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DALL E 2024 01 16 12 08 32 An image of a university building with chains draped over it symbolizing constraints or restrictions The building should be in a Gothic architectura
January 18, 2024+Adam Gjesdal
+Institutional Neutrality+Campus Policy+Campus Climate

Obstacles to Adopting Institutional Neutrality

The Kalven Report defends principles of institutional neutrality, requiring university leaders to remain silent on social and political issues of the day, except insofar as those issues directly impact the university’s interests. Some university leaders, such as at Northwestern and Vanderbilt, have expressed support for these principles in the aftermath of Hamas’ massacre of Israeli civilians on October 7, with Williams College’s president and the Utah Board of Higher Education formally adopting a policy of neutrality. Mostly, though, critics see this discussion as a hypocritical, self-interested appeal to principles that are temporarily proving convenient to university presidents. FIRE president Greg Lukianoff speculates any shifts toward neutrality will be short-lived, and that within a few months universities will be backing away from it.

I think this cynical view oversimplifies the choices university leaders confront by treating strategic opportunism as their dominant consideration. It ignores important moral considerations that prevent universities from transitioning to a long-term policy of institutional neutrality.

University leaders — presidents, deans, and provosts — have fiduciary duties to advance their institutions’ interests. Sincere adoption of the Kalven principles, I will show, carries with it both costs and benefits for a university. The relative magnitudes of these costs and benefits are uncertain, making it unclear from a rational and moral standpoint what university leaders ought to do. My aim here is to show that university leaders who consider a policy of institutional neutrality confront a difficult dilemma with both reputational and moral stakes. Addressing the uncertainties they face may be the best way for advocates of neutrality to effect durable adoption of policies of institutional neutrality.

University leaders are currently beholden to a norm of issuing official statements on the social and political issues of the day. This norm has a compelling moral justification for it: As President Joe Biden put it in an October speech, “Silence is complicity.” The thought is that it is morally wrong for people in positions of power not to condemn injustice, and that it is even worse not to condemn injustice when one’s peers are doing so. Thus, organizational leaders in both the academy and private sectors face immense pressure from subordinates, financiers, and even their own consciences to speak out on social and political injustice. An organizational leader who does not use their position to speak out against injustice, the thought goes, is violating a moral obligation.

"Breaking with the norm now seems a moral impossibility."

Regardless of whether you accept this line of thought, it helps explain why the norm is self-reinforcing. Anyone who deviates from it is seen as complicit in evil: As John Huntsman said in regard to University of Pennsylvania’s early silence on the Gaza crisis, “Silence is antisemitism, and antisemitism is hate.” No university leader beholden to this norm wants to be alone in breaking from it —  it makes one a target of harsh moral criticism. Breaking with the norm now seems a moral impossibility. This is true even though the norm was voluntarily self-imposed, following years of university leaders issuing statements on various Supreme Court decisions, Black Lives Matter, the Trump presidency, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine

This norm creates a set of expectations for university leaders that are both individually and collectively harmful. As the crisis in Gaza makes clear, the norm is individually harmful because it demands issuing statements even when there are guaranteed severe costs to doing so. Many university statements on political matters do not excite much controversy on campus because those communities tend to be politically homogeneous. University faculty sharply skew liberal (here and here), and surveys from FIRE show that students on average tend to self-identify as liberal (48%) rather than conservative (19%). In this environment, a university president can confidently claim to “speak” for their community on a range of political issues and ignore the rare dissenting voice. The Israel/Gaza conflict is the exception that proves this rule because liberal sympathies are divided between the two sides. No matter how nuanced or carefully worded a statement on the conflict may be, it is bound to outrage some stakeholder group. As legal scholar Tom Ginsberg describes, several university presidents faced severe criticism for their statements on the conflict. Ensuing controversies led to two high-profile resignations: University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill and Harvard University president Claudine Gay. 

The norm may also bring with it collective costs for universities that individual institutions do not acutely feel but are still significant. Plausibly, the norm has contributed to the erosion of public trust in universities, which has seen a steady bipartisan decline over the past decade. Likely consequences of this decline include decreased enrollments and reduced state funding. Trust in American institutions has declined across the board, and the causes are complex. One likely contributor to the decline in trust in universities is adherence to the norm under discussion. When university presidents “speak” for their communities on political issues, they present their university to the public as having a political identity. Universities share an identity as institutions of higher learning that aim to discover and disseminate knowledge. There is evidence that as institutions become politicized, they lose the public’s trust, even among those aligned with the institution’s ideology. This loss of public trust is a collective bad that all university leaders should try to mitigate.

"No matter how nuanced or carefully worded a statement may be, it is bound to outrage some stakeholder group."

But neither of these harms gives university leaders decisive reason to break with the norm. The outcry over the statements concerning Gaza is an outlier: Most political statements do not excite much controversy in the university community. It may be that when the current crisis has passed, university leaders can comfortably return to taking positions on social and political issues of the day. Turning to declining trust, collective bads have collective causes. University leaders can only control their own institutions. If Harvard alone were to adopt institutional neutrality, that would be significant. But it may not be sufficient to stem the decline in trust while hundreds of other private and public universities continue presenting a politicized face to the public. The net harms of continued compliance with the norm, as well as the benefits of breaking with it, are all uncertain, making rational cost/benefit analysis difficult to perform.

