Jonathan Grant is director of Different Angles and a contributing editor of Wonkhe

In 11th century Bologna a group of young immigrants acted to better their lives. They were being harassed and persecuted by the local population so if one of them committed a misdemeanour they were all punished.

These immigrants – like many throughout history – formed communities to support one-another and to protect their collective rights. Over time they realised that one of the ways to better their prospects was to seek an education, so they pulled the little money they had and hired lecturers.

They did this in national groups – nationes – with a focus on law, theology and what today we would call the liberal arts. These communities became known as universitas scholarium, which loosely translates as an incorporated groups of scholars or students. The communities began to merge together to form a larger association or studium, a centre of study.

This is the founding story of the West’s oldest university – the University of Bologna, in Italy. A university founded by students for students. It is a story of student action. It is a story of social justice. It is a story of progress.

Today, universities are being attacked for being progressive and seeking social justice. Whilst a long-time coming, one of the catalysts for the current critique of the social justice model of higher education followed the resignations of the Presidents of Harvard University (Claudine Gay) and the University of Pennsylvania (Elizabeth Magill) after their appearance before the US Congress on 5th December 2023.

They were summoned before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Workforce, along with the President of MIT (Sally Kornbluth), to a hearing titled “Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism”.

Irrespective of your views on the Gaza-Israel war, the politically loaded questioning, or the legalistic responses from the Presidents, the fallout from the hearing has further tarnished the reputation of universities, in the US but also more broadly in the West, especially the Anglo-West.

For example, columnist Brett Stephens argued in the New York Times, in commenting on Gay’s short-lived tenure as Harvard’s President that:

…the social justice model of higher education, currently centered on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts — and heavily invested in the administrative side of the university — blew up the excellence model, centered on the ideal of intellectual merit and chiefly concerned with knowledge, discovery and the free and vigorous contest of ideas.

A position in tension with the founding ideal of Bologna: the so called social justice model was clearly embraced by those immigrants nearly a millennia ago with a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. The immigrant students were celebrating their own diversity through their nationes, seeking equity through education and inculcating themselves in their adopted society.

Social justice

The story of Bologna is not unique. The vast majority of universities were founded on the concept of social justice. This was often wrapped up in religious identities with, for example, Harvard’s “Rules and Precepts”, adopted in 1646, stating that:

…every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.

In England, this religious hegemony was challenged by the founders of University College London in 1826 as a secular alternative to Oxford and Cambridge. It was the first university in England to welcome students of any religion or social background as well as being the first university in England to offer education to women alongside men some fifty years after its foundation. An example of social justice “centered on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts” (to requote Stephens).

These are far from isolated examples – indeed the long history of universities is a history of social justice. Take the land grant universities in the US. Founded through the Morrell Act of 1862 to contribute to the rebuilding of the nation following the civil war, their purpose was:

…to teach … branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts … in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.

Literally, an Act of social justice.

Likewise in the UK the “red brick” universities of Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool, to name a few, were often founded by local business leaders in a ‘civic’ tradition to support local communities ‘where students from all backgrounds were accepted on an equal basis’ (as the University of Birmingham website puts it today).

All of these foundation stories – Bologna, Harvard, UCL, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and many many other great institutions – are based on social justice. Their foundations are social acts that centre on diversity, equity and inclusion.

Institutional neutrality

So why the historic illiteracy when it comes to today’s debate on the social purpose of higher education in the 21st century? At risk of oversimplification this can probably be traced back to the doctrine articulated by the Kalven Committee at the University of Chicago in the 1960s. Up to a few years ago the Kalven Committee report had little profile but has been increasingly cited by those wishing to neuter the progressive voice of universities.

Take, for example, Jeffery Flier’s (the former Dean of Harvard Medical School) recent piece in Quillette again in the wake of the Harvard and Penn resignations:

Harvard should adopt a policy on institutional neutrality, along the lines of the Kalven principles adopted in 1967 by the University of Chicago. The policy would declare that University leaders—presidents, provosts, deans, department chairs and potentially others—should not offer official statements on social and political issues of the day (though, of course, we would understand that they hold these).

There are two important points to be made about the Kalven Committee report that are often overlooked in today’s debate. First is the context in which the report was commissioned and drafted. The then President of the University of Chicago, George Beadle, appointed a committee of senior faculty to “to reflect on the boundary between individual and collective political opinion at the University” (as Boyle puts in it his history of the university). The committee was chaired by eponymous law professor Harry Kalven.

Beadle commissioned the report due to student demands that the university took a position on a number of social issues of the day, including making investments in apartheid South Africa. The committee concluded that:

…a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. …. Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.

