Universities Shouldn’t Be Ideological Churches

| Topics: Civil Rights and Liberties, Philosophy

This piece appeared in The Atlantic on June 14th

After the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization early last summer, Princeton University’s Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies issued a statement fiercely condemning the ruling. The director stated that the program stood “in solidarity” with the people whose rights had been allegedly stripped away by five conservative justices doing the “racist” and “sexist” bidding of the “Christian Right,” causing women to endure “forced pregnancies,” and waging an “unprecedented attack on democracy.”

I have no doubt that the statement reflected the views of a large majority of those associated with the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies. But was the director, speaking on behalf of an official unit of the university, right to declare an institutional stance on the Dobbs decision?

I am myself the director of an academic program at Princeton—the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. A majority of those associated with the Madison Program believe that elective abortion violates the rights of unborn children. So: Would it have been appropriate for the 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 long-standing constitutional and moral atrocity. The so-called constitutional right to abortion, which had been imposed on the nation by the Supreme Court nearly 50 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. SanfordPlessy v. FergusonBuck v. Bell, and Korematsu v. U.S.

The Madison Program put out no such statement. Nor did I, as director, consider even for a moment issuing such a statement or asking my colleagues to do so. My understanding of what is proper was and is that, although I may certainly speak for myself, and identify myself as a Princeton faculty member while doing so, it would be wrong for me and my colleagues to identify the university or one of its units with a view of the rightness or wrongness of the Dobbs decision, or to make sweeping pronouncements on the justice or injustice of abortion.

The reason is as simple as it is clear: These are matters on which reasonable people of goodwill in our community disagree. One should feel welcome at Princeton—in the Madison Program and 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 violation of human rights or as a vindication of human rights.

No one in the university or any of its departments should be made to feel like an “insider” or “outsider” depending on his or her views about abortion or 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, after all, a university—an academic institution—not a political party, or a church, or the secular ideological equivalent of a church. And especially in a moment when American society is deeply polarized and people of different political perspectives are more likely to demonize than to engage one another, universities like Princeton must provide a model for a healthy community where people of different viewpoints can engage each other in a civil manner and coexist.

    There are, of course, religiously affiliated universities. Princeton, however, is not such a university, and has not been one for a long time. It is a nonsectarian institution. At Princeton, 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, this means that we as faculty members and students should strive to engage one another on controversial questions in a robust, civil, truth-seeking mannerand that we should be free to do so without the university placing its thumb on the scales of debate.

    As it happens, Princeton, like some other nonsectarian institutions, is currently deliberating about what rules we should adopt regarding statements made by the university’s various departments and offices regarding political questions that are not directly related to the teaching and research mission of the university—questions such as abortion, U.S. policy toward Israel, defunding the police, and reparations for slavery. What should those rules be? What principles are to be considered in devising limitations on institutional pronouncements?

    To my mind, the University of Chicago arrived at the right answer more than 50 years ago, when it adopted, in the midst of the Vietnam War controversy and other matters of contention, the report of a committee chaired by the law professor Harry Kalven. The Kalven Report committed the university and its various units to institutional neutrality on political questions, encapsulating its rationale in the helpful dictum: “The University is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.” The Kalven Report did not forbid faculty, students, or staff in their individual capacities from stating their opinions publicly, or even from identifying themselves by their academic titles and affiliations when doing so. It did, however, generally forbid anyone from committing the university or its departments and offices to particular points of view on controversial political questions.

    The Kalven Report embodied a particular understanding of the role of the nonsectarian university and of the conditions required for it to play that role. The university and its departments serve the cause of truth-seeking by providing a forum for members of the community to have full, fair, and open debates on fundamental issues without any institutional influence. Political tribes or sects can form within the university and its departments, but no tribe or sect may take control and make itself, in effect, the established religion on campus.

    Still, why not authorize departments or other units to make statements when their members feel strongly about an issue and where there exists–let us imagine–an unmistakable consensus on the matter? Of course, there is a distinction between consensus on matters of empirical and verifiable fact, and consensus on normative questions of the sort that are not, and cannot be, resolved simply by establishing the facts. I would warn, however, that even in the natural sciences, history is replete with examples of scholars reaching a consensus on matters of alleged fact about which they turned out to be wrong. This, it seems to me, is a conclusive argument in support of freedom of thought, inquiry, and discussion, and for encouraging viewpoint diversity.

