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Don’t write off the benefits of institutional neutrality

Large arched gothic building in snow-covered ground with sunset at the back.
Isabel Richardson / The Daily Princetonian

Student-led sociopolitical dissent is an enduring asset of the American university. Since the horrific events of Oct. 7, 2023, on-campus demonstrations have recognizably spiked. The ensuing months of complicated and heartbreaking conflict in the Middle East have prompted many contemplative and necessary exchanges regarding power, national autonomy, and the ceaseless tragedy of the loss of innocent life. This intensification of student speech, in tandem with the recent controversy surrounding congressional testimony by Ivy League university presidents and their alleged hesitation to condemn rising antisemitism, has renewed attention towards the role of universities as both conduits and participants in the national political discourse. Some even argue that Princeton University is responsible for answering inquiries on its positions regarding national and global events to continuously support marginalized voices. While this goal is undeniably noble, a reexamination of the Kalven Report and recent restrictive legislation levied towards Florida universities serves as a necessary reminder that we at Princeton shouldn’t overlook the power of institutional neutrality to preserve campus discussions of diversity and equity.

The Kalven Report was released in 1967 by the University of Chicago in response to anti-war demonstrations led by students against the Vietnam War. As a declaration, it seeks to provide “a statement on the [University of Chicago’s] role in political and social action.” The document opens by stating that the ultimate purpose of a university is the inquiry and dissemination of knowledge into all aspects of society. The classical liberalism of the Kalven Report’s definition of university purpose prioritizes the scope of speech over its perceived degree of social conformity or subversion. In essence, the university has a greater interest in enabling student discourse than directly intervening in the dialogue of the student body. Thus, the university is assigned the role of the arbitrator, not the converser, and assumes the now well-known position coined by the Kalven Report: “institutional neutrality.” 

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This ideological stance of neutrality is derived from the notion that an institution cannot take collective action on an issue without implicitly silencing some faction. Therefore, any ideological interventions on the university’s behalf would inherently negate the higher purpose of universities to empower the widest degree of conversation. Notably, the Kalven Report does not call for absolute neutrality: it allows for political speech at the institutional level in instances where the preservation of the university’s mission to protect speech or the ethics of its corporate activities are at stake. However, the report acknowledges that these exceptions to neutrality are “extraordinary instances” that don’t directly apply to a university’s standard practice.

In the Princeton Alumni Weekly, President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 has shared his thoughts on institutional neutrality. Although he concurs with the Kalven report that Princeton is “a place for untrammeled, rational inquiry, and debate,” Eisgruber ultimately identifies with the practice of “institutional restraint.” First developed by former University President Robert Goheen GS ’48, who led Princeton from 1957 to 1972, institutional restraint reasons that because Princeton is a “value-laden” institution, the University cannot be separated from its commitment to intellectual freedom, diversity, and civic responsibility. In his statement, Eisgruber also invokes another former president of the University — Goheen’s successor William Bowen ’58 — citing that “the unrelenting, open-minded search for truth is itself the highest value.” In theory, this value strongly aligns with the Kalven Report’s commitment to ensuring the “improvement, and dissemination of knowledge” across “all values of society.” However, Eisgruber seems to feel that institutional neutrality does not strike a sufficient balance between institutional integrity and intellectual inquiry. 

Eisgruber is not alone in this sentiment: much of the argument against institutional neutrality derives from the fear that it will absolve universities from being held morally accountable or committed to inclusivity. However, this position assumes that the university can only impact its student body in a socially positive manner if given the power to express political views. Yet, many once-innocuous values, such as diversity and equity, have been politicized and villainized by far-right politicians. To examine this phenomenon in action, one needn’t look any further than my home state of Florida, where Governor and former Presidential candidate Ron DeSantis has passed education legislation that aims to suppress the visibility and autonomy of minorities. A poignant example is Florida Senate Bill 266, which bans funding for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs in state universities and aims to remove “woke” curricula that teach the historical and contemporary reality of American systemic inequality. 

While DeSantis’s regressive legislation does not directly model how universities may speak on behalf of their students and faculty, it does demonstrate how institutional policy, and thus the larger educational experience and campus culture, can be manipulated to serve a larger political agenda without the consent of the members of the intellectual community. These encroachments on educational freedom could just as easily originate from a University official as it already has from a public official. This goes to say that although institutional neutrality may initially appear to obstruct the curation and preservation of diversity on campus, it can represent an invaluable protection against regressive policies. Neutrality ensures, rather than obstructs, the space for conversations surrounding equity on campus. When the university takes a political “back seat,” it gives maximal power to the student body, rather than the university itself, to shape campus culture and values independent of political impositions that may threaten diverse views.

Considering the merits of institutional neutrality begs the question of whether Princeton should adopt the policy or not. The answer is not yet. Due to its status as an elite university in the northeast, Princeton simply doesn’t face the same threats of political censorship that universities in Florida do, and Princeton’s institutional restraint remains a viable policy for the time being. While these ponderings may not be directly applicable to Princeton in 2024, as we look to a future where allegations of “leftist indoctrination” in education remain conservative talking points, they serve as “food for thought” in the larger debate of how Princeton should politically assert itself moving forward. We shouldn’t overlook the protective barrier of institutional neutrality — even if it might be suffocating at times.

Christie Davis is a first-year undergraduate from Jacksonville, FL intending to major in economics. She can be contacted at cd6404[at]princeton.edu.

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