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Saturday, February 17, 2007

What is the "university?"

Rick's post discussing Prof. Stone's discussion of the Kalven Report is eloquent and thoughtful.  I doubt I can contribute much beyond gilding the lily.  But let me add some thoughts, most of which echo what Rick has already said.

First, Prof. Stone's argument ultimately sets much store in defining "the university."  A university, in his view, has a broad but ultimately static function: to create a forum for fearless speech and inquiry, and not "to proclaim the truth."  Thus, "once a university takes sides, it is no longer a university."  I have been thinking a good deal about universities and the First Amendment these days, and it seems to me that there is a tension between basing First Amendment rights inhering in and around the university on academic freedom, and the non-legal concept of academic freedom itself, which is hardly as fixed and uncontested as the courts' depiction of it might suggest.  One way to resolve this is to just come up with a definition of what "the university" is for constitutional purposes, or of what "academic freedom" is for constitutional purposes, and stick with it.  But I am not convinced the courts should simply draw a line around what they think the university is, or what they think academic freedom constitutes, and argue that anything beyond that definitional boundary is irrelevant.  Rather, they -- and we -- ought to understand that within the broad grouping of institutions that we understand, family-resemblance-style, to constitute "universities," there will inevitably be different views on what the university mission entails, and how it ought to be carried out.  An institution whose understanding of that mission, or of academic freedom, that falls sufficiently outside of that family may eventually lose the support of adherence of academics, students, and others.  But within the fairly broad scope of our intuitive of what constitutes a university, there is surely room for universities to vary in their understanding of their mission.  To say of such institutions that they are "no longer [ ] universit[ies]" seems to me to be unhelpful, and to settle by fiat what should be a productive discussion about the potentially plural nature of universities, and about whether there are core principles that unite the university or the concept of academic freedom.  So I cannot agree with Prof. Stone that a university that opted to make a statement about Darfur through divestment would cease to have earned the title of "university"; rather, such a university would demonstrate that there is room in the academy for varied and conflicting understandings about what any individual university's academic mission entails. 

I should add that I have conflated here, to some degree, questions about what courts should do about the university, and questions about how we, and Prof. Stone, should think about the university outside the courts.  But the two are related and shed light on each other, I think: for if we are willing as academics to acknowledge that there is no fixed definition of "the university" and its mission, we might urge courts to proceed less on the basis that they are protecting some fixed definition of "academic freedom," and more on the basis that they ought to defer to the actions of universities as largely autonomous institutions, allowing them to proceed to determine for themselves what their academic missions require of them.

Second, I am guessing (though I might be wrong!) that lurking behind Rick's examination of Prof. Stone is a question that has been much discussed in certain academic precincts lately: the nature of the religious university (often the Catholic university, although such debates have also taken place at Baylor and elsewhere).  Such institutions are, I would guess, used to the slings and arrows of comments from without suggesting that a university that has a religious mission in some sense is "no longer a university"; and those schools have also engaged in vigorous good-faith internal debate about what it means to be a religious university, and also what it means to be a religious university.  Speaking from within the snowy and sunless grounds of Notre Dame, I can attest to the value and power of such discussions -- and I can attest with equal confidence that this is a university, albeit one whose mission may (and perhaps must) ultimately differ from that of the University of Chicago.  So, like Rick (I think), I would hesitate to engage in line-drawing that says that particular recognizably academic institutions are not "universities."  As he says, we may each argue about when, and whether, a university should take a stand, what its academic mission is, what academic freedom entails, and so on.  But we should have that discussion rather than engage in a somewhat artificial act of boundary-drawing.

More after the jump, on the Stone/Solomon Amendment connection.

Of course, Rick also rightly points to Prof. Stone's argument that universities may "take a stand" on particular issues in "exceptional circumstances," including action where the university's "own conduct would otherwise directly and materially cause serious injustice."  Prof. Stone's example of this is that universities "may appropriately refuse to allow employers to use its placement facilities if they would use those facilities to discriminate against students on the basis of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation."  Rick sees this as an argument jury-rigged to clear a space for the position taken by many law schools in the FAIR case, arguing against the Solomon Amendment.  I am no fan of the Draconian nature of the Solomon Amendment, and I think the Court ought to have given far more serious consideration to the arguments raised by the FAIR plaintiffs than it ultimately did.  But I also see Prof. Stone's effort to draw a distinction between Darfur divestment and the exclusion of military recruiters as unpersuasive.  First, I am not sure that the direct/indirect distinction Prof. Stone draws is really present here.  Second, I am not sure which way it cuts; after all, universities do not offer any choice to their students whether or not to participate in sending investment monies flowing to a region of the world in which genocide is taking place, but students to have every freedom not to participate in on-campus recruiting, by the military or any employer.  Moreover, it is certainly arguable that the injustice involved in genocide, albeit it is a more indirect consequence of investment, is far more "serious" than the wrong involved in the military recruitment case.  Third, as Rick has already suggested, it won't do to distinguish the two cases because the divestment crowd was urging the Univeristy "to make a statement about what is morally, politically, and socially 'right,'" as Prof. Stone writes.  This sort of "message" argument was precisely what most of the plaintiffs in FAIR were arguing was at stake in the military recruitment context; if a university can make a "statement" in that context without losing the right to be called a university, it is not clear to me why it cannot make a similar statement in the Darfur context.  Moreover, as many of the commenters to Prof. Stone's post suggested, there are other ways in which universities can send "messages" of this type which do not closely resemble what the law schools and universities did; most prominently, they could continue their policies of exclusion and accept the financial penalties.