So far, we have been considering the costs and benefits of breaking with the norm of always issuing statements on social and political issues. Why adopt the Kalven principles when breaking with this norm? I have claimed that the norm is self-reinforcing because defectors are called out as complicit in injustice. The Kalven principles, if sincerely endorsed, provide what all should recognize as a weighty moral response to this charge. A moral response is possible because moral obligations can conflict, one overriding the other. In the academic philosopher’s jargon, there can be “prima facie” obligations. I have a prima facie moral obligation to keep my promises. I promise to meet you at noon. That obligation is overridden if, on my way to meet you, I find a stranger who needs my help, and the only way I can help them is by breaking my promise to you. Similarly, an organizational leader can have prima facie moral duties that conflict with each other, one of which overrides the others given that leader’s role. They are morally justified in not acting on one of their moral obligations if doing so is necessary to act on another weightier one. So, the moral obligation of leaders to publicly condemn injustice is prima facie and is overridable when there is a standing institutional commitment to neutrality.

To better see this, we should turn to the Kalven Report’s argument. The brief report — it is shorter than the present essay — argues in favor of institutions adopting a position of silence as neutrality by refraining from taking stances on social and political issues in official statements. Its authors see universities as home to dissent, free inquiry, and diversity of views. Freedom of inquiry leads students and faculty to endorse a diversity of views on political matters. University leaders cannot speak for their university on political matters as the institution has no collective political voice to express. Moreover, any attempt to impose consensus through issuing statements undermines the conditions that make free inquiry possible through censorship of dissent. University leaders cannot and should not issue political statements on their communities’ behalf. They do not have the authority to speak for their community on political matters, and when they do issue statements, they chill the very dissent their office should aim to cultivate. Given their institutional role, they are obliged to remain silent on social and political matters.

The Kalven principles, when sincerely and publicly adopted, offer a powerful moral rebuttal to claims such as silence is hatred.

At this argument’s core is a controversial view of universities’ role in society. In the authors’ words, “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.” This includes views that create “discontent” and are “upsetting,” both to the public at large and to members within the community. To accomplish its mission, universities must allow students and faculty to voice unpopular, even abhorrent, views. Silence as neutrality will sometimes be very difficult to maintain, especially when university leaders face calls from politicians and donors to disown the content of some student’s or faculty member’s speech. Disavowing the content of that speech violates principles of neutrality and betrays the university’s mission of fostering “the widest diversity of views.” Adhering to these principles will sometimes require great courage and steadfastness.

University leaders who accept the Kalven principles have, through their fiduciary duties, a moral responsibility to cultivate diversity. This mission ties the leaders’ hands, constraining their actions in office, much in the same way that an oath to uphold the Constitution constrains American elected officials. In both cases, office holders are morally obliged not to follow the dictates of their conscience when doing so conflicts with their institution’s code or mission. Duties of office outweigh any conflicting moral duties to use one’s role to advance a private conception of justice. The Kalven principles, when sincerely and publicly adopted, offer a powerful moral rebuttal to claims such as silence is hatred.

However, there are significant obstacles to sincerely adopting the Kalven principles. A history of following the norm of consistently issuing political statements creates expectations of what university leaders can and will do. Adopting the Kalven principles requires recalibrating these expectations. To do this, university leaders must show they are serious about breaking with the norm. Cheap talk is not enough: That leads to the cynical view discussed above that neutrality is just a temporary convenience. Instead, leaders must send costly signals that make it difficult to backtrack on their commitment to neutrality. This could involve the university president disavowing past political statements, both their own and previous office holders, as inconsistent with the university’s mission of cultivating diversity. This mea culpa would be embarrassing, while backtracking on it would have even worse reputational effects by showing university leadership to be capricious and unreliable.

An additional costly signal would involve alienating donors, many of whom will strongly disapprove of neutrality. As evidence of donor disapproval, consider the repercussions of the December 5 House panel, when three university presidents — of Harvard, MIT, and UPenn — testified to concerns of growing antisemitism on campus. Representative Elise Stefanik asked each the following question: Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate your university’s rules or code of conduct, yes or no? Each answered that it would depend on context and whether the speech was targeted at individuals or constituted harassment. These equivocal answers were disastrous from a public relations standpoint, with, so far, two of the three presidents resigning as a result, as mentioned above. From the standpoint of institutional neutrality, however, their responses were largely correct. (For discussion, see John Tomasi’s response to the testimony.) The substantial donor backlash in the aftermath of their testimony shows how deeply unpopular institutional neutrality can be. A university that transitions to adopting the Kalven principles should expect significant donor blowback. This is another costly signal of sincerity. But given the uncertain benefits of neutrality described above, it is an open question whether it is in a specific university’s interest to bear that cost.

University leaders are responsible for advancing their institutions’ interests. Adopting the Kalven principles has various potential benefits: It frees university leaders from taking a stand on divisive topics; it may help slow the decline of institutional trust; and it better aligns the university with the mission of promoting diversity of thought. But the initial transition to making institutional neutrality the official policy has significant up-front costs. It is natural to interpret the cynical view — that recent discussions of neutrality are matters of opportunistic convenience — as passing judgment on the character of university leaders. Instead, I see temporary flirtation with the idea of institutional neutrality as a rational strategy for navigating all the uncertainties regarding the costs and benefits of exiting the present norm of always issuing statements on political and social issues. Opportunistic, temporary adoption of neutrality may seem to be university leaders’ best means of acting on their fiduciary responsibilities given uncertainty. The way forward for advocates of neutrality is to set cynicism aside and build a body of irrefutable evidence that adopting the Kalven principles is the best way forward for universities.


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