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Re the Political Neutrality of Academic Departments

By TTN Blog

This is a proposed policy statement drafted by TTN colleague Cary Nelson (Professor of Liberal Arts & Sciences emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).  It argues for the political neutrality of  academic departments in matters of public controversy, and begins with a brief quotation from the 1967 Kalven Committee “Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action” at the University of Chicago:

The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.

It is a fundamental component of academic freedom that individual faculty members have the right to speak publicly on matters of public concern. Faculty members may also organize as groups to do so, either on an ad hoc or long term basis. We emphasize that here to make it clear that right is not in question and that faculty already have ample mechanisms for political expression. Indeed, faculty members have areas of expertise that bear directly on matters of public policy. One of their responsibilities, recognized by the AAUP since 1915, is to use their expertise to give public advise on such matters. It is now often assumed that faculty speak for themselves, not the institution, when doing so, but it is important for faculty to say so explicitly when controversial issues are at stake.

Academic departments and other administrative units do not possess comparable academic freedom to express political or social opinion collectively. They are required to honor many university-wide guidelines, regulations, policies, and principles. Their shared governance responsibilities, for example, are negotiated with the administration, not decided independently.

Departments are expected to make a series of decisions in a politically neutral fashion. Those include admission, hiring, retention, and promotion decisions for students, faculty, and staff. They are expected to evaluate, and sometimes to rank, proposals for research support, sabbatical applications, and other matters. While departments have administrative freedom to carry out their key functions and responsibilities, many of those responsibilities are subject to higher review and limitation.

When a department appears to stand collectively behind one viewpoint in a controversial political matter, it gives the impression that such decisions may be politically compromised, given that members of the department community can and will hold views in opposition to those in the majority. It is of critical importance that all department members be free to express views on controversial matters without either implicit coercion or concern that they may face what amounts to department retribution for doing so.

Strong majority faculty political positions can and do also have coercive and intimidating effects in any case, but making political views official departmental policy dramatically increases the impact. The impact of political statements issued in the name of the department as a whole will be greatest on the most vulnerable members of the department community, including students, staff, and untenured and contingent faculty. Those vulnerable members will commonly believe they reject departmental views at their peril.

Disclaimers attached to formally expressed majority political opinion, especially regarding matters that attract great passion and conviction, cannot be expected either to eliminate the impression of potential bias or to reassure students, faculty, and staff that such bias does not obtain.

The university does not grant its administrative units the authority to issue statements on controversial political or social issues. It recognizes, in addition to all other concerns, that public confidence in public higher education would be seriously undermined by such a dramatic politicization of the institution’s image. Departments have historically refrained from taking political positions. It is important that they continue to do so. The prohibition on department
politicization does not inhibit political expression; it protects it.

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