Last Wednesday, the New York Times published an Opinion piece from Adam Hoffman, a senior at the University, who argued that Princeton’s administration and campus community create an environment inhospitable to nuanced discussions. In response to allegations of censorship, some have claimed that institutional “neutrality provides a starting point” to protect and develop free speech on college campuses like Princeton’s. Princeton has adopted the University of Chicago Free Speech Principles, meaning that Princeton’s policies now attempt to “[guarantee] all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” However, recently some of my fellow students have argued that Princeton should go further and adopt the Kalven Report, which focuses on maintaining the political neutrality of the University. While “institutional neutrality” is appealing and certainly has its merits, the University needs to speak out to support the inclusion of voices that have traditionally been marginalized.
The Kalven Report was written in 1967 by a committee at the University of Chicago, with the goal of recognizing the mission of the university and coming up with a set of rules to prevent representatives of the University from influencing academic discussions and debates on campus from their place of power. It states that “[t]he university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic,” signifying that a university and department administrations should not use their positions to support or oppose a political argument. The concept of the Kalven Report is to create an open forum for discussion and debate, erasing potential concerns of retribution at the administrative level. These principles were adopted by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill this past fall, with the hopes of maintaining an environment of free expression. Under Kalven Report policies, University administrators and professors have a right to speak on political issues as individuals, but they cannot do so in their administrative capacity.
If the University adopts the principles of the Kalven Report, the voices of historically marginalized groups may be silenced in the process. This is an important piece of the puzzle: while administrations should not be opining often, much of the current “political” discourse deals with issues that cannot be ignored.
This is particularly the case when there has been an institutional history of preventing certain groups and voices from participating in the conversation. Recently, some students have argued that the English Department’s anti-racism statement is politically charged and should be taken down from the website, suggesting that the statement lacks a desired neutrality. Yet for the vast majority of the University’s existence, Princeton has been a space for white students and scholarship. To ignore the precedent that these longstanding institutions have set over centuries is a grave mistake, and further alienates voices that have historically been excluded from the conversation. Neutrality cannot exist when there has been a history of unequivocally discriminatory policies in the composition of the student body and faculty. Acknowledging racism in the academy need not be a political statement, and if speaking against racism is a political statement, then the University should be willing to stray from neutrality. Furthermore, if a department wants to acknowledge that past policies and instruction have been problematic, they are doing so to try to affirm the place of those who have been historically excluded, and not at the expense of anyone else.
The most challenging conversations arise when one’s identity becomes politicized, and there is proof that supportive recognition from places of power helps to deal with issues of marginalization. For example, survey data has shown that schools which recognize the equal rights and safety that LGBTQ+ individuals deserve, such as affirming gender, see lower rates of suicide attempts among LGBTQ+ youth. Sticking to rigid principles of institutional neutrality would mean that institutions would not opine on topics that are politically charged. If someone’s identity is viewed as political, then the University needs to be able to speak and affirm their place on campus.
President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 demonstrated the value of Princeton’s history of institutional restraint, as opposed to institutional neutrality, in a November letter. Recalling the tradition of former leaders, President Eisgruber has cited how former University President Robert Goheen ’40 “regarded it as essential to speak up for what he called ‘the basic tenets’ of the University.” This helped when navigating challenging situations of segregationist politicians speaking, student protests, and, more recently, issues of divestment.
Even UChicago, which has been recognized as one of the best campuses for free speech in the country, doesn’t hold strictly to institutional neutrality, as administrators maintain their right to take positions on issues of “paramount value” to the University.
In the past, I have argued that free speech rules cannot be written without marginalized voices at the table. Some speech can be extremely damaging, beyond what could be justified as part of “lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation,” and the University should not refrain from recognizing this. Arguments in favor of free speech have been used to defend incendiary speech and threats. If the point of institutional neutrality is to protect free and open discourse, then we need to acknowledge that some speech shuts down a discussion by creating an environment where people are uncomfortable speaking rather than contributing to it.
I agree with the basic premise of recent columns on institutional neutrality from my colleagues Matthew Wilson and Abigail Rabieh. Creating space for students to feel comfortable speaking and learning without fear of retribution is certainly a valid goal. However, total institutional neutrality does not serve the goals of free speech and inquiry. There are many circumstances where reminding students that they are valued members of University discourse will lead to greater discussion and inquiry, even if it means that the University is occasionally on one side of a political discussion. If there is one thing that is of “paramount value” to University functioning, it should be the ability of students to learn and grow in a supportive environment. Institutional neutrality does not always accomplish that goal.
Mohan Setty-Charity is a junior in the economics department. He grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, and can be reached at email@example.com.