Places of higher education exist to serve as sanctuaries for the exchange of ideas. With diverse student populations, a plethora of ethnic backgrounds and a variety of lived experiences, college campuses are enriched by the students that inhabit them.
However, with substantially-sized student bodies, there will undoubtedly be a wide range of opinions regarding the highly contentious political and social issues of our time, with the Israel-Hamas war being one of them. This then presents the question of how higher institutions ought to react. When current events concern the students of these universities, are administrators obligated to issue a statement that demonstrates an ambiguously neutral stance, pacifying the anger of one half of the cohort while only enraging the other?
The Kalven Report, a document stipulating the University of Chicago’s role on institutional neutrality, arose as the creation of a committee by then-University President George Beadle. The purpose of the seven-person committee was to better understand how the University should approach “political and social action.” The committee’s efforts were prompted by the various protests over the social issues of the 1960s, including oppostion to the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.
Led by famous legal scholar Harry Kalven Jr., the committee published areport in November 1967 in which they firmly adopted a position of neutrality in order to best preserve the university’s goal of being a haven for “the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge.”
“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,” the Kalven committee expressed in their statement.
Furthermore, the committee asserted that “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.”
The underlying message of the statement is clear: adherence to institutional neutrality aids in promoting academic freedom; and academic freedom leads scholars in their pursuit of truth and knowledge.
The University of Chicago sees institutions of higher education as sanctuaries built for the exploration of thought by their scholars, not as entities necessarily worthy of their own opinion.
The report does touch on exceptions to its stance on neutrality with regard to certain circumstances, such as questions regarding university property, honors, membership in organizations, etc. However, these are decided on an individual basis and should be few and far between.
The committee concludes by emphasizing the vital role of preserving the mission of higher education, stressing that the University of Chicago should not play “the role of a second-rate political force or influence.”
In the wake of the conflicts concerning the Israel-Hamas war, questions over administrative response have been at the forefront of many conservations at universities and colleges nationwide. The types of responses issued have prompted acute scrutiny from various parties affiliated with the university (alumni, donors, faculty, students), whether it be for the timeliness in producing a statement, the target audience of the statement, select word choice, or the tone conveyed.
An article published by The Hill shoves the Kalven Report back into the spotlight amid the various struggles administrations are facing with the current social and political climate. Interestingly enough, the article discusses the influence of the Kalven Report when it was first published, revealing that while many universities did not formally adopt it, the report was used as an “orthodoxy” in higher education. The Hill even references Father Theodore Hesburgh, the former president of the University of Notre Dame, who in 2001 claimed that “the vast majority of Americans rarely hear college presidents comment on issues of national importance.”
The Washington Post’s Editorial Board recently published a piece arguing that universities need to revert back to this practice. “Silence is not necessarily complicity,” the Board claims. “Rather, it is a sound practice consistent with academia’s role in society, which is to foster open inquiry.”
The Heterodox Academy, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to viewpoint diversity, published an article discussing the advantages and disadvantages of adopting the Kalven Report. For the following reasons, they consider the adoption a worthwhile conversation:
- “Institutional neutrality” provides a gateway for scholarly exploration without fear of repercussions that do not align with university-taken positions.
- The adoption of the report ensures administrative statements are not wholly representative of the various faculty and staff they employ.
- Neutrality promotes the university as an institution dedicated to diversity of thought, gaining “credibility” as a “neutral host.”
- The adoption of the report advances bipartisan efforts on college campuses in an attempt to quell the hyperpolarization that currently exists.
- Refraining from taking a stance on the multitude of current societal issues ensures that exceptions to the policy come across as sincere and intentional, as continuous statements may appear “overdone.”
The Washington Post specifically addresses this concern, expressing that such continuous statements can lead to an “endless cycle unless colleges and universities decide to end it now.”
- Adherence to the report keeps the administration from overanalyzing the appropriate timeliness of publishing statements in order to satisfy the expectations of various parties.
While the above reasons provide evidence for the advantages of adoption of the statement, Heterodox Academy also discusses the possible concerns that administrators and student bodies may take with the implementation of the Kalven Report:
- Refraining from statements for neutrality is censorship.
- The Kalven Report is outdated, considering it was created in 1967.
- Universities should seek “not only knowledge, but also social justice.”
Austin Sarat’s opinion piece published by The Hill voices a similar perspective to that of the third concern. He believes that statements published by university presidents demonstrate that institutions serve more than one purpose, one not just of disseminating knowledge, but one where education is offered in “a community of care.” Sarat finds that these two purposes must be mutually exclusive, as universities are impeded from achieving their goal of intellectual advancement if their scholars are not provided the necessary care to combat “the trauma that the world inflicts on them almost daily.”
Sarat’s point raises the question of what administrators, faculty, staff, alumni and students believe the goal of the institutions to be. On a more personal note, his question should make us wonder what truly is the goal of the University of Virginia? In our vision statement, President Jim Ryan believes that UVA should “strive not simply to be great, but also to be good.”
To embody what it means to be great and good, does the mission of the university rest on either the pursuit of disseminating truth and knowledge, or does it rest in pursuing social justice?
Or, is it both?
The opinions expressed within this piece represent the views of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jefferson Independent.