Universities Shouldn’t Ever Take Sides in a War

Supporters of Palestine gather at Harvard University to show their support for Palestinians in Gaza at a rally in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 14, 2023. JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images
Supporters of Palestine gather at Harvard University to show their support for Palestinians in Gaza at a rally in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 14, 2023. JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

The terrorist attack on Israel and resulting war between Israel and Hamas has roiled campuses across the United States. University presidents at Penn, Stanford, Harvard, and elsewhere have come under fire for not saying enough about the conflict, not saying it soon enough, saying too much, or saying the wrong thing. Longtime donors have severed ties, students have had job offers canceled for expressing controversial views, wealthy hedge fund moguls have sought to blacklist students for the positions they have taken, and assorted critics have seen these events as evidence that elite institutions are either indoctrinating students in dangerous ways or failing to instill in them proper ethical values.

I have spent a fair part of the past several weeks reflecting on these issues, pondering what the proper role for a university at a moment like this is. To be sure, these campus controversies pale in comparison to the human consequences for Israelis and Palestinians alike, not to mention the potential geopolitical repercussions of this latest round of fighting. But as institutions dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and the social and intellectual development of young people, universities must be concerned about protecting their ability to perform these missions in the face of these assaults, which are likely to increase over time.

These reflections drew me back to a seminal document that I first encountered during the decade I spent on the faculty of the University of Chicago. It is known as the Kalven Report, the product of a faculty committee chaired by law professor Harry Kalven Jr. Written in 1967, a time when college campuses were divided on Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and other contentious issues, the report lays out a clear and distinct vision of the “university’s role in political and social action”.

It begins by observing that universities have “a great and unique role to play in fostering the development of social and political values in a society”, one defined by “the distinctive mission” and “characteristics of the university as a community”. It states boldly that “the mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge”, and that its domain of inquiry “includes all aspects and all values of society”. As such, a university is a community that “creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones”. The committee further notes that “a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting”.

But—and it is a very important but—the report emphasizes that “the instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student” and not the university as a collective body. Implicit in that statement is a recognition that “dissent and criticism” may come from many different points of view and draw upon different bodies of knowledge. For this reason, a university must “sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry” and a consistent “independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures”.

Most importantly, it warns that a university “is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness”. In other words, a university as an organization or institution should not take positions on critical social and political issues, save for those that impinge directly on its ability to conduct open inquiry. To illustrate, the university as a body should not weigh in on the wisdom of going to war against another country, the merits of the death penalty, the legality of federal mask mandates, or whether to “defund” police. Similarly, it should not attempt to reach or state a common position on the current war between Israel and Hamas or pass a collective judgment on its origins or possible resolution.

This principle in no way inhibits what individual faculty or students may do or say; on the contrary, that freedom is precisely what this principle is intended to protect. Faculty and students may say or write whatever they wish, with the understanding that the institution will defend their right to do so even in the face of fierce criticism. At the same time, the university will do nothing to insulate their ideas from legitimate criticism—including from other members of the university itself.

Consider the controversial example of the open letter on Israel and Gaza that a group of Harvard student organizations issued immediately after Hamas attacked on Oct. 7. In my opinion, the students’ statement was an inaccurate and unhelpful portrayal of the origins of the current conflict. Its silence on Hamas’s commission of war crimes was, in my view, morally obtuse, and I believe its signatories deserve the criticism directed at them by other students, some members of the Harvard faculty, and others. The Harvard leadership, however, should have remained silent on this matter, except to make clear that the signatories spoke solely for themselves. Nor should the university aid those who seek to punish these students for expressing their views.

There are at least three good reasons for this position of institutional neutrality.

First, as soon as a university (or to be more precise, its top officials) adopts a public stance on some controversial issue, it risks inhibiting free inquiry within the university itself. Faculty or students who disagree with the “official” position will think twice before expressing their views, thereby undermining the unfettered exchange of ideas. It may discourage them from even exploring the merits of the official position, which might in fact be wrong, or at least questionable. As the Kalven Report points out, “there is no mechanism by which [a university] can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. … [I]t is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues”.

Second, taking a position on any critical social or political issue invites future demands to weigh on other issues that some vocal constituency deems important. If a university takes a public stance on the war in Ukraine, for example, it will be difficult to avoid being pressed to take a position on any future conflict that receives widespread attention. The prestige of the institution will be sought by groups of all kinds, and a refusal to weigh on a given issue will be taken as an implicit indication that the university deems that issue to be of lesser importance. Once universities start down this road, they risk having their prestige captured by the highest bidders or the loudest voices, and their leaders will face relentless hounding from those who disagree with whatever stance they may decide to take.

