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Deeds, Not Words

The push for university 'neutrality' harms education and society

By Jonathan Becker

May 21, 2024

The intense focus on “institutional neutrality” since the escalation of violence in Israel and Gaza—a focus strengthened by trustee interventions, congressional investigations, grandstanding by state legislators, and the ongoing student demonstrations across the United States—threatens to push colleges and universities further into their shells at a time when they can play constructive roles to address great national and global challenges. Colleges and universities should resist strict notions of neutrality that involve distancing themselves from social and political issues and instead embrace constructive engagement with society.

Neutrality advocates invoke concerns of academic freedom—the ability of faculty and students to freely pursue the activities involved in the production of knowledge, through research and debate—to justify the stance that higher education institutions should be seen and not heard. When colleges and universities, represented institutionally by their leaders, take public stands on important issues, the argument goes, they create a chilling effect and may dissuade potential dissenters within the campus community from contradicting them.

Indeed, a range of actors, from the editorial board of the Washington Post to the Goldwater Institute, are increasingly invoking the University of Chicago’s 1967 Kalven Report in support of the position of strict institutional neutrality. Kalven focuses on “the appropriate role of the university in political and social action.” It posits the need for “neutrality of the university as an institution” as arising “out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.” It views the university as a community, but “only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research.” As an institution, the university is a convenor and not a participant, an observer not a commentator, a home for faculty and students who may choose to engage with social and political issues. As such it is not meant to comment or act on “political and social issues of the day” or be seen as an actor in its own right. Indeed, according to Kalven, there is a “heavy presumption against the university taking collective action.” If the university as an institution is seen to express views through its official statements and actions, it “does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted.” The exception is when “the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry” are challenged. In such instances, the “university as an institution” may rise up to “defend its interests and its values.”

The current ascendancy of the Kalven Report is not, however, solely about academic freedom. A growing number of populists, seeking to hollow out civic and social institutions, have been referring to the report to inspire public scrutiny of anything that smacks of advocacy on the part of colleges and universities. In the case of the current pro-Palestinian campus demonstrations, politicians and now even education leaders are invoking the need for neutrality as a justification to quell dissent and, in some case, to call for aggressive police interventions.

But American higher education also offers countertraditions, ones rooted in liberal education and civic learning, with throughlines going back to the founding of our nation that speak to a greater purpose of academic institutions. As Charles Eliot, Harvard University’s longest-serving president, stated more than a century ago, “At bottom, most of the American institutions of higher education are filled with the democratic spirit. Teachers and students alike are profoundly moved by the desire to serve the democratic community.” The 1947 report Higher Education for American Democracy, prepared by the President’s Commission on Higher Education (also known as the Truman Commission) and written in the wake of the defeat of fascism, views the university’s core mission as promoting values of citizenship and democratic engagement, stating: “The first and most essential charge upon higher education is that at all its levels and in all its fields of specialization, it shall be the carrier of democratic values, ideals, and process.”

The means of promoting democracy and engaged citizenship at colleges and universities have grown to include not only formal educational and research functions but the role of the institution itself as a civic actor. The idea of this role recognizes the capacities of institutions for collective action, underlining an expanded conception of the link between higher education and democracy. This view gained resonance through such organizations as Campus Compact, a national coalition of higher education institutions committed to “advancing the public purposes of higher education.” Its “Presidents’ Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher Education,” drafted in 1999, called on college and university leaders, trustees, faculty, staff, and students “to catalyze and lead a national movement to reinvigorate the public purposes and civic mission of higher education” and for institutions of higher education to become “vital agents and architects of a flourishing democracy.” Lee Benson, Ira Harkavy, and John Puckett underlined this view in their 2007 book Dewey’s Dream: Universities and Democracies in an Age of Education Reform, Civil Society, Public Schools, and Democratic Citizenship, arguing, “to become part of the solution, higher [education institutions] must give full-hearted, full-minded devotion to the painfully difficult task of transforming themselves into socially responsible civic universities and colleges.”

The 2011 report by the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement National Task Force to the US Department of Education, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, took things a step further, hailing the potential of colleges and universities to contribute to society. “The more civic-oriented colleges and universities become,” the reports says, “the greater their overall capacity to spur local and global economic vitality, social and political well-being, and collective action to address public problems.”

