Last November, I attended a panel discussion hosted by Princeton University’s James Madison program in American Ideals and Institutions. The three-hour-long panel featured a diverse group of experts, including college professors, legal scholars, and civil liberty experts, such as the former president of the American Civil Liberties Union. The panel focused on a critical issue at the heart of America’s culture war: institutional neutrality and the mission of universities in defending free speech.
The assault on freedom of speech in American universities has become a pressing issue in recent years. Research conducted in 2021 by the Heterodox Academy on Understanding the Campus Expression Climate found that a signicant percentage of students feel that the climate on their campus prevents some people from speaking up. Interestingly, Republican students are the most hesitant to discuss issues related to politics, race, gender, and sexual orientation compared to Libertarian and Democrat students. This reluctance was exemplified when conservative federal judge Stuart Kyle Duncan was invited to speak at Stanford Law School last month, and many students blatantly interrupted his speech, with one protester even calling for the rape of his daughters.
To truly understand the history of free speech in America’s higher institutions, we must journey back to the tumultuous decade of the ’60s, marked by the civil rights movement, rising tensions with the Soviet Union, and widespread counterculture protests. College campuses were perceived as “safe havens” where many of these demonstrations (a form of free speech) took place. However, these demonstrations quickly escalated from denouncing the American government’s policy to demanding universities like the University of Chicago to take positions on political issues such as the Vietnam War.
In response to severe social and political pressure, the Kalven Committee was established under the leadership of President George W. Beadle at the University of Chicago. The committee’s objective was to prepare “a statement on the University’s role in political and social action.” The University of Chicago has a history of defending academic freedom, as demonstrated by its opposition to the Broyles Bill of the 1940s, the Jenner Committee hearings of the early 1950s, and the Disclaimer Affidavit in the National Defense Education Act of 1958, all of which were attempts to influence students’ beliefs regarding communism.
In 1967, the Kalven Report was published, reaffirming the University’s stance of remaining neutral on political and social matters. Instead, the University should serve as a “sponsor of critics, not itself the critic,” using its platform to facilitate informed and respectful discussions. For example, universities can encourage education, research, and community engagement around issues of social and political significance without taking a particular stance.
The Kalven principle raises important questions about the mission of the university. As the “uni” in its name suggests, a university is viewed as a critical forum that brings together students from all walks of life through the dissemination of knowledge. When a truly diverse student population is gathered, conflicts of ideas will inevitably arise. Students should be critically challenged by their peers or professors, and oftentimes being challenged or proven wrong can be uncomfortable. In short, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting to some.
When universities fail to remain independent due to internal and external pressures, such as when they take collective action that appeals to the voices of the majority or fears offending the feelings of a minority, they face the risk of inhibiting the full freedom of dissent.
Colleges differ in their approach to institutional neutrality. Some colleges choose to uphold institutional neutrality by not commenting on issues that do not have an immediate campus impact, while others believe that on social and political issues, it is crucial to speak institutionally while the school at large should remain neutral. It is worth noting that the Kalven report may not be applicable to all universities, especially faith-based schools. For instance, when John Garvey, the president of Catholic University, praised the recent Dobbs decision, which returned the decision to restrict or protect abortion to states, it was perceived differently than when public non-religious universities criticized it.
Denominational universities have strong beliefs, values, and commitments that they do not remain neutral about. However, it is equally important for them to engage in ongoing ethical reflection, interpretation, and theological discussions based on their specific faith confession. As a crucial part of this process, they should thoroughly examine current social and political issues as opportunities for reflection.
The main weakness of the Kalven report is that it lacks legal ramifications. The report mainly serves as a guideline that instructs universities on how to promote free speech. As a result, it does not provide specific details on the consequences to the university and its members if they violate the principle. Therefore, the Kalven report has been treated in a symbolic manner and lacks legal substance.
While it’s true that the Kalven report has its limits, I believe that the critical mission of a university—promoting intellectual diversity and academic freedom—should still be upheld, regardless of whether the institution is public or private, religious or secular. Even when a university decides to take a stance on certain social and political issues, it should acknowledge that the statement does not necessarily represent the opinions of everyone in the institution and should encourage public discourse among its members.