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FAQ: Institutional Neutrality and the Kalven Report

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What is institutional neutrality? What is the Kalven Report?

At its core, institutional neutrality is the idea that colleges and universities should not, as institutions, take positions on social and political issues. Instead, these discussions should be left to students and faculty. 

This concept was formalized at the University of Chicago in 1967 when a committee chaired by legal scholar Harry Kalven, Jr. released its Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action. That document, now known simply as the “Kalven Report,” commits the university to academic freedom by, in relevant part, requiring institutional neutrality on political and social issues. The report articulates a principle fundamental to fostering ideal conditions for free expression and academic freedom on campuses: “The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.”

How does a university’s position on a particular issue impact free speech and academic freedom?

When colleges and universities take positions on social or political issues, they weaken the conditions for open debate in several ways. Broadly, these statements can chill the speech of would-be dissenters on campus. 

Students and faculty may self-censor for fear of facing disciplinary action for disagreeing with the prevailing views. This concern is not abstract: FIRE has seen countless examples of students and faculty reported to their colleges for protected speech, after which administrators frequently launch disciplinary investigations. The threat of investigation, even one that resolves in the dissenter’s favor, is often enough to stop students and faculty from speaking out in the future. 

Students and faculty may also self-censor for fear of other, nondisciplinary outcomes, such as social ostracization. When colleges and universities take positions on social or political issues, they send the signal that the position represents a value of the institution and that those who dissent from the position do not represent the college’s values. As a result, these statements discourage dissent from these positions, whether official sanction over dissent is explicitly threatened or not. 

Non-tenured faculty, whose contracts FIRE frequently sees universities decide not to renew if they engage in speech that administrators dislike, face heightened risk. When faculty in these vulnerable roles know administrators disagree with their views, they are more likely to self-censor than to risk losing their jobs or jeopardizing future opportunities. 

Don’t colleges and universities have the power to make statements on political and social issues?

They do. Even at public universities bound by the First Amendment to respect student and faculty rights, the Constitution does not prohibit leaders from sharing views on behalf of the institution. However, the Kalven Report warns they ought not to do so for the benefit of the campus free speech climate. 

What about when campus leaders share their own, personal views on social or political issues?

The closer a college or university administrator is to the top of institutional leadership, the greater the risk that those in the campus community will associate their public statements on social or political issues with that of the institution, whether or not those statements include an explicit threat of institutional suppression of dissenters. That risk is at its highest when leaders make purportedly personal statements through official institutional channels. As a result, leaders must take great care in making personal statements on social or political issues, with the Kalven Report as their guide.

What about individual units or departments within colleges?

When a unit or department of an institution, such as a faculty unit, takes a social or political position, it risks chilling dissenting speech and research within that group. After all, individual faculty may not agree with those views, or may be too fearful of professional consequences to speak against them.

Accordingly, units and departments within colleges and universities should refrain from weighing in on social or political issues and instead defend the right of their individual members to pursue the fullest extent of inquiry and debate on these topics.

Organizations take positions on these issues all the time. Why should universities be different?

Colleges and universities are fundamentally unlike other organizations or companies that may regularly weigh in on current events. The essential role of a university is to foster free inquiry. Unfortunately, today’s universities also face financial, legislative, and other pressures that can draw their focus away from this paramount objective. For example, universities take great care to cultivate their respective brands which, in recent years, has resulted in them offering commentary on how social issues square with the university’s core values. However, administrators’ decisions should reflect, first and foremost, the institution’s core, truth-seeking mission.

What about issues on which there is a broad consensus? Can’t colleges take a side on those?

Ideological conformity on campus may falsely suggest there is consensus on an issue, when instead, minority viewpoints have been chilled. Colleges must avoid this result by refraining from putting their thumb on the scale in debates.

Even when there is broad consensus on an issue, fostering a campus environment in which all viewpoints may be presented allows students and faculty to strengthen and evolve that position.

When administrators make a habit of taking social or political positions, they create the expectation among members of the community that they will comment on any future issue that arises. Conversely, when administrators do not offer commentary, that itself may be seen as a message. It is far better for a university to take a position of institutional neutrality and point to that policy every time it faces pressure to weigh in.

What can administrators do when social or political issues impact the campus community?

Administrators can, and should, support students and faculty through times of difficulty, confusion, or crisis. College presidents can acknowledge impacted members of the campus community and offer support, including informational resources, counseling, and more.

When social or political issues cause divisions on campus, universities should capitalize on their unique ability to bring the campus community together for additional listening, discussion, debate, and support. Institutional neutrality on an issue should not be used by an institution as an excuse to abrogate its other responsibilities to the community. 

However, institutions must take care not to implicitly signal a social or political position in offering resources, for example, by offering resources to supporters of just one side of a political debate. 

The Kalven Report notes that instances will arise in which there are threats to the “very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry,” or to the operation of the institution. In those circumstances, the university is obligated to oppose such measures and actively defend its interests and its values. However, these are “extraordinary circumstances,” and there remains a “heavy presumption” against the college or university taking collective action or expressing opinions on the political and social issues of the day. Under these circumstances, it is most important that members of the college or university have the freedom to question whether the institution is following the principles of institutional neutrality. 

If a college is founded on a particular mission, for example, a religious mission, would it be consistent with the Kalven Report for it to weigh in on political and social issues that threaten that mission?

It may be consistent with the principles set forth in the Kalven Report for a mission-based institution to weigh in on a political or social issue when necessary to defend its interests and its values. However, there should be a strong presumption against doing so. Each instance must be considered with great care. As the Kalven Report explains: “These are admittedly matters of large principle, and the application of principle to an individual case will not be easy.” 

Again, in these instances it is most important that students, faculty, and members of the administration are able to question whether the institution is playing its proper role and that the university upholds community members’ freedom to dissent from its statements.

Why is FIRE endorsing the Kalven Report specifically, rather than just the principle of institutional neutrality?

FIRE is endorsing the Kalven Report because it is the best articulation of institutional neutrality. The Kalven Report concisely expresses the core principles of institutional neutrality and explains why they matter. It also offers much-needed guidance on gray areas, such as how college leaders can navigate speaking on their own behalf, rather than for their institution.