Reflections on Institutional Neutrality


In this guest post, Guy Whitehouse discusses arguments for and against institutional neutrality after Harvard University accepted the conclusions of a working party report on ‘Institutional Voice’ and stated that it will adopt the principle of institutional neutrality.

The notion of institutional neutrality as outlined in the Kalven Report has suddenly come to the fore in American universities and will likely be a topic of discussion in UK universities soon. Probably the most notable instance in America is the recently published conclusions of the Harvard Institutional Voice Working Group which recommended that Harvard should stop making public statements on issues which are not core to its mission.

The group’s work was undertaken as part of Harvard’s attempts to deal with the storm that engulfed it because of the way it responded to Hamas’s 7 October atrocities and the disastrous testimony of former President Claudine Gay when she was unable to say that calls for the genocide of Jews would always be a breach of Harvard’s policies. It is now featuring in debates over whether American universities should divest from and boycott Israel, and this is likely to be the main topic to feature when institutional neutrality gets debated in UK universities, with the possible add-ons of divestment from fossil fuels and weapons production.

An important moral point is that members of a university who disagree with a statement issued on behalf of the institution as a whole may feel intimidated from expressing views contrary to that statement. Another is that statements will usually be rather platitudinous (we oppose all forms of discrimination) as opposed to the fact-based, in-depth and therefore more powerful statements that people might reasonably expect from universities.

However, there are also pragmatic reasons for universities to avoid making public statements on issues not core to their mission. The statements don’t help anyone and there is the risk of appearing to care about one situation more than another because the university does not make a statement at all, or makes a less emphatic statement, say over the situation in Sudan, than it does on Israel/Gaza.

Finally, it is not at all obvious that the public at large cares very much about what a particular university thinks about public events in the news, apart that is from alumni and activists, and careless statements can backfire. Allegations of anti-Semitism on American campuses have caused donors to cancel very substantial gifts of money; for example interim President of Harvard, Alan M. Garber has privately admitted that Harvard is facing a hostile fundraising environment. While alumni don’t seem to have cancelled gifts and legacies to UK universities because of concerns over anti-Semitism, they have done so over other issues as Durham, Cambridge and Edinburgh have found to their cost.

Public statements are not really the heart of the matter when it comes to institutional neutrality. Assuming that decisions on where to invest money and research time count as speech, the real issue at stake in UK universities will, as already stated, be the call for divestment from and boycotts of Israel, maybe also from companies involved in weapons production and from companies whose activities are seen to be harmful to the environment.

There are plenty of good reasons, both moral and pragmatic, for opposing divestment from and boycotting Israel as a whole. To do so would be to punish the innocent with the guilty; Israeli academics are not responsible for what is going on in Gaza. It would also be hypocritical; universities cannot engage with and take money from China and Arab countries with dreadful human rights records on the one hand and then boycott Israel and still expect to be regarded as moral agents.

There is also the point that to disengage from Israel’s research and development sector would be a huge act of self-harm. A recent report from the Centre for World University Rankings put Israel’s research universities in the top three percent. The UK Innovation and Science Network published a snapshot, updated in March this year, which points out that Israel spends a higher percentage of its GDP on research and development than any other country, that it is a world leader in nine innovation indicators and that it has produced the highest per capita number of Nobel laureates in economics and chemistry. Universities who receive public funding are under an obligation to get maximum return for the money provided and it is simply impossible to see how this could happen if they disengage from a research and development sector as distinguished as Israel’s.

Of course, arguments over institutional neutrality should not only revolve around the Israel/Gaza issue. What really underpins the notion of institutional neutrality is a rather awkward truth that liberal democracies with good human rights records do not have a monopoly on the production of knowledge. Discoveries in science and insights in other fields of academic enquiry occur in countries whose governments have very bad human rights records and yet cannot be ignored. To ignore them would make the output of our own research sector inaccurate. Equally arguing that acknowledging and using the findings of research done in such countries but not visiting universities in those countries has some moral value is nonsense.

The main argument against institutional neutrality is that it is too cold and a cop-out. The Harvard Institutional Voice Working Group’s report does exhibit some discomfort with the idea and asks whether research can be separated from issues of social justice. This has led Daniel Diermeier, Chancellor of Vanderbilt University, to criticise Harvard’s statement as half-hearted, nevertheless some do argue for something called ‘principled neutrality.’

The problem with ‘principled neutrality’ is that it is impossible to define and is not likely to differ to what has been going on up till now. It will therefore get universities into the same difficulties as American universities now find themselves in. Again, institutional neutrality cannot be said to be a cop-out, as it does not preclude individual academics from following their own consciences; it merely insists that such decisions should be made at the level of the individual rather than the institution.

At their best universities counter ideas that proceed from the kind of thinking that begins “we all know, don’t we that…” A hyper-politicised university sector will lose any respect from those who look to universities to stand above the cacophony of political claim and counterclaim and bring evidenced-based findings into debates. Institutional neutrality is the best-placed mechanism to enable them to do this.

Dr Guy Whitehouse is a writer based in Leicester, he is a member of the AFAF network and the Free Speech Union. The views expressed here are those of the author not AFAF.

Photo Credit: Kevin Payravi – Protests at Harvard, 31 May 2024 – licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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