Students, faculty, administrators, and the wider public are all paying attention these days to two hot-button topics in higher education: free speech and academic freedom. Meantime, a third topic, institutional neutrality, is slowly rising to national prominence as well. A recent controversy over the invitation of an anti-Semitic speaker to Princeton University highlights a possible fault line between academic freedom and institutional neutrality and suggests that educational institutions would do well to adopt a robust form of the latter as an official stance.
The phrase “institutional neutrality” is inexorably associated with principles enshrined in the so-called Kalven Report, adopted by the University of Chicago in 1967. Part of the “Chicago Trifecta,” the report, which a faculty committee chaired by law professor Harry Kalven, Jr. issued in the midst of the Vietnam War and which has stood unmodified since, states that there is “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.” There is, however, an exception: the university may take a stand against actions that “threaten [its] very mission.” Though I am a fan of the Kalven Report, I worry that the vaguely worded loophole is ripe for exploitation. I’ll return to this concern.
Unlike the most famous member of the trifecta, the Principles of Free Expression, which Chicago promulgated in 2015 and has since been adopted or endorsed in identical or substantially similar form by 97 other institutions (and counting), the Kalven Report has stayed largely under the radar. This is changing. In July 2022, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), having already signed on to the Chicago Principles in 2017, became the only other university in the country to adopt the Kalven Report.
The University of Chicago and UNC are models for other institutions to emulate. The former, which is private, received the #1 ranking from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) in its 2022–2023 College Free Speech Rankings and is otherwise, in my experience, a haven of heterodoxy. The latter, which is public, also does well in the FIRE rankings, at #26 (for comparison, the highest-ranked Ivy is Dartmouth, at #83, and my alma mater, Yale, sits at #198), and has been in the news as the result of the unanimous decision of the board of trustees in January to establish the School of Civic Life and Leadership. This new unit will hire professors from across the ideological spectrum to teach in disciplines like history and literature that “have become enforcers of ideological uniformity at most schools,” in the words of the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, which broke the story and has continued to amplify it, to the joy of those of us who care about education and to the seeming consternation of everyone else.
This is not to say that everything is hunky-dory at UNC: John D. Sailer noted in these pages last August that as long as some units of the university require diversity statements for hiring, promotion, and tenure, UNC’s “ambitious commitment to academic freedom” will be “toothless.” What UNC should do is adopt the third member of the trifecta, the Shils Report of 1972, which bars “consideration of sex, ethnic or national characteristics, or political or religious beliefs or affiliations in any decision regarding appointment, promotion, or reappointment at any level of the academic staff.”
But back to institutional neutrality. At Princeton (FIRE ranking #169), where I used to teach, the decision whether or not formally to adopt a position of institutional neutrality is a live matter. In early November 2021, Princeton mathematician Sergiu Klainerman and two colleagues at Chicago and Stanford published a piece in Newsweek that exhorted universities to embrace the Kalven Report. Then, just over two weeks later, the wisdom of doing so gained a significant boost when the dean of the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), Amaney Jamal, sent out an ill-conceived, ill-written, and in parts factually inaccurate letter to “the SPIA community” about Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal on all charges in a trial that had gripped the nation.
Among those who objected to Jamal’s action were two current undergraduates, then-juniors Myles McKnight and Abigail Anthony—lead signatories of a letter to president Christopher Eisgruber about institutional neutrality and the authors of an op-ed in National Review. Eisgruber, by the way, defended Jamal, including by claiming that her comments were “very personal” and thus, presumably, not made in her official decanal capacity—an idiosyncratic interpretation, to be sure.
Then this past November, two things happened. First, on November 7, Eisgruber used his “President’s Page” in the Princeton Alumni Weekly to announce that he had formed “a faculty committee to consider whether Princeton should have a policy regulating the discretion of academic or administrative units to publish opinions on behalf of the unit”—and to make plain that, for the university as a whole, the Princeton way is “institutional restraint” (whatever that means) rather than the stronger “neutrality.” Four days later, the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions (JMP) held a conference titled “Institutional Neutrality and the Mission of the University” with a starry lineup that included William Allen, Paul Clement, Anna Krylov, and Nadine Strossen. I hope that members of the faculty committee attended the conference and read the report by Leslie Spencer, a Princeton alumna. In any case, we now await the committee’s recommendation and the administration’s response to it. A bracing statement from JMP director Robert P. George, written after the director of the university’s Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies (GSS), Wallace D. Best, and some others officially rebuked the Supreme Court for the Dobbs decision last summer, suggests that rocky times may be ahead.
I turn now to that recent campus controversy. On February 8, Mohammed El-Kurd, at the invitation of the Department of English, delivered the annual Edward W. Said ’57 Memorial Lecture. A Palestinian activist-cum-“influencer,” writer, and poet who is just 24, El-Kurd is both revered and reviled. On the one hand, he is the Palestine correspondent for The Nation and was, along with his sister Muna, on Time’s list of the 100 most influential people of 2021. On the other, he is a virulent anti-Semite, as the Anti-Defamation League and many other organizations have documented.
