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October 18, 2022+Mark McNeilly
+Campus Policy

Universities Should Adopt Institutional Neutrality

On July 27, 2022, the University of North Carolina Board of Trustees passed a resolution adopting both the University of Chicago’s Free Speech Statement and its Kalven Report. Chicago’s Free Speech Statement, which guarantees free expression at the university, is well known in academia. According to the campus free speech organization FIRE, 87 universities have adopted the Statement as of July 2022. Much less well known is the Kalven Report, which focuses on institutional neutrality. Institutional neutrality is the idea that the university, as the Kalven Report states, “cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.” It comes to this conclusion on the basis of the view that “the mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge.” The university follows this mission to advance society and humankind. What higher mission could there be? The instrument of the mission, per the Report, “is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.” Thus, “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.” This philosophy does not mean a university as an institution can never speak out. The Report states that “from time to time instances will arise in which the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry. In such a crisis, it becomes the obligation of the university as an institution to oppose such measures and actively to defend its interests and its values.” However, this should not be done lightly or often, and there should be “a heavy presumption against the university taking collective action or expressing opinions on the political and social issues of the day…” The policy of institutional neutrality does not only apply to the university as a whole and its top administrators. It applies as well to its subunits — schools, departments, programs, etc. — and the administrators of those organizations. There are several reasons why institutional neutrality for universities is the right policy. Institutional neutrality:
  1. Increases academic freedom and free-expression protection for faculty and students. Because the institution takes no position on political issues of the day, open inquiry and free expression for faculty and students are not chilled. They can research areas of potentially controversial subjects and take provocative positions without fearing that those subjects and positions run counter to stated university views.
  2. Avoids administrators espousing positions for faculty and students without their consent. When administrators speak for the university, school, or department, they are making a statement for all the faculty and students in that organization. Obviously, not everyone in that organization will agree with that statement, yet they are being represented by that expressed viewpoint. From that standpoint, it’s not fair to those people when an unelected official takes a position without their consent.
  3. Increases the credibility of the university. When a university takes a position on a controversial topic and thereby chills speech on that issue on its campus, it loses credibility as a neutral host of debate and harms its reputation as an organization that allows its faculty and students to express themselves freely.
  4. Increases bipartisan support for the university. Recent studies from Gallup and Pew Research have shown steep declines in confidence in universities, primarily by Republicans. As many universities lean left, this is not surprising. Making public statements on issues that almost invariably take a liberal position exacerbates this problem. For public universities, this is especially an issue, as they depend on bipartisan taxpayer support.
    Many university leaders understand this and therefore self-censor, as the data below from the article “The Silent Treatment: Why College Presidents Don’t Speak Out
  5. Avoids a constant stream of statements being seen as overdone, ineffective, insincere, and/or aggravating. Once a university or its subunits get in the game of making statements about issues of the day, there is an expectation they will always make one whenever a new issue arises. Issues in the U.S. arise frequently, so every time one does, that expectation is there. However, when a university issues statement after statement, that reduces their potency and the university can often be seen as insincere (just checking the box). Or the statements become aggravating because they fill up faculty and student inboxes.
  6. Reduces time and resources required to make statements. Churning out a steady stream of statements takes up the energy of university leadership and staff when their time would be much better spent acting on projects that can move the institution forward.
Naturally, there are objections to a university adopting institutional neutrality. Let me engage on those below:
  1. Institutional neutrality is the censoring of the university, and we should encourage speech. Yes, institutional neutrality is the self-censoring of the university. However, it is done to encourage speech and a diversity of viewpoints by the proper people, namely the faculty and students. Just as a professor may choose to stay neutral in the classroom to encourage discussion, a university does the same.
  2. The Kalven Report was submitted in 1967 and times have changed drastically, so it is no longer applicable in academia today. Yes, the Report is from 1967. However, much like today, controversial topics (the Vietnam War, race, class, and equality of the sexes) were all on the table then. The principle of institutional neutrality, like the mission of a university, is not applicable only to certain times and not in others. It is timeless. It applies no less today than it did decades ago.
  3. The mission of the university should be seeking not only knowledge but also social justice. Jonathan Haidt does an excellent job discussing this topic. Fundamentally, he makes a strong case that a university must choose. A university can no more pursue both truth and knowledge and social justice than it can pursue truth and knowledge and religion simultaneously. When a university pursues any cause in addition to truth and knowledge, it must limit what can be discussed. A university must pick one and only one.
In sum, for all the reasons I listed numerically, and especially the first, universities should adhere to institutional neutrality, either by adopting the Kalven Report formally or by instituting a policy of institutional neutrality.

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