Open letter to America’s college trustees: Politicized institutional statements threaten campus discourse. You can fix it.
Students and faculty should be free to debate issues without the college’s thumb on the scale.
Academia’s response to the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel highlight the need for institutional neutrality: Colleges should be “the home and sponsor of critics” — not the critics themselves.
Join the movement at InstitutionalNeutrality.org.
WASHINGTON, Feb. 7, 2024 — In an open letter issued today, three organizations dedicated to defending free speech and open inquiry urged America’s trustees and regents to put neutrality above politicized institutional statements that threaten open debate on college campuses.
Rather than acting like sports announcers naming a winner while the race is ongoing, college and university leaders should focus on paving the way for open and robust debate. The letter from the Academic Freedom Alliance, Heterodox Academy, and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression calls on trustees nationwide to adopt policies on institutional neutrality before the next school year.
Colleges and universities are increasingly weighing in on social and political issues that don’t concern core academic matters or institutional operations — including abortion, race, climate change, and recently the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel. Such statements politicize debate and risk establishing an orthodoxy on campus, threatening the pursuit of knowledge for which higher education exists.
Even if some statements seem noncontroversial, issuing them creates an expectation that the college will weigh in on all social and political issues — at which point even a college’s silence makes a statement.
Trustees hold the ultimate authority to ensure colleges focus on truth-seeking, not truth-dictating. And as students and faculty grapple with important political and social issues, they should have the widest latitude to think the unthinkable and question the unquestionable — without the administrators assuming a monopoly on the truth by predetermining the “right” responses to contentious issues.
“A top-down, father-knows-best mentality is absolutely no way to support the next generation of free thinkers. Students and faculty deserve the freedom to experiment with different perspectives and explore entirely new ways of thinking without the college claiming to have done all the thinking for them.”
— Greg Lukianoff, FIRE President and CEO
“American colleges and universities need to keep the pursuit of knowledge their principal mission. A public pledge by the overseers of colleges and universities that their schools will take no stance on the controversies of the day will also go a long way to restoring public confidence in the integrity of higher education.”
— Lucas Morel, Chair of the Academic Committee of the AFA
“Colleges and universities should be extraordinary places for the pursuit of knowledge. By adopting neutrality, university leaders empower students and professors to debate tough questions for themselves, allowing them to express heterodox opinions and consider unsettling data, without fear of being silenced or punished.”
— John Tomasi, President of Heterodox Academy
The letter highlights the wisdom of the University of Chicago’s “Kalven Report,” crafted in response to campus protest, generational upheaval, and civil unrest of the 1960s. The faculty committee members creating the report considered how a university should respond to the burning political and social issues of the hour. What should a university say or do when people of all political stripes demand that it choose sides and take action?
The committee’s answer was simple: The university must remain neutral.
Stay involved — sign up at InstitutionalNeutrality.org.
The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) is a diverse alliance of college and university faculty members who are dedicated to upholding the principles of academic freedom and professorial free speech. These principles are central to the mission of our institutions of higher education for the pursuit of truth and knowledge. The AFA is committed to defending universal principles of academic freedom and will come to the assistance of professors regardless of their individual views. As always, the AFA is not concerned with the substance or merits of a professor’s ideas but with the principle that universities should be places that tolerate controversial ideas and allow free inquiry and debate, not public opinion or political pressure, to separate error from truth.
Heterodox Academy (HxA) is a nonpartisan membership organization of thousands of faculty, staff, and students committed to advancing the principles of open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement to improve higher education and academic research.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE educates Americans about the importance of these inalienable rights, promotes a culture of respect for these rights, and provides the means to preserve them.
Alex Griswold, Communications Campaign Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
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