It was a rough year for the American social fabric. The existing political order was under deep strain. On the left, a new brand of implacable activism was exploding among the youth; on the right, racial hostilities long-simmering subsurface took concrete form as a pugnacious strain of explicitly racist populism. Campuses across the country were erupting into protest. A year later, the presidential race featured a power-hungry, unlikable political insider making a second attempt for the White House; one opponent pushing dramatic expansion of social welfare and decreased military involvement overseas; another riding a demagogic tidal wave of white populist resentment and anger.
No, not 2015. 1967.
On campuses across the country, then as now, students pushed their schools to get more involved in social and political causes.
Despite its conservative reputation, the University of Chicago was a little different. In particular, a vocal and concerted movement was underway to pressure the university into taking a stand against the mandatory drafting of college-aged men to serve in the Vietnam War.
Responding to these pressures, Chicago’s then-president convened a committee. Chaired by esteemed legal scholar Harry Kalven Jr., the panel was asked to answer a fairly straightforward question: What — if any — role did the university have to play in “taking sides” in contemporary political and social debates?
If President George Beadle intended the “Kalven Committee,” to produce a mealy-mouthed, equivocating statement which would provide the administration with cover, he was surely disappointed, for the answer it gave was no such thing. In its strongly-worded report, the committee answered resoundingly: none whatsoever.
“The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic,” Kalven said. “To perform its mission in the society, a university must ... maintain an independence from political fashions, passions and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community ... It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.”
The university must, that is, remain a radically-neutral venue for the open clash of contradictory ideas about justice and truth, and for faculty and students to, on their own, bring about those visions in whatever manner they might choose. In this way, as a passive facilitator, the university might enable ideas to compete on a level playing field so that the truth might, by its encounter with and prevalence over falsehood, be discovered.
The story of the Kalven Committee came to my mind this week when I read President Gutmann’s “Message in Support of Penn Black Students.” As a believer in the Kalven principles, I’d be suspicious of a university message of support for anything, no matter how much I agree with the position — which, in this case, is quite a bit.
The letter therefore came as a pleasant surprise. It endorsed no particular group, platform or ideology. True, it used the words “black lives matter,” but it offered them as a simple affirmation of the value of human life, not, by my reading, an endorsement of or show of solidarity with any particular group or ideology carrying that name.
Instead, Gutmann offered encouragement to a community of students that has voiced concern that the school does not welcome its presence without taking a stance on the greater political questions that gave rise to those concerns. That, I think, is not inappropriate.
It certainly provided an elegant counterpoint to the University of Vermont’s choice to allow its student government to fly a stylized version of the slogan, used as an emblem by campus activist group, on the school’s central flagpole. That, I think, constitutes an institutional endorsement of a contemporary political movement; a “taking sides” which represents a clear violation of social and political neutrality.
One could of course take Kalven even further and fault Gutmann for asserting an institutional belief in the inherent value of human life — there are, after all, philosophers who argue against it. That would be consistent with the embrace of a kind of institutional hyper-neutrality which I at times find appealing, but which is very hard to make work in practice. That life has value is, I think, uncontroversial enough a proposition that it may surface in a university communique without seriously impinging upon discursive freedoms.
But the difficulty of drawing that line nevertheless means that Penn presidents ought not to make a habit out of issuing ex cathedra statements of institutional sentiment. Even when they do not take obvious political positions, they cannot help but skirt the neutrality line unnecessarily. Our administration ought to recognize, as a matter of practice, that moral consensus, no matter how strong, does not strip impartiality of the value for which it is maintained in the first place.
ALEC WARD is a College senior from Washington, D.C., studying history. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TalkBackWard. “Fair Enough,” usually appears every Wednesday.
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