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On institutional neutrality and double-standards

blue sky in front of a wide area with stone floors and steps and a fountain with water coming out of it.  There are also buildings at the back.
Scudder Plaza.
Louisa Gheorghita / The Daily Princetonian

As I write this essay, the despicable poison of Jew-hatred has taken a firm hold at so many college campuses, Princeton included. The current climate seems to have provided the perfect conditions for pure, unadulterated religious and ethnic bigotry to show itself and flourish. Here at Princeton, activists proudly chant “Intifada” and demand the complete eradication of the world’s only Jewish state; elsewhere, from Cornell, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania to Ohio State and Cooper Union, frightening (and sometimes violent and illegal) exhibitions of anti-Jewish attitudes abound. As my Jewish friends tell me, now is — to put it exceedingly mildly — an alarming time to be a Jew on a college campus.

For the most part, university responses to these shameful displays have been tepid and restrained. Unsurprisingly, at some universities, this restraint has provoked backlash from lawmakers, alumni, and donors eager to see them take stronger institutional stances against anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment. Why, they ask, are these universities agnostic on Israel’s right to defend itself from invasion, adopting muted positions on anti-Jewish activities, refusing to disavow pro-Hamas demonstrations, and reluctant to describe Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks as unjustifiable acts of terror?


As proponents of institutional action appropriately note, these same universities, despite being so reticent to speak out now, have a prolonged public history of weighing in on a wide array of hotly contested and politically controversial topics. At Princeton, for instance, recent years have seen official statements issued deploring Supreme Court rulings on abortion and affirmative action, condemning a jury verdict, and attacking a professor for his political views. On Hamas’s terrorist attacks? No official statements — instead, a post (admittedly strongly-worded) on President Christopher Eisgruber ’83’s personal blog in which he did not invoke his role as University president.

At nonsectarian universities around the country, from Johns Hopkins to the California State University system, ideologically-driven and one-sided statements on issues like affirmative action and abortion have similarly proliferated. Now? Reservation and moral ambiguity prevail. Many will recall Harvard’s decision to fly a Ukrainian flag over its campus after Russia’s invasion; despite the fact that both situations involved a bloody and unjustifiable attack on a sovereign country, the same type of non-neutral moral clarity from Harvard’s leaders has been much slower to come in this case.

What explains this reversal? Is it — as it appears to many — clear evidence of rank hypocrisy and flagrant double-standards pervading at our nation’s most prominent universities? Perhaps there is a more generous explanation: it is conceivable, after all, that the current moment has caused universities to see the light and embrace institutional neutrality as official policy. That’s all well and good — many of us for some time now have been making the case for full-scale neutrality in line with the Kalven Report.

However, I have not seen any university publish a mea culpa repenting for past partisanship or ideological scale-tilting; I have also yet to come across explicitly acknowledged shifts towards comprehensive institutional neutrality. This is important: if universities have determined that now is finally the right moment to begin eschewing ideological stances on the contested social, cultural, and political issues of the day, future efforts to hold them to that standard require that they openly publicize their decisions. And, of course, any generic professions of “neutrality” ought to be met with healthy skepticism if a university’s entrenched biases remain untouched on a practical level (e.g. in the ideologically-infused policies of their diversity, equity, and inclusion offices). 

For universities that have publicly strayed from the bounds of nonsectarian impartiality in favor of ideological bias and moralizing partisanship in the past, feigned neutrality or a selective reluctance to speak out now is totally unacceptable and reeks of an underlying moral and ethical rot. To be sure, if Hamas’s terrorist attacks did in fact provide the right conditions for some universities to debut official policies of institutional neutrality, the policy shift itself is welcome (even if the circumstances are suspect). But any university that bills itself as “institutionally neutral” post-Oct. 7 ought to announce its conversion publicly and forthrightly — while apologizing for past partisan misbehavior, outlining in clear terms the rules it will abide by in the future (e.g. the Kalven Report), and committing to disassemble the non-neutral policies and instruments used to enforce ideological orthodoxy on campus. Anything less would be a grave ethical dereliction and would represent a failure to live up to the stringent demands of comprehensive institutional neutrality.

If, however, it is true that hypocrisy and ideological double-standards have triumphed over consistency and impartiality in universities’ decisions to speak out on controversial issues, they deserve all of the public criticism and pushback that they get. A university that professes to be nonsectarian — while at the same time being ideologically biased in its rhetoric and behavior — is lying to its faculty and students. And lying, like the grave evil of Jew-hatred, is a wicked thing indeed.


Matthew Wilson is a senior studying political theory. He can be reached at

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