Much has been written recently about the chilling of free expression and debate at universities. Surveys and studies have seemingly increasing concerns about the state of free speech in higher education, and one task force of concerned educators and others has even created a road map for rescuing open inquiry and discourse.
Conversations about free speech on campus often focus on the intolerance of divergent viewpoints among students and faculty. And indeed, maintaining a culture of open discourse and free expression is essential if universities are to fulfill their mission. Our purpose lies in providing our students with a transformative education and providing our faculty members with an environment where they can engage in pathbreaking research. Both education and research are best served in an academic climate where students and faculty can feel free to debate complex issues and challenge conventional wisdom. As Alexander Heard, Vanderbilt University’s fifth chancellor, put it in 1965, “The university’s obligations is not to protect students from ideas, but rather to expose them to ideas, and to help make them capable of handling, and, hopefully, having ideas. ”
But the open discourse and free expression essential to a university’s mission are not only moderated by the direct threats that can come from an intolerance of certain views. A more subtle but still pervasive threat lies in academic leaders taking political statements or making politicized while speaking on behalf of their universities.
Recently, university leaders have been weighing in on such topics as foreign policy or high-profile jury verdicts, topics that are not directly related to the proper functioning of a university.
I understand the impulse. We are living in an extraordinary time. Every week seems to bring a new crisis demanding that each of us take a stand, and everyone wants to know which side you’re on.
But a university’s paramount mission is to provide the conditions for transformative education and pathbreaking research. When a university takes any position—when it sends a signal that one point of view is preferable over another—it can be seen as establishing or affirming an official position or party line. Universities operate best when they serve as a platform for the robust exchange of ideas. Their role is to encourage debates, not settle them.
We have seen what can happen on campus when only one point of view is seen as legitimate. A lecture hall becomes a sea of nodding heads rather than a place for robust discussion among people unafraid to challenge one another. Course content formerly deemed essential is suddenly not taught. Debate among researchers becomes muted, and avenues of exploration are prematurely sealed off. Guest speakers with opposing views are disinvited or shouted down. And individuals on campus with dissenting opinions feel alienated, weakening the essential connections and collegiality that bind a university community.
All of this is corrosive for a university and antithetical to what we do and stand for. In our classroom and in our labs, intellectual diversity and free-ranging debate are our lifeblood. When we can’t challenge conventional wisdom or each other, we can’t do our job.
University leaders can better serve students and faculty by maintaining a stance of principled neutrality—by reserving comment on political matters and leaving space for varied ideas and opinions to flourish on campus, and for respectful, if passionate, discourse to go where it will. Such a stance should not be confused with a lack of values. A university must always proceed from clear values (this is the principled part). But its values should be expressed as behavioral norms necessary for fulfilling its mission, not as an imposition of one opinion on the university community. There is a crucial difference between providing support to students, faculty and staff following a troubling event in the US or abroad and making a public declaration on the political aspects of the event. Principled neutrality is restraint in the service of our mission.
We not only owe it to our students and faculty to protect a neutral space for diverse thought and vigorous debate—we also owe it to society. As other traditional forums fall victim to polarization—our bodies and media among them— the academy might be the last, best place where American citizens can learn to co-exist, converse and cooperate with people whose views differ from their own.
To be sure, staying neutral requires courage and fortitude. It is bound to elicit student protests, scathing social media posts and unpleasant emails from alumni. Each of those offers a valuable opportunity for more dialogue and a chance to coalesce around shared values despite our differences. But whatever comes, universities must stand strong in the face of discontent and prioritize their missions above all.
There is no other place like a university. College campuses are sacred ground, singular spaces where we go to reason together through the questions that matter to us most and batter away with our intellects toward truth, meaning and human advancement. By maintaining principled neutrality and resisting the call of the political fry, universities can safeguard their unique and vital function.