Opening Statement at Princeton Conference on Institutional Neutrality in Non-sectarian Universities
I’m posting here the text of my remarks opening our conference today at Princeton on institutional neutrality in nonsectarian universities..
Good morning. I’m Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions here at Princeton. It’s my honor to welcome you to today’s conference, which is being sponsored by the Madison Program’s Initiative on Freedom of Thought, Inquiry, and Expression, co-directed by my distinguished colleagues, Professors Keith Whittington and Bernard Haykel.
The question we have gathered to consider is whether, and if so when, non-sectarian state and private universities—or departments or units of such universities—may take public positions and put out public statements on controversial moral, political, and constitutional or other legal issues that are not directly related to the mission of the university.
For example, this past summer when the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its decision in the Dobbs case, reversing Roe v. Wade, should I—or would it have been appropriate for me, as Director of the Madison Program—to put out the following statement?
The James Madison Program of Princeton University applauds the Supreme Court of the United States for rectifying a longstanding constitutional and moral atrocity. The so-called constitutional right to abortion, which had been imposed on the nation by the Supreme Court nearly fifty years ago in Roe v. Wade, lacked any basis in the text, logic, structure, or original understanding of the Constitution of the United States. It was “an act of raw judicial power,” to quote Justice Byron White’s dissent in Roe, which deprived the American people of their right to work through constitutionally prescribed democratic procedures to protect innocent children in the womb from the lethal violence of abortion. The Supreme Court has, finally, relegated a tragic error to the ash heap of history alongside such similarly unjust and ignominious decisions as Dred Scott v. Sanford, Plessy v. Ferguson, Buck v. Bell, and Korematsu v. U.S.
Now, had I put out such a statement it would have accurately reflected my views along with those of many students, faculty, and staff associated with the Madison Program. But I did not put out any such statement. Nor did I for even a moment consider putting out any such statement. My understanding was that, while I may certainly speak for myself, and identify myself as a Princeton faculty member while doing so, it would be grossly improper for me to identify the University or one of its units—in this case the Madison Program—with a view of the rightness or wrongness of Roe v. Wade or the Dobbs decision, or the justice or injustice of abortion.
These are matters on which reasonable people of goodwill in our community of teachers and learners disagree. One is welcome at Princeton, and in the Madison Program or any other unit of the University, whether one is pro-life, as I am, or pro-choice as a great many others in our community are; whether one thinks of Roe v. Wade as a gross violation of human rights or as a vindication of human rights. It was my understanding that no one should be made to feel like an “insider” or “outsider,” in the University or any of its units, depending on one’s views about abortion and the moral status of unborn human life. No one should be counted as “orthodox” or “heretical,” in the Madison Program or in any other department or program of the University, for his or her views—whatever they happen to be.
We are a university—an academic institution—not a political party, or a church, or the secular ideological equivalent of a church. Although I have no objections, quite the contrary, to religiously affiliated universities, Princeton is not such a university, and has not been one for a long time. We are a nonsectarian institution. Our mission does not include the propagation of certain beliefs. At Princeton, or so I thought, our role is to provide, in the words of our President, Christopher Eisgruber, “an impartial forum for vigorous, high-quality discussion, debate, scholarship, and teaching.” To me, an “impartial forum” means that we as faculty members and students engage each other on controversial questions in a robust, civil, truth-seeking manner, without the University or a department or program’s thumb on the scales.
But perhaps I was wrong. Recently, we have seen leaders of some units of the University putting out statements formally committing the units they lead to particular positions on issues of precisely the sort on which reasonable people in our community disagree. In the wake of the Dobbs decision, for example, certain units put out statements like the one I could have put out but did not put out or even consider putting out—the only difference being that they condemned rather than praised the decision and praised rather than condemned the decision it overturned. Were they right to do so? Am I wrong to believe that neither they nor I should have committed our units of the University to a particular view? Am I misguided in thinking, along with President Eisgruber, that our duty is to provide “an impartial forum for vigorous, high-quality debates”? As I said to our Provost, I am happy to play by the rules, but I need to know what the rules are—and there must be one set of rules for everybody, not different rules for different people depending on the substantive political, moral, or other beliefs they happen to hold or which happen to be dominant in their units.
Let me be clear that our purpose in gathering today is not to debate abortion or Roe v. Wade or any other moral, political, or constitutional issue, but to ask whether the right policy for non-sectarian universities like ours is for them and their units to take official positions on such issues, or—in line with the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report—to refrain from doing so. Which policy, if either, supports or comports with—and which, if either, undermines or imperils—the university’s mission? To help us think our way through the issue, we will begin with a panel of distinguished scholars representing a spectrum of disciplines in the arts and sciences.