Conference on Institutional Neutrality: Scholars Probe the Issues

Abigail Anthony, Class of 2023

PFS original content

Nov 15, 2022

The Initiative on Freedom of Thought, Inquiry, and Expression within the James Madison Program at Princeton University hosted the one-day conference, “Institutional Neutrality and the Mission of the University,” on November 11 in Aaron Burr Hall. It consisted of two public panels followed by a private session of scholars invited to “craft a new Kalven Report 2.0.” The conference occurred on the 55th anniversary of the Kalven Report, a policy of institutional neutrality for universities on controversial political and social issues that was produced in 1967 by a University of Chicago committee, headed by the late Harry Kalven, a legendary law professor.

The conference came just four days after Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber announced the establishment of a faculty committee to draft a policy on the “discretion of academic or administrative units to publish opinions on behalf of the unit.” Eisgruber explained that Princeton has historically practiced “institutional restraint."

Professor Robert P. George, the Director of the James Madison Program, moderated the panel. He opened by stating that the relevant question is “whether—and if so, when—non-sectarian state and private universities, or departments, or other units within such universities, may take public positions and put out public statements on controversial moral, political, and constitutional, or other legal issues that are not directly related to the mission of the university.” George raised as a hypothetical the possibility of him issuing a statement as Director of the James Madison Program celebrating the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. He stressed that he never even considered issuing such a statement because “it would be grossly improper” for him to assert moral stances or policy positions on behalf of a university program, and that “no one should be counted as orthodox or heretical” in any university unit. George added, with regret, that other Princeton centers and departments had made official statements on controversial issues.

A panel of five scholars spoke on the importance of the Kalven Report for universities and truth-seeking, followed by a panel of four more who discussed legal implications of the Kalven Report.

William Allen, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Michigan State University, offered qualified praise for the Kalven Report but said “there is a lot of work to be done.” He underscored that the Kalven Report offers minimal guidance for the university acting in its corporate capacity. He encouraged refocusing on the pursuit of truth and replacing “separationist policies” with “policies that integrate community members and that rely upon self-motivation as the first principle of selection.”

R. Shep Melnick, a Professor of American Politics at Boston College, approved of the Kalven Report’s statement that the mission of many universities “is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge” but argued that not every university has such mission. He noted that he teaches at a Jesuit institution that stresses “student formation” and that Historically Black Colleges and Universities have “the goal of improving the material, spiritual, and intellectual development” of victims of discrimination. Melnick argued that the modern university makes “hundreds, even thousands, of politically-laden decisions” about raising and spending resources and, in many such contexts, “neutrality doesn’t have any concrete meaning.” He added that it is a “political commitment, not neutrality” to produce graduates who can debate thoughtfully and that universities must “encourage students to probe and question” liberal order.

Stanley Katz, Director of the Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, built on Melnick’s argument by referencing his teaching career at the University of Wisconsin, which has “the mission of touching every person in the state.” He took exception to the Kalven Report by arguing that “I don’t live in a world which is exclusively driven by principle” and “I don’t think a focused statement simply on principles takes us very far.” He added that Harry Kalven was his “closest friend” at the University of Chicago and an “extraordinary person” who “took a really empirical and sociological view of law.”

Richard Shweder, a professor at the University of Chicago, praised the Kalven Report as advancing “the preeminent value [of] academic freedom, or freedom of thought,” which “should never be balanced or traded off against other values.” He argued that a university should be a “community of scholars” but that many institutions “strive to become consulting agencies” and have opened their gates “to diverse interest groups with political, moral, and commercial missions of their own.” Indeed, Shweder underscored, the University of Chicago itself has violated institutional neutrality.

Anna Krylov, a Professor of Chemistry at University of Southern California, described growing up in the USSR and later fleeing to Israel, where she engaged with so many different world views” while completing her Ph.D at Hebrew University, where everyone was “united by common goals, the pursuit of truth.” In the United States these days, she lamented, “professional spaces are now used to promote various political causes.” Krylov argued that institutional neutrality is important because official statements hinder dissent and curtail free inquiry.  

The second panel on legal implications of the Kalven Report featured John Tomasi, Paul Clement, Rosemarie Monge, and Nadine Strossen.

John Tomasi, President of the Heterodox Academy, stressed what he called the “Kalven Clause,” the portion of the document that says “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.” Tomasi stressed that Kalven Report does not only enforce institutional neutrality, but also “positively requires” the university to speak when the mission of the university is threatened and “the idea of seeking knowledge is under attack.”

Tomasi added that today, in contradistinction to most of our history, the most serious threats to the mission of the university “arise not from without, but from within the university itself. . . . Consider … the idea that ‘free speech’ is a sign of white fragility – and therefore the defense of open inquiry … is in fact white supremacism without the hood.”

Paul Clement, Former Solicitor General of the United States, offered a legal interpretation of the text. Clement stressed the difference between “First Amendment values” and “legal doctrine itself,” emphasizing that First Amendment precedents of the Supreme Court only apply by extension or extrapolation in the context of non-public universities. Clement suggested that a university can be committed to free speech principles without maintaining institutional neutrality; he compared a university to a government, saying that the “the government has to allow the citizenry free speech, but the government is entitled to its own speech” which “does not have to be neutral.” Clement also questioned the application of the Kalven Report to university centers, suggesting that a center or subsidiary unit can function like an individual professor and exercise free speech. Clement emphasized that a revised Kalven Report must address the “exceptions” permitting a university to speak.  

Rosemarie Monge, Associate Professor at St. Thomas University and current James Madison Program Visiting Fellow, explored the nature of corporate personhood in relation to the university and to what extent the university can and should act as an agent. Monge raised questions about the end of the university, to whom that end is entrusted, and whether institutional neutrality inhibits or promotes those individuals entrusted with such end. Monge concluded by arguing that institutional neutrality is “an appropriate ethical limit” for universities to allow for “habits of mind necessary to pursue truth and knowledge through the free exchange of ideas.” 

Nadine Strossen, former President of the American Civil Liberties Union, emphasized the “chilling impact” if a university does not adhere to institutional neutrality. In addition to First Amendment concerns, Strossen stressed the due process and procedural fairness violations that occur when university leaders “denounce” speakers, which denies “presumption of innocence” and opportunity to defend oneself against charges. Strossen suggested that, in instances when the university does issue a statement, there must be something akin to a legal opinion that explains the justification for speaking. Strossen expressed confusion as to why university leaders do not welcome a policy of institutional neutrality, saying “it would make their lives so much easier” to avoid controversies and refrain from the time-consuming process of issuing statements.