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The Case for University Silence
Schools benefit from returning to a policy of institutional neutrality.
Campus free speech issues were already front and center in the national debate when the October 7th massacre in southern Israel unleashed a flood of new challenges. University leaders have become so accustomed to speaking out on issues of the day that there was no question that they had to speak out once again, but attempts to issue statements addressing the crisis only confused matters further. This is a moment to reflect on what can and should be said at a moment like this, and on the underappreciated virtue of institutional silence. University leaders should treat it as an opportunity to reset the ship before the next crisis arises.
The current crisis is of the universities’ own making. They have backed themselves into a corner by putting themselves forward in recent years as moral leaders with the authority to speak for their institutions, allowing themselves to be drawn into various controversies. The large number of universities which condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the University of California’s statement criticizing the Dobbs decision (although it did not directly affect abortion access in California), and myriad statements in response to George Floyd’s death are examples of the proliferation.
More egregious are the spread of statements by university departments. The University of California system recently blessed this practice, even though they almost by definition proclaim an orthodoxy and discourage junior faculty and graduate students from themselves inquiring into the relevant issues. (It takes a great deal of courage to depart from the line promulgated by one’s department.) In practice, these statements have focused disproportionately on Israel. The UC Santa Cruz Feminist Studies Department, for example, informs us that “Palestine is a feminist issue.” UC Davis’ Asian American Studies Department just endorsed a statement calling upon the UC system to “retract its charges of terrorism, to uplift the Palestinian freedom struggle, and to stand against Israel’s war crimes against and ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Palestinian people.” The conclusion here is that, once institutions get in the habit of issuing statements, there is no obvious way to stop the process—as the virtual mutiny of Davis’ Asian American Studies Department from the UC system makes clear.
Universities would do well to return to an older approach, pioneered by the University of Chicago and characterized as “institutional neutrality.” The phrase stems from the Kalven Report (adopted in 1967), although the principle in force goes back to at least 1899. The guiding idea is that the university, as such, is simply the home of scholars and students, not itself an entity to pronounce on matters of the day.
While the Kalven Report speaks of “neutrality,” silence should not be taken to mean that the university community is neutral as between Israel and Hamas, between Russia and Ukraine, between slavery and freedom, or any other moral matter. What silence indicates is that the individual members of the academic community are free to express their own views and take positions through research and learning. When school administrations speak authoritatively about contested questions, they not only discourage individual inquiry but also unleash a politics of lobbying that can never be satisfied.
But the restraint embodied in the Kalven Report has not been the spirit of our times. One might think of the slogan of our era as being “Don’t do anything, just say something.” And, in recent years, university administrations often seemed to enjoy the cozy complacency of seizing what felt to them to be the moral high ground.
We are now living with the consequences of that intemperate sensibility—and universities find themselves in highly awkward situations. Striking the right tone in condemning the horrific massacre in southern Israel while acknowledging the oppression of Palestinians has proved challenging, to say the least. University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill found herself subjected to calls for resignation by donors and trustees. Vanderbilt University accurately stated that the conflict was one of “deeply layered and nuanced complexity” but then removed the statement after criticism that it was insufficiently condemnatory of Hamas. Some universities tried multiple times. Cornell’s President Martha Pollack had to amend her initial statement because she failed to identify the Hamas attacks as terrorism. For a conflict like this, every comma and colon is closely scrutinized.
Harvard has had a particularly difficult time. When a number of students, in the immediate aftermath of 10/7, signed a petition “hold[ing] the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence,” former Harvard President Lawrence Summers attacked his successor Claudine Gay for failing to condemn Hamas and called on her to condemn the students’ statement. She responded that no one speaks for Harvard—a line that strains credulity given that Harvard’s Office of the President had previously issued statements on the death of George Floyd and on the invasion of Ukraine—and, as a result, prominent donors announced that they were rescinding donations. Members of Congress weighed in to criticize the school, and ex-Maryland Governor Larry Hogan withdrew from a planned fellowship citing “dangerous anti-Semitism”—all of which makes it more than clear that the politics of statements are consuming the university.
What should universities do in such circumstances? My view is that shifting to neutrality is wise, but timing is critical. After many years of speaking out so regularly, schools look defensive when adopting a stance of silence only when a large massacre of Jews occurs. Critics have been quick to cry hypocrisy. While it is heartening that new university leaders, for instance Mike Schill at Northwestern and Richard Saller and Jenny Martinez at Stanford, seem to grasp the virtues of silence and of the principles of the Kalven Report, their insistence on neutrality has drawn criticism from those who have come to expect unequivocal statements from university presidents.
Meanwhile, university presidents are struggling to rein in their vocal departments. While Schill, for instance, insisted on institutional silence, Northwestern’s Asian American Studies Program issued a statement expressing “grave concern” over perceived Islamophobia in “pro-Israel” posters displayed on campus. If Northwestern’s experience is indicative of a larger trend, schools are on track to end up with the worst of both worlds: official silence about an egregious massacre, alongside inflammatory statements by departments that have the effect of discouraging nuanced inquiry into the underlying origins of the conflict.
Clearly, something has to give. Once there is a return to a period of relative quiet, leaders might introduce a process—perhaps faculty-driven like the Kalven committee—that tries to articulate when exactly it is acceptable to speak out. Such policies should consider when and if leaders can speak in their personal capacities, and whether departments can issue public statements on contested matters. My view is that departmental statements should be a core focus, since they are the most likely to squelch inquiry. Most junior faculty and graduate students aren’t likely to care much about a university president’s statement, but they will surely feel the need to toe a party line announced by those who control tenure and resources. Some ethnic studies departments, in particular, seem to treat public-facing statements as being as central to their mission as is research.
In the meantime—as university presidents and departments rush out their conflicting, unhelpful statements—we can only lament where we have gotten to in the discourse. We are in an age of polarization, and the tendency of universities to issue blanket statements both mirrors and exacerbates students’ inclinations to have their political commitments come in bundles, to settle into mindsets of political tribalism. The extremes of political polarization on campus are hyper-charged at the moment—with one Columbia student hitting another with a stick over posted photos of Israeli hostages; with a Stanford lecturer segregating Jewish students in the class to decry them as “colonizers”; with the president of NYU’s Student Bar Association responding to 10/7 by writing in a student bulletin, “Israel bears full responsibility for this tremendous loss of life,” and having a job offer rescinded as a result.
Statements by university administrations and departments can only inflame tensions further—as universities should have realized long before the present moment. Instead of issuing authoritative pronouncements that mollify no one, schools have the far tougher task of providing an environment in which students and faculty can engage in genuine conversation. Sometimes, silence is golden.
Tom Ginsburg is the Leo Spitz Professor of International Law and Faculty Director of the Forum on Free Inquiry and Expression at the University of Chicago.
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