Neutral ground

Although the campus often becomes a battleground for controversial issues, the University aspires to remain impartial.

By Lydialyle Gibson

Photography by Dan Dry

During a discussion on free speech at the University in May, even the easy questions weren’t easy. Almost from the moment they sat down, the three faculty panelists found themselves wading into what law professor Geoffrey Stone, JD’71, called “uncomfortable” issues for universities navigating the murky waters of academic freedom: students in T-shirts printed with provocative biblical passages, professors at anti-abortion rallies, communist petitions, antiwar movements, civil-rights marches, the Holocaust, and questions about divestment—not only from Darfur but also from apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany.

“It seems that issues of free speech and free expression are always with us in the University, and the past couple of years are no exception to that,” said Social Sciences dean Mark Hansen, who moderated the discussion among panelists Stone; Divinity School Christianity scholar Margaret M. Mitchell, AM’82, PhD’89; and historian Ramon Gutierrez. Since 2006 the University has seen faculty and student protests over the issue of divestment from Darfur, the decision to accept the Common Application from College applicants, and plans to establish an economics research institute in Milton Friedman’s [AM’33] name. Students staged a die-in to protest military recruiters on campus and marched alongside hospital workers this past winter after the Medical Center laid off several hundred employees. There have also been upheavals over a Chicago Maroon comic strip, messages written on dorm-room doors, and Facebook messages between students. “There is always the question,” Hansen said, “of how one maintains an environment where free speech and free expression can flourish in a community that deeply values openness and mutual respect as well.”

The Kalven Report says that "a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting."

Sponsored by Provost Thomas Rosenbaum and held in Social Sciences’s first-floor auditorium, the conversation revolved around the 1967 Kalven Report governing public expression at the University. On their way in, audience members picked up copies of the report. Pulling out quotes like, “The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic,” and “A good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting,” Hansen posed hypotheticals to the panelists. “Suppose a faculty member criticizes key tenets of Islam in class,” Hansen posited. “What if he also characterizes Muslim believers as ignorant and bloodthirsty?” And later: “Suppose an academic center sponsors an event at which all speakers assail the government of Turkey…for unwillingness to characterize the actions against the Armenians in 1915 as a genocide.”

The panelists’ frequent answer to these and other scenarios was, essentially: it depends, but when in doubt, err on the side of freedom. “The University doesn’t want to be in the business of drawing lines about what constitutes appropriate discourse.” Stone argued—including what professors might say at off-campus rallies or marches or meetings.

“Because we recognize,” he said, “that faculty members will do many things beyond the four corners of the University that are really an expression of what they learned, what they think about, what they believe. And they convey ideas as part of the public discourse, whether they’re scientists or historians or law professors, that are valuable to the University and valuable to society.”

But freedom has its limits—and responsibilities. Gutierrez, a scholar of race in American life who served as an administrator at the University of California, San Diego, before coming to Chicago, argued that classroom provocation—a professor insulting a student’s religion, for instance, or wearing a shirt depicting Jesus’s crucifixion—is only appropriate if it’s intended as “a teachable moment.” Professional codes of conduct, he said, require faculty to teach “in accurate and intellectually honest ways, in ways that foster learning, and ways that generate critical self-exploration and discovery.”

Mitchell was hard-pressed to find any situation where she would prohibit speech. “No system of thought or practice, whether a philosophy, ideology, political stance, or religion, is beyond criticism at the University,” she said. But she urged listeners to remember the difference between “invective” and “argument.”

When Hansen opened the floor to audience questions, listeners pushed for answers about political buttons on professors’ coats and methods for teaching racially problematic texts. Several students asked about the University’s 2007 decision not to divest from Darfur. Stone took the lead in answering. “The reality in the context of Darfur and South Africa”—from which the University of Chicago did not divest during the 1980s antiapartheid movement—is that the University’s investments there “were trivial, and so the only justification for divestment was to communicate a message about what the University believes is happening in the world.” Such a message, he said, would violate the Kalven Report’s neutrality requirements. The University, the report states, “is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.”

Stone added that by choosing to divest, “you’d be saying that we can choose—maybe you’d be saying we have to choose—not to invest in any organization we find morally repugnant,” a position that would open the door to others who might insist that the University not invest with organizations that supply abortion clinics or support the Iraq war or fail to recognize gay equality. “The issues built into the Kalven Report are very complicated,” he added, “but there’s a difference between running a university and having an impact in the world and simply taking positions for the sake of taking positions.”

Repeatedly, the conversation circled back to the idea of neutrality and its definition in the Kalven Report. “Look,” Stone said finally, “no person or institution can ever be wholly neutral.” As an organization, the University must make decisions, and decisions—whether to participate in the Manhattan Project, from whom to accept a gift—cannot be neutral. (Even the decision to open an engineering school, he noted, says something about the University’s opinion of the worth and necessity of engineering schools.) “I don’t think the claim is that the University is absolutely neutral,” Stone said, “any more than any of us are absolutely neutral. The claim of the Kalven Report is that the University should aspire to be as neutral as possible in taking positions itself—knowing, intentional positions—on matters of public moment. And that is an aspiration that I think is perfectly credible.”

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