The Kalven Report focuses on what colleges and universities and their leaders should not do. Today, at a time of extraordinary national and global challenges, with protests sweeping college campuses, we should turn to these countertraditions to instead ask: how can colleges and universities be places that help solve societal problems? Places that aspire not to neutrality and disengagement from the outside world but rather to taking an active role in moving—unapologetically—toward a better society?

What does this perspective mean in reality? It means viewing colleges and universities not simply as places of discussion and debate but also as agents of change that work to alleviate some of society’s most pernicious ills. It means higher education institutions should devote resources—financial, intellectual, moral, and reputational—to contribute to the public good locally, nationally, and globally. Academic institutions do best when their engagement is rooted in their core missions of education and knowledge production, but even then, they can serve as “frontline institutions,” deploying their unique resources to address some of society’s most pressing problems—from racial and economic inequalities to public health emergencies.

For college and university leaders, this means using their privileged position and moral authority to advocate and act for the public good, not simply seeking to diffuse protests or avoid potential conflict. Rather than sacrificing meaningful social engagement at the altar of “neutrality” or operating from a position of fear—be it of alienating alumni, trustees or legislators—they can embrace programs and activities that reflect the university’s social mission. They can establish priorities and allocate resources that promote engaged research and community-based learning, devote space for legal clinics, welcome displaced students and refugees as full members of their academic community, and form international academic partnerships that engage underserved institutions and regions—not just the most wealthy and prestigious. In so doing, they are not only contributing to the public good but also enhancing the education of their students.

Students attend the opening of Bard High School Early College Bronx in September 2023. (Danny Santa)

Leaders can start to act by focusing on their institutions’ core missions, which can spur forms of collective action to address social issues, dispensing with Kalven’s prohibition on collective action and edict that the mission-based exception to neutrality only applies to crises.

For example, the mission of Bard College, where I serve as vice president for academic affairs and director of the Center for Civic Engagement, explicitly includes a goal of “extending liberal arts and sciences education to communities in which it has been underdeveloped, inaccessible, or absent.” This means engaging in social justice through education. In providing rigorous, accredited degree programs in places ranging from prisons, refugee camps in Kenya, and public early college high schools in disinvested communities, to our partner campuses in Palestine and Kyrgyzstan, Bard is addressing in small but constructive ways issues of crime and penal reform, the fate of the displaced, race and the legacies of racism, and the dignity of the Palestinian people. In developing new models of mentorship for young men of color through a program called Brothers@Bard (known nationally as Brothers@), we are tackling structural disadvantages marginalized students face in entering colleges and universities and persisting at predominately White institutions. Viewed in this way, education is collective action, and teaching, the most important act within an academic institution, is essentially social. Higher education profoundly changes people, communities, and systems.

Institutionally backed research has helped amplify the effects of these programs. The Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), which is the largest degree-granting prison education program of its kind in the country, has documented that the recidivism rate of incarcerated students enrolled in the program is dramatically lower than the norm for the incarcerated population as whole (3 percent for those earning degrees through BPI compared with national averages in the range of 50 percent). This research, coupled with amazing stories of student success, such as the BPI debate team’s victory over Harvard, helped shape the public debate about the value and capacity of incarcerated individuals, encouraged other institutions to join us in the education process, and contributed to the successful campaign to reintroduce Pell scholarships for incarcerated students across the United States. BPI is, at the end of the day, a success story for the right to learn and a lesson in institutional engagement. Colleges and universities can take risks, show what is possible, and shine a light on where and how public policy can evolve.

The civic component of the mission of colleges and universities, highlighted by the Truman Commission and further by Campus Compact and the authors of the Crucible Moment report, offers another focus for institutional engagement. At Bard, we have not only offered courses and cocurricular activities that directly and indirectly focus on citizenship and democracy, from the course All Politics Is Local, which required students to intern with local governments, to our annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Engagement, which mobilizes the entire first-year class to volunteer on campus or at local not-for-profits, we have also aggressively defended student voting rights against discriminatory practices by a local board of elections. Over the past twenty-five years, we have held public hearings, published editorials, and participated and won four lawsuits (three state and one federal) related to student voting rights. Plaintiffs have included students, faculty, and staff, including Bard’s long-serving president, Leon Botstein. By publicizing our experiences, we helped voting rights and good-government groups advocate successfully for a state law mandating polling places on college campuses with three hundred or more registered voters. Without institutional leadership and collective action, success would not have been possible.

