Why Institutional Neutrality is A Lost Cause from the start

February 02, 2024 22:52

Harvard University President Claudine Gay resigned from her position six months into her job.

Embattled from the fallout of an antagonizing Congressional hearing and substantial plagiarism accusations, Gay’s resignation occurred amidst the continuing war in Gaza and its political reverberations in the United States, as well as against a larger backdrop of sustained scrutiny of college campuses and administrations by American conservative figures. The same confluence of pressures from prominent donors and politicians prompted Liz Magill, former University of Pennsylvania President, to resign last December, revealing in plain sight the precarity of the job of university administrators these days.

Reacting to Gay and Magill’s resignations, academics and university administrators across the United States have invoked the principle of institutional neutrality in an attempt to distance their institutions from the eye of the political storm. First officially articulated in the 1967 Kalven Report at the University of Chicago, institutional neutrality states that universities exist “for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research,” and the adoption of any social view would interfere with the freedom and diversity that undergird their mission. Neutrality was not proposed in a vacuum, however. Talk of the principle arose during the Civil Rights Movement, came to growing prominence alongside the Vietnam War protests and divestment movement against Apartheid South Africa, when students all over the United States occupied university buildings and, in many cases, had to be forcibly removed by police. Nor did the Kalven Report truly exert a commanding influence: for one, the University of Chicago had its own sit-ins, protests, and occupation in the 1960s, and the report itself was not endorsed by another university until 2022.

Today, the report is hailed as a foundational principle of the University of Chicago, and institutional neutrality is championed as a shield for protecting independent learning and research. After harsh criticisms of their responses to the Israel-Palestine war, administrators are retreating and retrenching into their academic ivory tower for protection, hoping that social pressures would stop at the door. After all, is the absoluteness of free speech not something to which American universities, in theory at least, should be committed and wedded?

This measure is bound to fail. The very assumption that a university can become a neutral bastion of unfettered thought, a secluded ivory tower, closed off yet powerful at the same time, is an impossible, paradoxical fantasy. The credibility and authority of universities come precisely from a social bargain – the exchange of useful knowledge for an unparalleled degree of autonomy and resources. Academics help publics understand the world. Among many other things, they discuss how to separate good from bad (if at all possible), how to organise governments like or unlike the composition of molecules, and how to understand our pasts, present, and futures. Without these societal contributions, academic outputs are no more than convoluted conjugations. Admittedly, the value of good research may not be immediately apparent or may not be apparent to all, but the promise of returns justifies the freedom and security that are afforded to academia. As a society, we negotiate a working relationship between experts and citizens, promises and risks, and deference and control. This enables us to trust academics even when what they propose is not fully understood or agreed upon, but this trust is not unconditional or irrevocable and can be re-negotiated at times. Academics who abandon any social bargaining while it is being contested will only cost academia the remaining strands of its respect.

Rather than seeing contestations and criticisms of their stances and speech as a threat, academics should see them as an opportunity to interrogate, reaffirm, and demonstrate the role of academia in society. Today’s Harvard—and many other universities—is increasingly marginalised in mainstream political discourse, because it has grown complacent in graduating students into lucrative and exclusive consulting, tech, and financial careers, and in speaking with terms that require particular trainings, perspectives, or experiences to understand. In doing so, it has lost the meritocratic image that has justified others’ patience with pretentious university diplomas. That university students and graduates do not reflect the rest of society could be a sign of progress—we must indeed hope that future generations will propagate a different imagination of the world. But progress should not be measured by how much others are trailing behind. Universities do not have to accept what everyone believes, but it should be cognisant of its role in the society, why it is trusted and respected.

Universities are not only a part of society; they are products of it. When we inquire what has gone wrong in our universities, we should also wonder whether anything is wrong with our society. Imagining that universities can single-handedly remove themselves from the crosshairs of political controversy and partisanship avoids the hard work of building and defending an academia that is useful in society, and a robust society that has a place for academia. We need to be more proactive in discussing the kinds of education and research that are good for society and the kinds of society that are good. Formalistic discussions on academic freedom can be a distraction from this, as they suppose that knowledge comes out of the absence of politics, that the ideal academy exists as some model out there for one to grasp and apply to society. Instead, negotiations and demonstrations of value and purpose are how universities derive power and demand respect. We can only see the truth in embracing this fact – something that angry tweets and financial threats cannot then erase.

a JD/PhD student at Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School completing a joint program in law and science and technology policy