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Universities Nationwide Have Embraced Institutional Neutrality. How Does Harvard’s Report Stack Up?

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{shortcode-a0fafb3727a5405eac46bd1741f1eafab86bbf7e}arvard adopted a set of recommendations on Tuesday that advised its leaders not to make statements about contentious political issues, placing Harvard on a growing list of universities that have adopted similar policies.

The move — the most striking policy change that interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 has enacted since assuming office less than five months ago — comes amid growing support among University affiliates for a policy of institutional neutrality.

Their approach has been modeled off of the Kalven Report, a 1967 statement of institutional neutrality at the University of Chicago that was later adopted by a handful of other universities.

But while the spirit of Harvard’s new policy follows in the tradition of the Kalven Report, the University’s approach includes important disclaimers about the use of the school’s endowment and whether Harvard can truly be “neutral.” The Crimson reviewed similar policies at other American universities to see where Harvard’s policy mirrors its peers — and the key areas where it differs.

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Neutrality, at Harvard and Elsewhere

The Kalven Report is still held up as the prototypical institutional neutrality policy. And in recent years, other universities have reached into their archives to dust off neutrality principles of their own. In 2022, the president of Princeton University and the chancellor of Vanderbilt University both penned op-eds to revive traditions that they dubbed “institutional restraint” and “principled neutrality,” respectively — traditions whose roots they traced back to their predecessors from the 1960s.

Not long after, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Ohio State University adopted institutional neutrality policies.

But pushes for institutional neutrality gained momentum last fall, as universities struggled to respond to public pressure and student protest following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s retaliatory war in Gaza. The leaders of several schools — including Northwestern University, Stanford University, and Williams College — adopted stances approaching institutional neutrality in the days following the attack.

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At Harvard, too, some faculty began advocating for institutional neutrality as the University struggled to respond to competing demands from affiliates and the public — to issue a stronger condemnation of Hamas, to call for a ceasefire in Gaza, to punish or to protect student activists.

In substance, Tuesday’s report represents a victory for the champions of institutional neutrality. But — at least on paper — it’s also a repudiation of the notion that Harvard can be neutral, explicitly contending that the University is “not a neutral institution” with respect to its academic mission.

The school “values open inquiry, expertise, and diverse points of view, for these are the means through which it pursues truth,” the report stated. Because of that, its authors argue, Harvard cannot remain neutral in pursuit of those goals.

Other institutional neutrality statements, including the Kalven Report, identify many of the same aims. Harvard’s choice to reject the language of neutrality, instead of embracing it, does not represent a departure from the content of those statements. But it does illustrate that — in a moment when higher education has found itself subject to both political attacks and social demands — Harvard does not feel it can credibly declare itself neutral.

Defending the University’s ‘Core Mission’

Harvard’s new policy comes as universities nationwide have found themselves at the center of a political firestorm.

Harvard is one of a number of universities facing investigations by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce over campus antisemitism. In an April press conference, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) said multiple House committees have been instructed to investigate the federal funding of the universities under investigation.

Some faculty have argued that now is the time for universities to assert themselves, rather than retreating into neutrality.

In February, Government professor Ryan D. Enos said he supported a policy that would discourage Harvard from making statements not essential to its mission. But he said the University should push back against political attacks instead of going silent.

“If you believe in free inquiry and academic freedom, what you see coming from Congress right now should be a five-alarm fire,” Enos said.

The Harvard report appears responsive to such concerns. Even as the document urges Harvard not to make statements on matters unrelated to its central purpose, it emphasizes the need to “defend the university’s autonomy and academic freedom when threatened” and publicly advocate for the value of the work conducted at Harvard.

That language echoes a segment of the Kalven Report, which calls on UChicago “actively to defend its interests and its values” of free inquiry when they are threatened. But the Harvard report’s language is more pointed, alluding to “outside forces” that might aim to restrict what subjects the University can teach or research.

That specificity indicates that the “crisis” warned of by the Kalven Report — attacks on free inquiry in university settings — may feel more real in 2024.

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Still, the matter of what counts as Harvard’s “core function” remains open. In the past, universities that hold institutional neutrality policies have nonetheless weighed in on some political debates.