One can decry this as overreach, averring that leaders who represent the institution, should not take a position on elections, but a crucial difference exists between advocating for a particular electoral outcome and advocating for the fundamental right to vote. Protecting the basic democratic rights of our students is part of Bard’s core mission, and the process of doing so provides a laboratory in which our students can contextualize and put into practice what they are learning about civics, democracy, and politics. When the institution acts to strengthen society, it also acts to enhance student learning.

The civic mission of colleges and universities can also include defending or expressing support for members of the community whose fundamental rights are being threatened or deprived, including those experiencing discrimination, dehumanization, and physical assault. This happened at the home of Kalven, the University of Chicago, when President Robert Zimmer and Provost Daniel Diermeier wrote to then US president Donald Trump to challenge the travel ban that affected entry to the US for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. In so doing, these university leaders were not neutral but rather were standing up against Islamophobia and calling for a more inclusive society.

Students at Al-Quds Bard College of Arts and Sciences, a dual-degree partnership between Al-Quds University in the Middle East and Bard College in the United States. (Al-Quds Bard College of Arts and Sciences)

By embracing their role as civic actors, colleges and universities can place more emphasis on their deeds than on their words, allowing their civic work to represent their priorities and their commitment to important local, national, and global challenges. Civic actions are far more meaningful than official college and university statements on major national and global events, which often ring hollow and almost never satisfy anyone, particularly when they appear disconnected from the institution’s daily practices. To the extent that they do make statements, college and university leaders should practice, as Princeton University’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, has stated, “institutional restraint”; they should not (indeed cannot) issue proclamations on every social and political issue of the day, let alone the myriad of conflicts and tragedies happening across the globe. Any statements they do make are best bolstered by reflections on institutional action and engagement, which make the message far more salient than words alone, and which implicitly foster a sense of agency.

Bard’s communications post October 7 rejected violence, Islamophobia, and antisemitism but concentrated on reaffirming the university’s commitment to our long-term academic partnership with Al-Quds University in Abu Dis on the West Bank, because “education has a pivotal role in providing a pathway to a better future.” Our capacity to approach conversations with concerned community members, including student protesters, from the perspective of a deeply engaged actor has not eliminated disagreements or halted protests, but it has contributed to thoughtful exchanges about free speech, the responsibility of community members to each other, and the meaning of international academic partnerships. Our actions have helped frame conversations not simply around protest and dissent but also about the nature of our international partnerships and civic engagement programs, ways our partnership with a Palestinian academic institution can create unique educational opportunities, and ways we can, even as a small institution, take meaningful steps to provide educational opportunities to those for whom the ongoing violence makes learning all but impossible.

But Israel-Gaza is not the only issue about which colleges and universities make statements through their deeds.

When thirty-three highly selective institutions submit amici curiae supporting Harvard and the University of North Carolina in a Supreme Court case concerning affirmative action, they are speaking for the value of diversity and inclusion on their campuses.

When Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, partners with local organizations to create Express Newark, which offers exhibitions, classes, and programs for community and university arts organizations, it is saying that the arts matter, that it is important students and community members have a space to express themselves, and that what they say through their art is of value to Rutgers and the local community.

When Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology contribute institutional resources to develop testing for COVID-19 and the creation and distribution of vaccines, those institutions are not only helping society; they are affirming a belief in science and scientific inquiry, something which, alas, needs saying in the current political environment.

When institutions band together in collective action, such as through the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, to shape policies that will make colleges and universities part of the broader solution to the challenge of integrating refugees into American society, they are contributing to better public policy and saying that displaced people can be contributors to society.

Academic institutions that promote a civic mission are not only exercising social responsibility; they are reinforcing the democratic spirit that has so long shaped American higher education. They are also educating students by modeling civic behavior and demonstrating agency. This is critical at in the United States and worldwide, where, especially among college-aged youth, alienation is growing, skepticism has transformed into cynicism, and belief even in core organizing notions of society, like democracy, is plummeting. When universities embrace social responsibility, they demonstrate that mission statements, like Harvard College’s, which begins with a commitment to “educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society” and ends with a hope that students will learn “how they can best serve the world,” are not idle rhetoric but reflect genuine institutional values. At Bard, I often say to students, “Don’t just listen to what we say, pay attention to what we do.”

Lead photo: Led by Bard students, Election@Bard helps students register to vote, offers information about candidates, and holds forums with candidates and students. (Jonathan Asiedu)


  • Becker Jonathan

    Jonathan Becker

    Jonathan Becker is the executive vice president, vice president for academic affairs, and the director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College, where he is also a professor of politics.