Third, because norms change and our understanding of key social and political issues evolves over time, a university that takes a position on a contemporary political controversy runs the risk of being gravely embarrassed should that position turn out to be wrong-headed. (Early 20th-century theories of eugenics or the past enrollment practices of Ivy League institutions come to mind here.) The reputations of individual faculty members may be tarnished if subsequent scholarship exposes their errors or if they defended policies that are later shown to be foolish or even abhorrent; that is a risk scholars run in doing their work. But exposing the errors of individual faculty or students does not tarnish the reputation of a university as an arena of free inquiry, provided that the institution does not endorse the positions taken by those individuals.

As the Kalven Committee made clear, there are certain exceptions to this basic principle. A university can and should weigh in on social or political issues that directly affect its ability to accomplish its mission. Issues involving censorship, loyalty oaths, government research support, foreign student visas, etc., are fair game. Yet even in these cases, presidents and deans must protect the right of faculty, students, and staff to openly dissent from whatever position the university leadership decides to take on the issue in question. It should be equally obvious that universities have an obligation to defend and protect members of the community who are threatened by antisemitism, Islamophobia, or other forms of intimidation, both on grounds of basic decency and because a threatening climate jeopardizes the open exchange of ideas on which universities thrive.

There are also going to be some gray areas where reasonable people will disagree, such as the issue of divestment. How a university invests its endowment is in some sense a collective act and can easily be interpreted as a political statement. In the 1970s, the issue was divestment from firms doing business with apartheid South Africa; today, it is decisions on investment in fossil fuel companies. People inside and outside a university are going to disagree on what it should do in cases such as these. Stricter adherence to the principles of the Kalven Report is not going to end all debate on the proper political stance of a university as an institution. Nor should it.

Why do I feel strongly about this issue? Because universities have a critical role to play in a free society, including on key foreign-policy issues. Elite universities are insulated from market pressures by their endowments, and faculty are protected by the institution of tenure. These conditions allow members of the community to weigh in on controversial issues without having to worry about the bottom line, unlike experts at a think tank that depends on soft money from like-minded donors or foundations. No other institution in a democratic society is as well-equipped to protect its members’ ability to say what they think without the immediate fear of losing their livelihood.

This unique role is essential to sound public policy. Why? Because no one is infallible, and no political actions should be exempt from careful scrutiny and reasoned dissent. We are more likely to make intelligent policy decisions if they are openly debated beforehand, and we are more likely to correct errors if critics can safely point out when the emperor is naked and it’s time to consider something new. As James Scott and Amartya Sen have shown, the (more or less) freewheeling exchange of information and ideas is the great strength of a properly functioning democratic order. And universities play a central role in that intellectual ecosystem.

These issues are especially salient at schools of public policy, such as the one where I teach. For these institutions, there is considerable value in being directly engaged with critical political issues, as well as connecting with policymakers and other stakeholders who focus on them. Not surprisingly, policy schools often attract donors who are strongly engaged with contemporary issues and want to support efforts to address them. There are obvious benefits from these connections—both for policy schools and for the wider world—but there are two obvious dangers.

The first arises when the desire to be tightly connected to the policy world leads an institution to become too deferential to public officials or other prominent citizens. Instead of speaking truth to power—the task that universities are uniquely positioned to perform—academic institutions could end up spending too much time and effort on being power’s best friend. In a university setting, a culture of excessive deference to the powerful or prominent may even discourage individual faculty from challenging current policies or criticizing public officials openly. Instead of challenging entrenched orthodoxies, the university risks becoming an echo chamber reinforcing them.

The second danger is that donors with a deep interest in a specific issue will want the institution to embrace their views on that subject. Instead of supporting research that asks tough questions designed to get at the truth, some donors may have strong views on what questions should be asked and what the correct answers should be. In these circumstances, academic leaders must not let the understandable desire to keep donors happy lead them to marginalize faculty or students whose views are at odds with a donor’s preferences. Here, too, a vigorous affirmation of the principles outlined by the Kalven Report can help academic institutions resist this temptation.

I have enormous sympathy for anyone running a university in an era of political and social upheaval, given the constant pressure they face to place the institution’s status and prestige on one side of the scale or the other. Academic leaders are also bound to have views of their own on contentious issues, and the desire to weigh in when controversies arise must be ever-present. But it is a desire that should be resisted. Deans cannot speak for an entire school, and presidents cannot speak for an entire university—especially on the most divisive issues.

Ironically, stricter adherence to the principles set forth in the Kalven Report would liberate university presidents, deans, and other top officials from the burden of having to comment on whatever controversial subject is in today’s headlines. They would be free to concentrate on their real job, which is to foster an environment where students and faculty can think, write, and talk in as honest, unconstrained, and respectful a manner as possible. In this way, universities can maintain their unique role as producers of knowledge for the betterment of society.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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