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Friday, February 16, 2007

Why do universities exist?

A few days ago, Prof. Geoff Stone put up a long, personal post on the University of Chicago Law Faculty Blog, "Darfur and the Kalven Report:  A Personal Journey."  In that post, he discussed and reflected on the University of Chicago's recent decision -- based on the Kalven Report -- not to divest from Darfur.  Prof. Stone describes the evolution of his own views regarding the University of Chicago's decision not to "take a stand" against the Vietnam war, and of his reasons for thinking that the University got it right, then and now. 

The post includes (as did the Kalven Report) claims about the nature, function, and role of the university, that struck me as worth reflecting upon.  Here's a (fairly long) excerpt, and then some thoughts about it . . .

Prof. Stone writes:

. . .  Universities – most especially this university – exist for a very special reason. They exist to create a forum in which students, professors, and researchers may explore every issue from every side without fear of official condemnation or judgment.  They exist to enable talented and committed individuals to seek the truth. They exist to serve as a safe haven in which even the most controversial and despised views may be aired, confronted, and considered. They do not exist so students, faculty, researchers, and administrators can vote to determine the truth. They do not exist to proclaim the truth. For a university, it takes much more courage to stand silent, then to yield to the pressure and temptation to take sides. But once a university takes sides, it is no longer a university.

It is not as clear to me that "once a university takes sides, it is no longer a university."  Couldn't a university "take sides" on a question, even a contestible moral or policy question, without compromising the ability of faculty to continue exploring that and other questions, and to offer positions at odds with the "side" taken by the University?  Couldn't we come up with a number of questions where "taking sides" seems fairly non-threatening to academic values and the mission of a university, properly understood?  Back to Prof. Stone:

. . .  Well-meaning and admirable students demand that the University divest itself of any investments it may have in corporations that do business in Darfur. Certainly, their concern with the tragic events in Darfur is warranted – indeed, compelling. But the University is right not to take a political, social, or moral position.  It is for the students, faculty, trustees, alumni, staff, and friends of the University to take their own positions. It is not for the University to do so for them.

Perhaps not "for them", but what about for itself?  Is it really the case that a University is the kind of enterprise / project / community that must, by definition, not "take . . . positions" on "political, social, or moral" questions?  Back to Stone:

The Kalven Report recognizes that there may be exceptional circumstances in which it is appropriate for the University to take positions on public issues. It may do so in order to protect the fundamental interests of the University itself. For example, the University may legitimately oppose government efforts to curtail freedom of inquiry within the University or to dictate who may or may not be a student or professor here.  The University may also legitimately act on the basis of political, moral, or social judgments if its own conduct would otherwise directly and materially cause serious injustice. For example, the University 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.

What the Kalven Report forbids, however, are decisions of the University designed expressly or symbolically to proclaim “right” moral, political, or social positions. That is the issue presented by those who insist that the University should divest from Darfur. The University’s investments in corporations that may do business in Darfur cannot in any meaningful sense be said directly and materially to have caused the tragedy in Darfur. Those who demand divestment want the University to make a statement about what is morally, politically, and socially “right.” And that is precisely what the University should not do.

Now, this seems a bit jury-rigged to me, to leave room for supporting the position taken by many leading law schools in the recent Rumsfeld case.  Couldn't it be said that, by not -- say -- divesting from Darfur, a university is no less complicit in injustice than would be a law school that permitted the military to interview on campus (surrounded by disapproving signs)?  Sure, the University's investments did not cause the tragedy in Darfur.  But, letting the JAG interview at Yale Law School is not causing anti-gay discrimination, either.  And, doesn't the identification of those "serious injustices" that trigger this exception involve making, and acting on, moral and other claims and arguments that are no less debatable than those that would, presumably, be offered in support of the pro-divestment arguments?  Wasn't the law schools' position in the Rumsfeld case precisely that they had a First Amendment right to "make a statement" opposing the military's position?

Lawyers know all about slippery slopes. If the University divests from Darfur, then others will surely insist that the University must then divest from corporations that manufacture cigarettes, perform abortions, sell arms to Israel, and pollute the environment. Of course, there are degrees of right and wrong and degrees of evil. But it is not the role of the University to take positions on such questions. Indeed, the University should no more divest on the basis of these sorts of issues than it should prohibit students and faculty from speaking freely on campus in support of tobacco subsidies, the moral legitimacy of murdering abortionists, the right of Palestinians to destroy Israel, or even the morality of genocide. The role of the University is not to "decide" such questions, but to create and nurture an environment in which we may freely and openly debate them, without fearing that the University has already resolved them on our behalf.

As I've suggested above, it strikes me that the force of the "University should not resolve difficult questions on our behalf" is undercut somewhat by the "but it is fine for the University to exclude military employers because of the military's immoral policy" caveat.  But putting that aside, I guess I am resisting the proposed first principle that a university, as such, cannot -- without ceasing to be a university -- "take positions" on things.  (Whether it should do so, or should do so promiscuously, is another matter, of course.) 

What do others think?

Posted by Rick Garnett on February 16, 2007 at 05:25 PM in Rick Garnett | Permalink


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I'll go the next step and say that the premise is specious. No one maintains that the University would cease to be a University by taking a position against the Holocaust or that space travel to the moon is possible. Truth, it seems to me, is in much greater supply than a lot of law professors like Stone seem predisposed to admit. Appiah makes a seaworthy argument to this effect in his Ethics of Identity. Indeed, I'd even be willing to concede that Rawls, later in life, fell in with a generally degenerative crowd of academic lawyers (degenerative here is meant in an admittedly idiosyncratic sense, because Ron Dworkin is no *degenerate,* obviously) who convinced him that reasonable disagreement is everywhere. I think the really interesting (and creative) tensions come not from the fact that reasonable people disagree, but rather from the fact that reasonable people who are also informed disagree. Of course, that seems to be one of the major catalysts and unstated premises behind the Kalven Report. All that said, if the bottom line is what's in your sites, I think the University's decision not to condemn discrimination against gay people is precisely what compromises that University. In its feeble attempt not to take sides, it evidences a cowardice borne from the uncertainty of ignorance, which is precisely what most people attibute to lawyers who are long on bottom lines and short on knowledge.

Posted by: Jamie Colburn | Feb 16, 2007 11:00:51 PM

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