The second point to note is that after some division on the committee, the Kalven Committee report concludes with an often overlooked get-out-of jail-card:

From time-to-time instances will arise in which the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry. In such a crisis, it becomes the obligation of the university as an institution to oppose such measures and actively to defend its interests and its values.

The Kalven Committee, and the subsequent Stone Committee (of 2014) which led to the Chicago Principles on freedom of expression, capture a culture that whilst not unique to the University of Chicago is by no means one which reflects the diversity of higher education in the US, Europe or internationally. The persistent referencing of Kalven and Stone by commentators on higher education in the 21st century is an attempt to homogenise that diversity and silence universities.

Lost on many, is that fact that arguing for institutional neutrality is in itself taking an institutional position. That is not to argue that the University of Chicago does not have that right to take such a position, but to push back on the idea that other universities need to follow suite as suggested by Stephenson, Flier and others.

Rights and responsibilities

A further intellectual inconsistency is these commentators make a big deal about freedom of expression which is framed as an individual right, but in the same breadth claim that such a right does not exist for the institution. This irony is not lost on Randall Kennedy, a Harvard Law professor, who last month wrote an interesting piece in the London Book Review (£), detailing the background to the Gay case, and providing a partial defence. He argues that Presidents of Harvard, Pennsylvania and MIT actually:

…made a remarkable stand for freedom of expression … they stood for a proposition that, especially in a university, it is better to answer bad ideas – even repugnant ideas – with refutation rather than repression.”

Returning to the concept of institutional neutrality, there are leading figures in higher education who support the Kalven line and have used it in contemporary debates. In Australia, in 2017, there was an advisory referendum on an amendment to the federal Marriage Act to give same sex couples the same right to marry as heterosexual couples. At the time, the then Vice Chancellor of the University of Sydney, Michael Spence (now at UCL), was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying advocating a Yes vote would have “a potentially chilling effect on debate”.

In a subsequent statement he went on to argue that:

I do not believe it appropriate for us to adopt an institutional position. In saying so I want to stress that I do not mean to sound insensitive to the very real pain experienced by those currently unable to marry under Australian law. But I think the issue goes to [the] heart of the function of the university as an institution … universities in the secular liberal tradition are essentially for a debate in which ideas can be freely expressed and discussed.

But this was not a view held by other universities in Australia. For example, Monash University came out in support of the Yes vote. The Vice Chancellor, Margaret Gardner (and now Governor of the State of Victoria), said:

Since it was founded, Monash has stood for the principles of fairness, tolerance and diversity. Support for marriage equality is consistent with these values and our commitment to championing those values.

Other universities hedged their bets with, for example, the Academic Board at the University of Melbourne (which in governance terms represents the faculty), passing a resolution supporting of the Yes side of the debate, but not taking a formal institutional position.

In the more recent Voice referendum (which readers will know was not passed, unlike for Equal Marriage), 25 of Australia’s 41 universities backed recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the constitution. However, the remaining institution maintained their neutrality including the University of Sydney – the current vice chancellor of Sydney, Mark Scott, saying:

There were … concerns that a statement by the university indicating a position would … seek to impose an institutional perspective on the individuals who form our community.

The irony of this position was highlighted by University of New South Wales Sydney, law professor, Megan Davis, in her keynote speech at Universities Australia annual conference in 2023 (before the referendum):

Universities say they don’t want to be political, but the decision not to take a stance … is a political decision. Imagine taking money from the [Australian government] … for indigenous students, and then turning around and saying that your university is above politics when it comes to the single most important reform facing first nations since 1967.

Neutrality is an own-goal

So whilst it is entirely within the right of any university to take a position of institutional neutrality, it is not and should never be a requirement. Indeed, as we have seen even those institutions which claim to be consistently neutral, have their get-out-of-jail-card, when issues “threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry” (to go back to Kalven).

It is this self-interested exceptionalism that so undermines the reputation of a university. They are willing to fight for funding for students and research, for special visas for international students, for planning permission for a signature lab – all which will impact on their bottom line – but (in some cases) are unwilling stand up for equity, support the voice for first nationers, fight against apartheid or, dare I say it, challenge the populist, post truth polarisation that characterises much of contemporary debate in Western democracies.

To get conspiratorial, it is in the interest of the populist to argue for institutional neutrality of universities. This allows their post truth/evidence free policies to go unchallenged. It is not an accident that universities are portrayed as ‘woke’ institutions that are out of touch with the “will of the people” on matters such as diversity, equity and inclusion, net zero or gender rights. The very existence of universities undermines the agenda of the populist. We know from repeated surveys that graduates, on the whole, do not support populist policies or politicians.

