Should universities be taking official stances on political, social issues of day?

Should universities be taking official stances on political, social issues of day?

Experts at the Radcliffe event weigh whether ‘institutional neutrality’ is the best way to encourage academic freedom, safeguard core mission

The core mission of any university depends on the ability of students, faculty members, and researchers to follow questions where they lead without an institutional finger on the scale influencing how the work proceeds, experts gathered at Harvard said recently.

The assertion was a point of agreement among panelists at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study on Tuesday who nonetheless disagreed over the type of policy that might be most effective. Experts from Harvard Law School, Yale Law School, and the University of Chicago, which has long had a policy of “institutional neutrality” on questions of the day, gathered to discuss the nuances of such practices.

“Many of us are looking to navigate what is a very troubled moment, and we have landed on institutional neutrality as perhaps a tool to help us find our way,” said Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute and the panel’s moderator. “We want in our discussion to think about the real-world complexities and the hard cases that might arise within the context of higher education and consider how we might apply institutional neutrality or restraint.”

Tom Ginsburg, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, characterized his university’s policy as a near-ban on its leaders and administrators making official statements about positions on events in the wider world, such as elections, natural disasters, and war. Stepping back from issuing an institutional response, he said, clears the way for scholars who may be studying or already expert in those areas to be the ones who take positions and engage in the wider societal conversation.

The policy makes an exception, however, for developments considered to be at the core of the institutional mission of education and teaching. During the Donald Trump presidency, for example, the University of Chicago issued a statement when the government restricted admission to the U.S. by nationals of several Arab countries, as it viewed the ability to recruit from around the world as important to the university’s success.

“Neutrality goes hand in hand with the core mission of the university. It’s not a kindergarten; it’s not a political club. It is a community of scholars to engage in research,” Ginsburg said. “If you have that idea, neutrality at the center protects all the line-level scholars, including students, to be able to take positions on issues of the day.”

But Robert Post, Yale’s Sterling Professor of Law, and Janet Halley, Harvard Law School’s Eli Goldston Professor of Law, argued that institutional “restraint” — less strict and more dependent on the judgment of university leaders — is a more appropriate stance.

Post said there are many ways that a university can speak that does infringe on academic freedom, but there are also ways in which it does not. Institutional restraint, Halley said, would provide the leeway for institutions to comment on issues that are important to its functioning, even though they may seem on first blush to be outside the core functions of teaching and research.

She also said deciding when to issue a statement and what the draft should say itself becomes a time-consuming, internal, political debate.

“I think we [in higher education] are pervaded with many functions beyond research and teaching where political positions have to be decided just to run the place,” Halley said. “I think there will be times when a commitment to neutrality will have to be overridden in the interests of making a statement on an issue of contemporary controversy. We need to have a very careful and thoughtful discussion about what that would look like.”

The event, “Institutional Neutrality in a Polarized World: What should Harvard and Higher Education Do?”, was sponsored by Radcliffe and the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard. It took place Tuesday afternoon at Radcliffe’s Knafel Center.

Universities around the country have made routine statements on issues ranging from immigration to diversity in admissions to the war in Ukraine. In recent months, Harvard and several other U.S. universities have found themselves at the center of a firestorm of criticism for statements, actions, and perceived inaction related to Hamas’ surprise terrorist attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel’s retaliatory invasion of the Gaza Strip.

In addition, protests over the conflict have sprung up at American colleges and universities, featuring fevered rhetoric on both sides and renewing longstanding questions about how institutions of higher education can simultaneously encourage rigorous debate of important issues while ensuring the dialogue remain constructive.

On-campus conversations on hot-button topics have become more difficult in recent years, colored as much by fears of social media’s cancel culture as by the institutional values of free inquiry, exchange of diverse views, and respectful yet robust debate.

In response, Harvard has initiated a series of programs in recent weeks to encourage and enable “difficult conversations,” which are the kind of exchanges that are at the core of Harvard’s teaching and research mission, panelists said.

“With respect to the educational mission in particular, we’re not where we want to be, not yet,” said Edward Hall, Harvard’s Norman E. Vuilleumier Professor of Philosophy and co-president of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, and who introduced the event. “It’s not as bad some may think if they consume mainstream media, but we’re not yet at a place where our students understand how and why to engage with each other in a good-faith, intellectually serious, curiosity-driven way around controversial topics.”

Hall said that faculty members, including those on the year-old Council on Academic Freedom are searching for ways to instill in students and others in the community that disagreement isn’t something to be avoided or punished, but rather sought in an academic community.

“We’re always guided by that sense of mission: What can we do to make this the kind of thriving intellectual community that we want it to be, one where disagreement is not viewed with hostility or fear but embraced as a positive good,” Hall said.

The problem grows more difficult, Ginsburg said, the closer the entity making the statement is to the front lines of teaching and research. He pointed out that some departments have made official position statements, which can’t help but have a chilling effect on colleagues working in the same building or on the same floor whose work might run contrary to the statement’s particulars.

Whether the policy is one of neutrality or restraint, Halley said it is clear that when it comes to university statements, people are listening. Those eager for advancement or seeking funding are “hypersensitive” to cues that signal how they might get ahead on higher education’s competitive landscape.

A similar dynamic is at work in the lab and in the classroom, panelists said. Scholars conducting research on one side of a hot button topic like the history of Russia and Ukraine might find it more difficult, for example, to cast Russia as anything other than a villain, particularly when University statements have favored Ukraine in the current conflict.

“They’re hypersensitive, whether the message is political, educational, one of conformity or of non-flouting of norms,” Halley said. “It can stunt a person’s research mission for life.”

Source: Alvin Powell/ Harvard Staff Writer

Image: “Institutional Neutrality in a Polarized World: What should Harvard and Higher Education Do?” panelists included Tomiko Brown-Nagin (from left), Tom Ginsburg, Janet Halley, and Robert C. Post. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

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