Kalven report and Chicago academic politics

How do we understand the politics of the university, again?

Consider the following case. A few years ago there were efforts to get the University of Chicago to divest from Darfur. They failed. At the time, the president Zimmer justified the decision by referring to the Kalven Report, a 1967 document explaining that, in short, the university should be the forum for individuals to formulate their own political positions, but should not itself take political positions. Importantly, there were multiple arguments for what the authors called a “heavy presumption against the university taking collective action or expressing opinions on the political and social issues of the day, or modifying its corporate activities to foster social or political values, however compelling and appealing they may be.” The Kalven Report justifies its conclusions with three arguments:

  1. An argument that the university has no method for reaching political consensus, because it is obligated to respect dissenting opinions, and not overrule them by majority vote. Hence, any institutional politics would fail to respect minority rights. This is an argument about the ethics of representation and decision-making.
  2. An argument that any institutional involvement in politics could undercut the university’s “prestige and influence.” Supposedly, a university can “[endanger] the conditions for its existence and effectiveness” by becoming politically involved. This seems to be a pragmatic argument about the university’s conditions of institutional stability, which are thought to decline as it takes sides on salient social issues.
  3. An argument that the university’s “mission,” which is (predictably) described as the “discovery, improvement and dissemination of knowledge,” simply does not include short-term political involvement. “It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby,” says the report. This is a rather Platonic argument about the university’s apparently eternal social essence. (As Paul Horwitz pointed out last year in commenting on the report, there is of course no reason why every university must have the same mission. Moreover, as the French university historian Jacques Verger would have put it, universities change with the times, including in their missions and concepts. So this argument is, on the face of it, the most fallacious of the three.)

The report, of course, leaves room for an exception to the policy of institutional noninvolvement in politics, or rather two exceptions:

  1. When political conflict threatens the university’s existence or of “the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry.”
  2. When the university is involved with money and property, or otherwise acts in a corporate role.

According to the reminiscences of Jamie Kalven, the son of the report’s author (Harry Kalven Jr.), the committee could have put more stress on the exceptions, but chose instead to emphasize the guiding principles.

Now, in evaluating the Kalven Report we have to examine not just its logical structure but also its contexts of use. Although I am no historian of the document, a few initial points are clear. According to Geoffrey Stone, it was written in the late sixties as a means of allowing the university to avoid having to take an official position against the Vietnam War, in spite of what must have been massive student opposition. The document has since been invoked in at least three instances: the campaign to divest from South Africa in the eighties (failed), the campaign to divest from Darfur (failed, as mentioned already), and the campaign against the Milton Friedman Institute this fall (not terribly successful so far). Interestingly enough, this last instance was the only time when the Kalven Report has been used as ammunition against the administration. Faculty critics cited the report in order to argue that the $200-million proposed endowment for the MFI was a (conservative) political statement on the administration’s part.

This last citation of the Report is interesting because it cuts against the apparent trend of the document’s use: as a policy document serving as a shield for whatever decision the administration has already decided. I am generally inclined to agree with the judgment of an alumnus, Bob, who opined that “The Chicago Board of Trustees, with the complicity of the Administration, has used the Kalven Report to justify doing whatever it wished to do anyway, ignoring the Report whenever what it wished to do was fundamentally political (and of course chosing to do nothing is also to take a political position), and invoking it whenever it didn’t wish to be constrained in its activities.”

This points to a very important institutional facet of the Kalven Report, which went mostly overlooked in the otherwise good critical discussion among law professors last year (Geoffrey Stone, Rick Garnett, Paul Horwitz, plus comments). In short: a university, and most certainly the University of Chicago, is not simply a complicated intellectual community; it is also, and sometimes above all, a hierarchical quasi-corporate bureaucracy. The Kalven Report tells us itself that there is no means for the whole university to reach agreement as a collective. That holds for the document itself: the Kalven Report was not written democratically. Rather, it was written by a committee of seven professors appointed directly by the university president. Here is a key paradox of the document: purporting to speak on behalf of the university as a collective, it is in fact only the statement of a small minority masquerading as the will of the people. Or perhaps, the will of the administration masquerading as the will of the university.

Also, the document itself serves as an exemplar of codified, entextualized institutional norms, of objectified authority. The Kalven Report, after all, need not have been written – I suspect that many universities do not have an analogous document. All these problematic cases of divestment and wars could have been resolved ad hoc, without a guiding document. Nonetheless, the Report has managed to set the terms of future debate about institutional responsibility, accruing symbolic value over time simply by existing as an institutionally authorized text. The politics of putting policies down in official documents would be worth analyzing here, in much more detail.

What then, in the end, are the tacit politics of the Kalven Report itself? What kind of politics are implicit in its claim to steer clear of politics? (Not that everything is political, but claims of political neutrality are often deeply political gestures.) We know that it has served to save the institution from having to condemn Vietnam, to divest from Darfur or from South Africa. In the case of Darfur, according to one comment on Stone’s post, there was no morally neutral option available. The Kalven Report, it seems to me, can create situations in which, far from remaining institutionally neutral, the university administration can assert its own minority politics and thwart the will of the campus majority. Of course, since a central duty of the administration is making money, administrative politics can easily tend towards a cynical pragmatism in which positive ROI compensates for any negative considerations. Money and investment and economic action are not free of political presuppositions or implications, as the Kalven Report authors only grudgingly acknowledged, and it seems to me that exception (2), above, should cover an enormous amount of ground.

Of course, as I’ve observed elsewhere, business influence at the University of Chicago is immense. But I’m not sure that we can ascribe administrators’ false hopes of “staying out of politics” to business culture or economic necessity alone. Nor is it true, contrary to the pablum about timeless missions, that the university will cease to be a real university, or lose its public respect, if it takes sides on political issues. The proof of this is obvious: some 155 U.S. universities divested, at least in part, from South Africa, including prestigious institutions like Harvard, Cornell, and the University of California. It would, of course, be stupid to say that these universities have ceased to be universities in consequence.

I would hypothesize that in the last analysis, the Kalven Report serves none of the noble functions it proclaims: it does not make the university politically neutral or avoid controversy; it does not necessarily enhance the university’s prestige (since political inaction can well be popularly interpreted as a reactionary statement); it does not promote the individual’s right to dissent on campus, which is full of all sorts of semi-official orthodoxies; it does not help the university to live up to its timeless mission (since there is no such thing). As far as its content goes, it is a minor ideological document that serves to promote various convenient but false beliefs about the nature of academic institutions. Perhaps on the whole, Bob is right: the Kalven Report serves primarily to prevent the majority of teachers and students from having input into the administrative decision-making process.

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