge institutions to officially sign on to the Kalven Report. Take the Washington Post opinion writer Jason Willick, who patronizes Jewish Americans upset at their alma maters for what they consider weak statements about Hamas’s attack by characterizing them as “trying to get a shrinking cut of the identity-politics spoils system.” Linking to FIRE’s statement on the virtues of the Kalven Report, Willick argues that “Jews would be better served by encouraging universities to remain neutral.”
First drafted in 1967 by a committee appointed by the University of Chicago’s president, the Kalven Report has been repeatedly invoked in the wake of the many university statements made in the summer and fall of 2020, after George Floyd’s murder. The report is seen as a kind of solution to what some perceive to be a problem of ever-proliferating statements. More recently, the journalist Bari Weiss condemned university administrations for being “so quick to offer statements on climate change and the war in Ukraine and Roe v. Wade” but extending only “silence or equivocation” in the face of Hamas’s attack. It is a little convenient, I think, to rattle off “climate change and the war in Ukraine and Roe v. Wade” and leave off the list those statements issued by universities in the summer and fall of 2020, during the period that was briefly referred to as our nation’s racial reckoning. Since then, a media ecosystem flush with libertarian and right-wing money has steadily transformed that short-lived reckoning into a referendum on the apparently sorry state of university campuses.
Please don’t get me wrong. I welcome calls for administrators to internalize elements of the Kalven Report. Institutional restraint is certainly a good rule of thumb. The country is best served when the people at the university’s helm remain steadfast in fostering an environment in which students enjoy free speech and faculty members offer their perspectives. It would be awfully nice, in fact, if that were what we were seeing: administrators restricting themselves to affirmations of faculty members’ and students’ expressive rights rather than using their platforms to condemn any who have offended powerful donors and alumni. In a recent piece, Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt and Johnny E. Williams ask, “Can we as faculty members speak about the ongoing Palestine-Israel conflict on our college and university campuses?” As some universities launch investigations into their faculty members’ speech, the answer is far from clear.
Still, institutional restraint is not the same thing as institutional neutrality, and, as The Chicago Maroon put it, the Kalven Report itself “is a discussion, not a law.” “The university has used the Kalven Report as a kind of shield,” says James Kalven, the son of Harry Kalven, after whom the report is named. “If it’s an absolute,” Kalven continues, “people just sort of apply it reflexively, thoughtlessly, and don’t really grapple, generation to generation, with the nature of the principle.” According to Sam Joyce, University of Chicago administrators are biased in their application of the report, “veer[ing] wildly between strict adherence and active disregard.” Joyce writes:
The University [of Chicago] was one of only a handful of universities to refuse to divest its endowment from companies doing business with apartheid South Africa. More recently, the University has cited the Kalven Report to justify its refusal to divest from the world’s largest fossil fuel companies. In one particularly extreme instance, the University even refused to divest from companies doing business in Darfur during the genocide in that region, over the objections of professor John Hope Franklin, one of the original authors of the report.
Joyce zeroes in on the issue of divestment, and there can be little question that a big part of the Kalven Report’s appeal for today’s administrators is its use against the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement.
One of the report’s least-persuasive arguments is that a university’s financial portfolio should be understood in light of its central premise, that universities forgo espousing any one position in order to act as big tents in which the multiple positions of faculty members exercising their academic freedom can compete. But, as the legal scholar Robert Post says in “The Kalven Report, Institutional Neutrality, and Academic Freedom,” “it is quite far-fetched to claim that a university’s financial strategy will in any way inhibit faculty research and teaching.”
Is strict adherence to a kind of both-sides “neutrality” what the nation needs from its institutions of higher education?
The report does not eschew all institutional positions on political and social questions. It does say that when “the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry” are under attack, administrators have an “obligation” to speak up. Yet is that not precisely the situation American higher education is in? Last year’s legislative attacks on higher education, destined to be renewed in future sessions, go to the heart of academic freedom. Past presidents of universities have spoken out in one voice, declaring that “enough is enough” — but only a few current presidents have had the courage to do so.
Is strict adherence to a kind of both-sides “neutrality” what the nation needs from its institutions of higher education? When faculty members with expertise in the relevant areas largely agree (say, about the effect of fossil fuels on climate change, the falsehood of election denial, the history of racism in America, the infringement on academic freedom by some state legislation, and so on), administrators need to be willing to back those faculty members and say so in the name of their institutions. For example, statements defending curricula incorporating critical race theory, and speaking up in broad terms for faculty members who teach critical race theory, would have been very welcome over the last few years. Many administrators hesitated, I understand, because they worried that a statement might further inflame state politicians, but the misinformation around critical race theory rose to a level of national attention that required authoritative statements of rebuttal from institutions of higher education.
When it comes to issues for which consensus among the relevant academic communities is much harder to find, restraint is warranted. The provision of context, though, is almost always desirable. In moments of distress, administrators can — and regularly do — offer expressions of compassion for affected communities while also recommending helpful primers on an issue, perhaps after consulting with faculty members working in the area. Of course, issuing any statement is never risk-free, but avoiding all risk by crying “neutrality” is like waving a white flag in the face of the forces of democratic erosion and rampant misinformation. After all, contrary to what Ben Sasse told Fox News, thoughtful context is not moral equivocation. It is what institutions of higher education are supremely well-suited to provide a citizenry in dire need of it.