The Kalven Report, Institutional Neutrality, and Academic Freedom
in REVISITING THE KALVEN REPORT: THE UNIVERSITY’S ROLE IN SOCIAL AND POLITICAL ACTION (Keith E. Whittington and John Tomasi, eds. Johns Hopkins Press, Forthcoming).
19 Pages Posted: 25 Jul 2023 Last revised: 19 Aug 2023
Date Written: July 20, 2023
There have been many recent demands that universities maintain a policy of strict “institutional neutrality,” meaning that universities should refrain from commenting on controversial social and political issues. Advocates of this position characterize institutional neutrality as a fundamental principle of academic freedom. They locate the origins of the principle in the 1967 Kalven Report at the University of Chicago. This paper assesses the Kalven Report and the case for institutional neutrality.
As an historical matter, the Kalven Report was controversial at the time of its issuance. It was never adopted as policy by the American Association of University Professors, or by any major institution until the University of North Carolina endorsed it in 2022. In the current climate, advocacy of institutional neutrality is associated with conservative efforts to cabin institutions of higher education.
As a theoretical matter, the paper argues that it is a mistake to equate institutional neutrality with academic freedom. The relationship between institutional neutrality and academic freedom is empirical and contingent. Some violations of institutional neutrality manifestly infringe academic freedom, and others seem to have no effect whatever on academic freedom. In each case, analysis should focus on how particular university actions affect academic freedom, not on institutional neutrality as such. The case of religious universities nicely illustrates the issue. Institutional neutrality is a counsel of prudence, not a principle of academic freedom.
The paper analyzes Dean Jenny Martinez’s recent letter to the Stanford Law School community to illustrate that even advocates of institutional neutrality must concede that no university can be “neutral” with regard to the articulation of its own mission, which involves both teaching and research. As the example of diversity illustrates, it can sometimes be quite controversial for universities to define their own mission. Yet with regard to such questions the ideal of institutional neutrality is simply irrelevant, despite the sometimes-exaggerated claims of its proponents.
With regard to issues that are unrelated to a university’s mission, the paper endorses an attitude of “institutional restraint,” which is the official posture of Princeton. About all that can be said in the abstract is that universities have pressing reasons to be cautious and careful in speaking about matters not directly connected to their mission of teaching and research.
Keywords: academic freedom, institutional neutrality, Kalven Report, universities
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