Universities Should Adopt the Kalven Principle of Institutional Neutrality

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AFAF believes that all universities should adopt the Kalven Principle of institutional neutrality and make no statements on political and social issues. The mission of the university is to promote the conditions for free intellectual inquiry for individual academics and students. Universities must not assume the role of an ersatz political organisation, a club, a trade union, a lobby group or a support group promoting ‘allyship’.

Universities must not become critics but create the conditions in which academics and students can flourish as critics. There should be an extension of this principle to internal statements. Universities must not impose upon academics and students political viewpoints such as intersectionality, critical race theory, decolonisation and forms of identity politics.

What is The Kalven Report?

On the 11 November 1967 the Kalven Committee published the ‘Report on the University of Chicago’s Role in Political and Social Action’. The committee was chaired by Harry Kalven Jr, a lawyer and First Amendment scholar.

The initiative for the report was student protests about apartheid in South Africa and opposition to the draft and the war in Vietnam, and their demands that the University make public statements about these compelling issues.

The report set out a careful case for institutional neutrality on political and social issues ‘…out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints. And this neutrality as an institution has its complement in the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest.’

It is academics and students who must have the freedom to develop their own viewpoints. A university has no role in providing a perspective that inhibits independent thought.  Universities that take up political and social positions – such as supporting Black Lives Matter or Stonewall – betray the mission of the university.

The pressure from academics and students for universities to make a political statement is almost as strong now as it was when the Kalven Report appeared because of the Israel-Palestine conflict. But universities should resist making any statements and leave that to academics and students.

How the Kalven Principle can work in practice

A recent model of best practice comes from University College Dublin (UCD). Under pressure from academics and students who supported the Palestinian cause last November, the President of UCD, Professor Orla Feely, made a statement on why her University should be politically neutral, even at times of high emotion:

I have received requests to commit the University to particular (and distinct) positions in relation to the conflict. It is not my policy to express positions on behalf of UCD in respect of geopolitical issues. Members of our University community have the absolute right to express a diversity of viewpoints within the law, mindful of our commitment to dignity and respect, and one of our most fundamental obligations as a University is to uphold this right. Were it to be our practice to take an institutional position on geopolitical matters, we would be inhibiting the freedom of members of our community to express their individual positions and suppressing our ability to sustain and respect a diversity of views. This position is described very eloquently and in greater detail in the Kalven Report of the University of Chicago.

That I do not issue statements on geopolitical matters should not be interpreted as indifference to suffering of those within our community or in the wider world – I am deeply affected by the suffering and loss of life at the present time. Rather, in the face of what will often be conflicting views and local and global tensions, it is a path to focusing on the particular responsibilities of the University and maintaining both academic freedom and an inclusive intellectual community where civil discourse on divisive issues is possible.

My priority is to ensure a safe, supportive and respectful environment in UCD, in which views, even on topics of intense polarisation, are shared with civility and consideration. I trust that I will have your support in this.

Unsurprisingly, her statement was met with hostility and claims that UCD is inconsistent on the Kalven principle, citing a political statement from before the President was appointed.

Summary of the Kalven Report

The important sections of the Kalven Report are reprinted below. AFAF calls upon all universities to defend their mission by adopting the Kalven Principle.

The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge. Its domain of inquiry and scrutiny includes all aspects and all values of society. A university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices, and institutions. By design and by effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.

The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. 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. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby. Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.

The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints. And this neutrality as an institution has its complement in the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest. It finds its complement, too, in the obligation of the university to provide a forum for the most searching and candid discussion of public issues. Moreover, the sources of power of a great university should not be misconceived. Its prestige and influence are based on integrity and intellectual competence; they are not based on the circumstance that it may be wealthy, may have political contacts, and may have influential friends.

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. There is another context in which questions as to the appropriate role of the university may possibly arise, situations involving university ownership of property, its receipt of funds, its awarding of honors, its membership in other organizations. Here, of necessity, the university, however it acts, must act as an institution in its corporate capacity. In the exceptional instance, these corporate activities of the university may appear so incompatible with paramount social values as to require careful assessment of the consequences. These extraordinary instances apart, there emerges, as we see it, a heavy presumption against the university taking collective action or expressing opinions on the political and social issues of the day, or modifying its corporate activities to foster social or political values, however compelling and appealing they may be. These are admittedly matters of large principle, and the application of principle to an individual case will not be easy. It must always be appropriate, therefore, for faculty or students or administration to question, through existing channels such as the Committee of the Council or the Council, whether in light of these principles the University in particular circumstances is playing its proper role.

Our basic conviction is that a great university can perform greatly for the betterment of society. It should not, therefore, permit itself to be diverted from its mission into playing the role of a second-rate political force or influence.

Further Information

Read the full text of the Kalven Report here.

This blog from the Foundation For Individual Rights and Expression(FIRE) provides an overview of the Report and the Heterodox Academy have uploaded a  video of an interview with Jamie Kalven, Harry Kalven’s son, about the Kalven Principle.

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