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Institutional neutrality is not a cold cop-out: it is vital in polarised times

Academic leaders should stay out of politics to encourage debate and promote expertise, says Daniel Diermeier

February 12, 2024
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Fifty-seven years ago, when the US was fiercely and often violently divided by racial issues and the Vietnam War, the University of Chicago president George Beadle charged a committee with “preparing a statement on the university’s role in social and political action”. The resulting asserted fundamental commitments to academic freedom and to a related, clear-eyed view of the importance of institutional neutrality.

In America today – rife with that have led to an unprecedented assault on higher education and the resignations of two university presidents?– those precepts are more important than ever. Universities that want to successfully meet this moment must recommit to both, and especially to institutional neutrality.

Institutional neutrality is the commitment of a university and its leaders to refrain from taking public positions on controversial issues unless the issue directly affects the university’s core mission and function. The Kalven Report notes that neutrality is crucial to maintaining the conditions most conducive to a university’s purposes – providing transformative education and conducting pathbreaking research.

“To perform its mission in the society,” the report reads, “a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.” One reason this “independence” is so vital, the report goes on to say, is because, when universities or their leaders stake out official positions on political issues, they risk stifling dissent among students and faculty – the lifeblood of education and research – and “censuring” those who disagree with the university’s position.

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For universities navigating polarisation, this connection between institutional neutrality and a vigorous culture of free speech and open enquiry is the highest and best reason to practise neutrality. But there are other compelling reasons.

For one, neutrality spares universities from quickly arbitrating every emerging issue and making reactive statements that lack the thorough, fact-based consideration and appreciation of nuance and complexity in which universities typically trade. The public will ask for quick responses, but developing a well-reasoned position worthy of a great university often takes time. The resulting delays can be interpreted as lack of sincerity or caring.

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Neutrality also helps universities avoid double standards. If a university comments on some issues but not others, it de facto endorses certain political positions while rejecting others. Consistency is key. If a university flies the Ukrainian flag over its quad or criticises the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v?Jackson decision (in which the court held that the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion), its leaders can’t be surprised when the public also demands statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Neutrality is also useful because it keeps universities out of politics, which is about winning power and influence, not about the pursuit of knowledge and truth. Taking public positions for one side or another encourages members of the community to lobby and protest to pressure the university to support their position. Protests and petitions are vital forms of free expression, but a campus ripped apart by political divisions is not a functioning campus.

Finally, neutrality demonstrates respect for expertise. Universities are built on the belief that knowledge, rooted in facts, matters. They are where expertise is developed and – literally – certified. When institutional leaders opine on issues outside their domain, that reverence for expertise is degraded. And even in the rare case where university leaders are experts, it is still best that they refrain from voicing an official position, to avoid chilling debate.

One criticism of the Kalven Report is its cold detachment from the life of the campus community of its day. But institutional neutrality does not and should not prohibit universities from protecting and supporting their campus communities in times of crisis. Being a university president is like being a small-town mayor; both must respond compassionately to the experiences of their constituents. But empathising with a community horrified by a school shooting is not the same as taking a position on gun control.

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It might be hard for many universities to walk back their previous – and often popular – inclination towards commenting on political issues. But it’s not impossible. In October, the president and provost of Stanford University explained their “ about news events not directly connected to campus”. And the president of Williams College said she would on world events, offering that “such communications do more harm than good”.

Many universities have learned that holding institutional neutrality as a core value is invaluable in supporting our mission. Living this value requires forethought and courage, but in our polarised time, universities must stand strong.

Daniel Diermeier is chancellor of Vanderbilt University. He is a political scientist and management scholar.

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