Prof. Stone's position is also dangerous, or at least one might consider it so.  Note that in his view, a university may curtail the use of facilities where they are used to discriminate against students on a variety of bases, including race, religion, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.  Prof. Stone may believe that "may" is the right word here, while others may believe that the university must do so.  But what, then, of the student Christian group that restricts itself, or at least officership in the group, to those who agree with the core tenets of the group, and of the faith?  What of other groups that wish to include or exclude participation on such bases?  What of the student group that wishes to use a public space to share a message or urge a point of view that could be seen as hostile to others based on one or more of the categories Prof. Stone singles out?  May the university intervene in all of these cases, consistent with Prof. Stone's exception?  And, to broaden the principle somewhat, what of the so-called Academic Bill of Rights?

Now, we can argue, lawyer-like, about nice distinctions here.  But it seems to me that Prof. Stone's argument is inconsistent with his Solomon Amendment position on a still deeper level, and that this inconsistency afflicts many of the people who argued in favor of the law schools' position against on-campus military recruitment (which, I should point out, is a different question from the issue of whether the government can impose such a requirement on the universities ).  Prof. Stone, like many academics, takes the view that the university's central role is to remain neutral while creating an open space in which everyone may take place in debate, and in which "even the most controversial and despised views may be aired, confronted, and considered."  It is, in other words, a particular conception of academic freedom and of the university, and a fairly conventional one.  I think that conception sits very uneasily with a policy of absolute exclusion of military recruiters -- not protest, or disagreement, but absolute exclusion, which was the policy some schools wished to pursue.  There is no doubt that distinctions can be drawn between the two.  But I think there is still a deeper tension between a conception of the neutral, truth-seeking university in which a variety of actors, with a variety of views, are to be allowed on campus, and one in which the university makes a "statement" by utterly excluding one of those actors in the recruitment context. 

Does that mean that I think Prof. Stone is wrong to say universities should be able to exclude military recruiters?  It does not.  I think they should be able to do so.  Rather, I am suggesting that Prof. Stone cannot reasonably have both a narrow view of what constitutues "the university," one based on varied and vigorous speech on campus under the protection of a neutral university, and a view that such institutions ought to be able to exclude military recruiters (or others).  Precisely because I think that there is room for a variety of different understandings of what the university mission requires, and because I think that courts ought to defer to these universities' sense of their own mission, I think the Court ought to have been far more receptive in FAIR to the law schools' arguments that they should have the right to exclude military recruiters.  But I think those schools ought to have thought far more closely about what their own academic missions required, and whether excluding the military recruiters was genuinely consistent with their own perception of their academic mission.  Some of them might have concluded that it was not consistent, and therefore allowed the military on campus voluntarily, while allowing individual faculty members and students to engage with and protest the recruiters.  Others, at some cost to the sort of self-image that Prof. Stone presents, might have concluded that they are not, and should not be, "neutral" institutions; and that might provoke some interesting discussion about what kinds of institutions they are, and what they should do about it.  In short, I am suggesting that the primary responsibility for deciding "what is a university" lies with each university itself -- but that this autonomy imposes an obligation on those universities to have that discussion, and to take seriously the question whether particular actions they want to take, such as excluding military recruiters, are really consistent with their own sense of mission.  I fear that, in the FAIR case, too little of this discussion took place.

So, in short, I part ways with Prof. Stone's fairly narrow conception of what the university "is," and would allow for a considerable diversity in the broader family of universites about what their mission entails.  And I find unpersuasive his effort to maintain his conception of what the university is in a way that allows the exclusion of military recruiters while barring Darfur divestment.  I do think universities ought to be able to formulate a sense of their own mission that would allow them to do one or both of these things, and that courts should defer substantially when they do.  But those decisions should be conscious ones, which involve the university engaging in a meaningful public discussion about what its mission is, and what actions it must take consistent with that mission.  My complaint about the FAIR case is that I think too many law schools assumed that they could or should exclude military recruiters without really engaging in that kind of discussion about what their academic mission required.  I think the law schools perhaps ought to have won FAIR, but not before asking themselves whether they could really exclude military recruiters and remain "universities" in Prof. Stone's sense of the word.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on February 17, 2007 at 10:02 AM in Culture | Permalink


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Posted by: naella | Nov 7, 2008 5:43:59 PM

Great post, Paul. Thanks for engaging my (far less ambitious) one. You are right, of course, that "lurking" beneath my response to Prof. Stone are thoughts about Notre Dame's ongoing efforts to work through "the Catholic thing" and also achieve "preeminent research university" status. I believe strongly -- though, I suspect, this is a minority view even at Notre Dame -- that being a "Catholic" university makes Notre Dame *more*, not less, of a university. I realize, though, that it's a lot easier to state this, in the abstract, than to cash it out.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Feb 18, 2007 4:43:39 PM

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