With participation rates in higher education at a high – albeit one that may be plateauing – then the outlook for populist politicians is not that great. The tragedy for universities is they have been played into a checkmate. On one hand they are being told not to speak out against such policies and if they do, they are critiqued for their social justice model of higher education. On the other hand if they do nothing then their very existence is under threat. Which, to mix the gaming metaphors, means now is the time to play their get-out-of-jail-card.

But taking a position is not easy and needs to be done with forethought, caution and sophistication. The University Arts London has fashioned itself as a social purpose university. In doing so it has fully understood that being a neutral actor is untenable and thus have come up with some informal guidance on how to decide on what social issues of the day to speak out on. This includes whether they have legitimacy or credibility – for example, is it a topic where their faculty have expertise or knowledge. Whether there is tacit consensus within UAL – acknowledging that there will never be full consensus.

And finally, when they do take a position, emphasising that it is the issue that matters, not associated partisan politics and respecting the academic freedom of individuals within their faculty who may disagree with the institutional position. A set of informal guidelines that are considerably more fit for purpose for today’s world than the much-heralded Kalven committee.

The implementation of such guidance does, however, need to be done with care. What happens to employees who are at odds with an institutional position but appropriately invoke their academic freedoms? The power imbalance between an institution vs an individual could have a “chilling effect” and, in extreme cases, lead to people leaving institutions that do not align with their values. But this is not an argument for institutional neutrality, but one for inclusive working cultures.

There are examples of this already, with the recent case of Jo Phoenix who won an industrial tribunal against the Open University for constructive dismissal because her gender critical views were not welcomed by her colleagues. But in this case, it should be stressed, that this was not an institutional view of the university, but an unpleasant culture that led her to leave, with the university failing to protect her from the discrimination and harassment directed towards her.

At the end of the day, universities’ legitimacy comes from the communities they serve – their students, their staff, their faculty, their alumni, and more broadly society. Since the student-led movement that resulted in the founding of the University of Bologna, these institutions have always led progress – be that through education, through research or by championing the social issues of the day.

Their history is one of social action which more often than not has been on the right side of history – think of UCL opening its doors to women, the land grant universities in widening access to the “industrial classes”, boycotts of apartheid South Africa and more recently campaigns to adopt net zero.

You may disagree with these issues, but to suggest that the institution of a university does not have a right to take a position on them is historically flawed, intellectually inconsistent and fails to value the inherently progressive nature of universities. Universities have never been, are not and should never be neutral on the social issues of the day.

6 responses to “Universities should never be neutral on the social issues of the day

  1. Thanx very much for this informative piece.

    Another difficult current issue for universities is climate change. Some universities claim not to have an institutional position on climate change, yet their investment in fossil fuel companies clearly states a position on climate change.

  2. “Post truth polarization”? Grade C. The exchange of knowledge and ideas is the primary purpose. If those ideas challenge the status quo, so be it. But the primary purpose of a uni is not to establish the legitimacy of post-Foucault Marxism as enforced through DEI departments or academics that won’t supervise or give tenure to those that don’t agree with them.

  3. “Their history is one of social action which more often than not has been on the right side of history”

    It’s all a bit Billy Bragg (‘Which side are you on?’) but there are a number of issues where Universities were plainly not on the right side of history (if there is a right and a wrong side). For example, the UK general elections of 1979-92, the collapse of Communism 1987-92, the Miners’ strike, the EU referendum, and the US elections of Reagan, Bush (1&2) & Trump. Some of the history underpinning this piece (eg founding of Bologna) resembles a creation myth.

    Stop to consider the Gaza conflict for a moment. Jonathan Grant is saying, it appears, that Universities HAVE to pick a side, that they have to pick ONE of the sides, and that they unfailingly know which of the two is the RIGHT side. The same applies to anything that can plausibly be construed as a “social issue of the day”.

    1. Depends if you mean the ‘winning’ side of history, or the ‘progressive’ side of history, which are not always the same thing, but this is a bit unclear in the original article.

  4. As soon as I saw the word “collective rights” I had a pretty good idea where this was going (what exactly are their collecive rights separate from their individual rights?).
    There is no irony in the Australian universities not taking a position – it is not “taking a position” to “not take a position”. Rubbish reasoning.
    What is ironic is that in the single most just society ever to exist, numerous people goaded by activists actually believe they are hard done by.
    Could go on and on.
    End of the day, the current progressive program of Social Justice – Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging, SEL Indoctrination – is not justice and culminates in communism. We should at least be honest about what we are talking about.
    Paulo Freire/Herbert Marcuse/Adorno/Horkheimer/Gramschi/ would be very proud.

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