    It is also a strong argument against committing the university and its units to a particular position unless doing so is absolutely necessary. (That would be a rare occurrence, perhaps a state law forbidding universities from hiring people who hold certain views or banning, say, the promotion—or “teaching”—of certain ideas. It would not extend to such matters as the Israel-Palestine dispute; the Ukraine War; abortion; the death penalty; how a jury ought to decide, or ought to have decided, in a criminal or civil trial; marriage and sexual morality; fracking; or whether to defund the police, legalize drugs, move to a single-payer health-care system, or abolish the FBI, etc.—all issues on which departments at Princeton or other nonsectarian institutions have released statements in recent years.)

    History is also replete with examples of scholars making claims in the name of science that were, in truth, driven by normative beliefs and commitments. Sometimes the scientific community, or particular segments of it, reached a “consensus” (or something approaching one) on such matters. The case that should bear heavily on our consciences and serve as a warning to us—particularly in the academic world and the broader intellectual culture—is eugenics. As the historian Thomas Leonard has shown, eugenics was embraced and promoted by the academic establishment as if it were gospel—and with very little dissent.

    Where there is a consensus on normative matters, or where a consensus is more or less clearly driven by normative beliefs and commitments, such consensus provides no justification for the university or one of its units to publicly commit itself to a political position. If anything, it raises the question of why there is a consensus on difficult moral or other normative issues on which, broadly in our society, reasonable people of goodwill disagree.

    Where are the dissenting voices? Has groupthink set in—in a unit, or perhaps in an entire field? What message does the lack of representation of dissenting voices send to students? Has there been discrimination or favoritism based on viewpoint? If so, is it continuing? Has this affected hiring and promotion decisions, or created what is broadly known to be a hostile environment for people who dissent from established orthodoxies?

    And there are more questions: Will discrimination result from, or be exacerbated by, the practice of academic units taking positions in political disputes? Might the practice motivate, or further encourage, people to take into account candidates’ moral or political beliefs for academic appointment or tenure? Will people hoping to be appointed to such positions be impelled to censor themselves, lest they jeopardize their applications? The dangers of the corruption of fair and ideologically nonpartisan hiring and promotion procedures are glaring.

    Let me linger a bit on this last point. If academic units are permitted to make statements on political issues, then the following will be the case: When considering a job or tenure candidate, voting faculty members will anticipate that he or she, if appointed, will vote on future political statements. So they will perfectly reasonably want to know, and will take into account, the candidate’s ideological leanings and political views and affiliations in deciding whether to support or oppose the appointment. Of course, this is something that faculty are not supposed to do under existing academic norms for nonsectarian institutions. It is condemned, for example, by the American Association of University Professors. But putting into place a policy that permits departments and other units to take political stands and issue political statements would undermine this prohibition. After all, voting on political statements—if departments were to be authorized to do so and chose to act on that authorization—would be one of the things a faculty member is, as a practical matter, hired to do.

    Of course, we should draw a careful distinction between the university and its official subunits and other entities, such as student associations, that exist within the broader university community. Student clubs certainly should have the right to devote themselves to causes (political, moral, religious, etc.) and take positions and put out statements advocating whatever they stand for. The key here is for the university to be nondiscriminatory in recognizing and making resources available to the clubs. The Democratic Club should be treated the same as the Republican Club. The pro-choice club should be treated no better and no worse than the pro-life club. The Islamic Society should be treated exactly as the Jewish Center or Baptist Chaplaincy is treated. And so forth. Funding should be distributed without discrimination, and any institutional support should be evenhanded.

    Institutional neutrality protects the university’s fundamental mission of pursuing, preserving, and transmitting knowledge. This mission requires not only academic freedom and viewpoint diversity, but also principles and policies that enable us to avoid contests among people of competing ideological stripes for control of the university and its individual units. The university must belong to everyone in our community, not simply those who are on the allegedly “right” side of contested issues.

    As I noted, Princeton was once a sectarian college: Until almost a century ago, it was affiliated with Presbyterian Christianity. Today, as a nonsectarian university, its mission no longer includes the propagation of sectarian doctrines. It is, in this crucial respect, unlike Notre Dame, Brigham Young, Baylor, Yeshiva, and Zaytuna. I have nothing against such institutions. In fact, I think they do great work. I’ve lectured at all of them. And I’m glad they are available to students and families for whom religiously based education is important.

    But I believe that it is valuable for there also to be great nonsectarian universities such as Princeton, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, and the rest, in which people are united not by shared commitments to religious or secular ideological dogmas but by, and only by, a commitment to the pursuit, preservation, and transmission of knowledge—and an understanding that the cause of knowledge-seeking can be mightily advanced only by encouraging the critical engagement of ideas among people who have fundamental disagreements on normative and other important matters.

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