ACTA in the News | Institutional Neutrality

Kalven vs. Cowardice

AEIDEAS   |  May 28, 2024 by Michael B. Poliakoff and Samuel J. Abrams

In 1931, Winston Churchill mocked Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, as a “Boneless Wonder.” The last few months on campus have given us four such specimens whose tergiversation and ethical compromise are worse.

Northwestern president Michael Schill insisted that he spoke in his own voice, “Mike Schill, citizen, Jew and human being” in his condemnation of the October 7 massacre  and not for the institution. His respect for institutional neutrality was reasoned and defensible. But how ready he is to jettison it now, quaking in the face of student demands!

His self-congratulatory statement of April 30 is spineless capitulation, or, to use Churchill’s phrase, “boneless”: “This agreement was forged by the hard work of students and faculty working closely with members of the administration to help ensure that the violence and escalation we have seen elsewhere does not happen here at Northwestern” and that “the agreement includes support for our Muslim, Arab and Palestinian students.” Schill notably ignored Northwestern’s Anti-Defamation League Campus Antisemitism Report Card drop from “D” to “F,” and, in his Congressional testimony before House Committee on Education and the Workforce, he defended his encampment deal claiming, “By engaging students with dialogue instead of force, we modeled the behavior we want to apply going forward.”

Schill is now joined by the leadership of Brown, Evergreen, Minnesota, and the University of Washington. On the same day as Northwestern’s capitulation, Brown’s president Christina Paxson agreed, in return for the dismantling of the encampment (which, she specified, violated Brown’s policies) that there would be no suspensions or expulsions of those protesters, and discussion of divestment would proceed. Also on April 30, Evergreen State University added a particularly noisome twist to its capitulation on divestment: it will no longer approve study abroad in Israel, in other words, agreement to a discriminatory academic boycott. And one day later, Minnesota caved to five of the six demands, including divestment talks, balking only at banning targeted employers from its job fairs. It was a very bad week for rule of law and university governance. Tacitus once wrote, “They wreak devastation and call it peace.” It works for boneless wonders, too.

The appeasements continued. Williams College, whose president wrote on October 12 of her neutrality that precludes sending campus-wide messages no matter what the circumstances, quickly abandoned neutrality and agreed to allow the protesters to present their views on divestment to the board of trustees.

Harvard University, which earlier had set up a committee to consider institutional neutrality, offered a sit-down between protesters and a representative of the Harvard Corporation.

Divestment should, from the very beginning, be off the table. Wise institutions have steadily, especially since October 7, recognized, albeit late, the wisdom of the University of Chicago Kalven Committee Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action.

Written amidst the desperate turmoil of the era of the Vietnam War, it reads, in part: “…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…”  The University of Chicago recently invoked it, in the face of demands from its own students for divestment from Israel:

Over more than a century, through a great deal of vigorous debate, the University has developed a consensus against taking social or political stances on issues outside its core mission. The University’s longstanding position is that doing this through investments or other means would only diminish the University’s distinctive contribution — providing a home for faculty and students to espouse and challenge the widest range of social practices and beliefs.

If the boneless wonders regain their vision and fortitude, they also have good models to follow at Vanderbilt and the University of Florida. Vanderbilt Chancellor Daniel Diermeier’s logic was crystalline:

…our three commitments are free speech, or we call it open form, institutional neutrality, which means that the university will not take policy positions unless they directly affect the operating of the university. So we don’t take a position on foreign policy, and a commitment to civil discourse. Now, calling for BDS, for a boycott of Israel, is inconsistent with institutional neutrality… we’re not going to go there.

President of the University of Florida Ben Sasse has properly steered the university through the storms. Sasse proclaimed that adult behavior at UF is mandatory: “This is not complicated: The University of Florida is not a daycare, and we do not treat protesters like children — they knew the rules, they broke the rules, and they’ll face the consequences.”

This is the way forward from the campus disgrace we are witnessing. Our nation’s colleges have long been engines of equality and innovation and they must have leaders who can keep them focused on reaching those goals by being neutral and having rules and standards applied consistently and universally.

This post appeared on AEIdeas on May 28, 2024.


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