In 2017, after Donald Trump’s presidential administration passed an executive order banning travel from six majority-Muslim nations, 31 universities, including Harvard, submitted amicus curiae briefs supporting challenges to the ban in federal courts. UChicago joined the briefs, as did Princeton and Vanderbilt.

The universities characterized their intervention as a defense of academia. In one brief, they argued that the ban “both threatens American higher education and offends important, defining principles of our country.”

But for Harvard, thorny questions remain. To decide what constitutes a threat to its mission, the University must first define what that mission is. In making admissions decisions, should the University consider its role in promoting social mobility? Can research aims be separated from social welfare — or, for that matter, social justice?

The report doesn’t try to litigate those questions. But it does suggest a relatively conservative line — asserting that, in “close cases where reasonable people disagree,” the University should “err on the side of avoiding official statements.”

Certain statements also blur the line between what some see as political platforms and others describe as expressions of common decency.

In 2020, UChicago sent an email decrying anti-Asian racism, and its medical school issued a statement affirming that “Black Lives Matter.” Since Oct. 7, schools with institutional neutrality policies have made statements condemning Hamas and acknowledging students’ grief over lives lost in Israel and Gaza.

Vanderbilt’s chancellor, Daniel Diermeier, wrote in an op-ed in the Tennessean that institutional neutrality policies do not prevent university leaders from “naming atrocities and expressing empathy for the victims.”

But Harvard’s report explicitly warns against “statements of empathy,” cautioning that the University may alienate the people it wants to comfort by making “anodyne official statements” — or appear to “care more about some places and events than others” when it chooses which world events to respond to.

Ruling Out Divestment?

If money talks, then decisions on where to invest Harvard’s $50.7 billion endowment are, arguably, statements of the University’s values. That has led some to contend that, for better or for worse, institutional neutrality would prevent the University from making investment decisions with social goals in mind.

But Harvard’s report steers clear of the question of divestment, and its authors have argued that the University’s institutional voice policy does not apply to its investments.

In an interview with The Crimson, Harvard Law School professor Noah R. Feldman ’92 — a co-chair of the working group that drafted the report — described divestment as “an independent decision for the University.”

“It’s totally appropriate for the University to explain its position on investment or divestment,” he said. “But we don’t think that our recommendations on institutional voice dictate an answer.”

In principle, at least, the question of divestment remains open at Harvard — although Garber has been steadfast in his opposition to proposals to divest from Israel. But elsewhere, universities have used institutional neutrality to shield their endowments from activists’ demands.

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UChicago has repeatedly pointed to the Kalven Report to rebuff demands for divestment from fossil fuels. Unlike all eight Ivy League schools, UChicago has not publicly taken steps to phase out its fossil fuel investments.

More recently, UChicago has referred to the Kalven Report to push back against pro-Palestine protesters’ demands, which include divesting from the “Gaza genocide” and disclosing investments in weapons manufacturers. In a May 7 statement, UChicago president A. Paul Alivisatos described protesters’ demands as “fundamentally incompatible with the University’s principled dedication to institutional neutrality.”

Meanwhile, Diermeier — Vanderbilt’s chancellor — cited institutional neutrality to defend his school’s decision to cancel a student government referendum on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which calls for individuals and institutions to cut financial ties with Israel.

Diermeier said in a March 22 interview with the Vanderbilt Hustler that engaging with the BDS referendum would be “an inappropriate thing for the university to do given our commitment to institutional neutrality.”

At least one university that does not maintain an institutional neutrality policy — Brown, whose public statement guidelines are relatively permissive — has invoked the principle to avoid acceding to student demonstrators.

In an interview with the Brown Daily Herald, Brown President Christina H. Paxson signaled that the Brown Corporation was not amenable to pro-Palestine student protesters’ divestment demands, and that the Corporation’s recent discussions had focused on institutional neutrality.

“On very contested issues where there are many different views, we don’t feel it’s appropriate for the university to take sides,” she said.

—Staff writer Tilly R. Robinson can be reached at tilly.robinson@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @tillyrobin.

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