It was only to be expected that the announcement of El-Kurd’s lecture, titled “On ‘Perfect Victims’ and the Politics of Appeal” and cosponsored by the English department and the Princeton Committee on Palestine, would lead to consternation and outrage on campus—and off, though only Jewish outlets such as The Algemeiner and right-leaning ones like Fox News seem to be interested. On February 5, a group letter was sent to the acting chair of English, Jeff Dolven, calling on his department to “condemn”—but, in acknowledgment of Princeton’s legally binding adoption of the Chicago Principles, not retract sponsorship of—the event. On February 7, a Princeton senior, Adam Hoffman, penned an article on the controversy in the conservative Princeton Tory; that same day, the Tory also published Dolven’s response to the group letter, in which he states, among other things, that “the Department as a whole does not issue statements. It is an important principle for us that neither I nor anyone else among us attempts to speak for a diverse collective.” And on the morning of the 8th, some hours before the lecture, another student, sophomore Annie Rupertus, published a balanced account of what was going on in the de facto progressive Daily Princetonian.
The lecture itself seems to have been an unholy circus, with El-Kurd saying, “I’m really happy to be here causing chaos at Ivy Leagues.” Fortunately, no one was hurt: there were raised voices aplenty but no violence.
In the aftermath, two related things have come into focus. One is the nature of the disagreement between those who wished for the English department to condemn its own event and those who thought that doing so would be a mistake. I belong in the second camp, for the simple reason that the bar must in my view be extremely high for an educational institution, or any unit within it, to issue an official statement on a controversial sociopolitical matter.
And then there is Dolven’s firm claim that Princeton’s Department of English does not issue collective statements. Firm but flatly false, as a number of Princeton students have not hesitated to point out in sharp terms: after all, Dolven himself is one of the signatories of his department’s “Statement on Anti-racism,” promulgated not long after the death of George Floyd in 2020 and still on the website. (By contrast, the announcement of El-Kurd’s talk was taken down with unprecedented speed.) Now-senior Myles McKnight’s correspondence with Dolven, published in the Tory, is nothing if not gutsy; junior Matthew Wilson’s opinion piece in the Daily Princetonian on the importance of institutional neutrality is sane and persuasive; and now-senior Abigail Anthony has more recently brought the matter to wider attention in The College Fix. McKnight and Wilson explicitly mention the Kalven Report, and while Anthony does not, she quotes the president of the Princeton chapter of the Federalist Society, sophomore Alba Bajri, as follows: “The English department made a mistake by hosting El-Kurd, as his anti-Semitic comments and lack of academic background make clear,” and yet “it would be a further mistake for the department to issue a statement condemning the event and the speaker.”
Now, in the words of the Internal Revenue Service, Princeton, as a 501(c)(3), “may not be an action organization, i.e., it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities.” Even aside from the law, though, those of us who appreciate the Kalven Report believe strongly that no college or university should issue official statements about matters that do not pertain directly to its mission or the mission of higher education generally—and that schools should be extremely sparing in issuing even statements that some (but surely not all) may deem pertinent.
What about individual departments and other units within a college or university? As I have suggested, I feel the same way—but the issues are undeniably trickier. For example, the Rittenhouse verdict is a matter of public concern and does plausibly pertain to the “mission” of the School of Public and International Affairs, so was it necessarily wrong of the school’s dean to speak out about it? Reasonable people will disagree, but what seems clear is that there is a difference between a statement about this event from SPIA and a putative statement about the same event from the Department of Physics or the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.
Which brings me to an aspect of the whole El-Kurd affair to which no one has attended. In short: Why did an English department—rather than, say, a department of Middle Eastern studies—sponsor a talk whose description, in full, is as follows?
Palestinians dead and alive have been increasingly visible in Anglophone media—but not everyone can get the mic. For them to make noise, dead Palestinians need to have been ethnocentrically “exceptional” or have had to endure an exceptionally violent death. And those who are alive need to fit the “perfect victim” prerequisite: docile, defanged, and preferably with an American accent. In this lecture, Mohammed El-Kurd investigates this phenomenon, asking a question once posed by Edward Said: who has the permission to narrate? And, more importantly, why should Palestinians seek such permissions in the first place?
Here are some reasons I can suggest. One: El-Kurd writes columns, tweets, and poetry in English. (English poetry, at least, is in the traditional ambit of departments of English, though I cannot say that El-Kurd is the next Yeats.) Two: the description of El-Kurd’s talk refers to “Anglophone media” and “an American accent”; mentions noisemaking in a context where this probably refers mostly to language, not yowls; and considers narrative, which I take to mean large-scale linguistic structure.
And three: Edward Said, the Palestinian-American scholar and activist after whom the lecture series is named, received a B.A. in English from Princeton and an M.A. and Ph.D. in English from Harvard and was for 40 years a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia. He wrote books on Conrad and Yeats; Orientalism, his most famous work, is in effect the foundational text of postcolonial studies, which have for some decades been a major preoccupation of literature departments.
It may be helpful to know which other people have delivered the Said Memorial Lecture at Princeton and what their subjects were—as well as the deliverers and subjects of Said Memorial Lectures elsewhere, since they exist also at Columbia, the University of Warwick (U.K.), the University of Adelaide (Australia), and other institutions besides. (Some of these are sponsored by departments of English, some not.) The list of speakers at Princeton from 2004 to 2017 and many of their titles may be found on Wikipedia, and the details of the lectures from 2018, 2019, and 2022 remain posted on the homepage of the Department of English. (I have been unable to find evidence of lectures in 2020 and 2021, even over Zoom.)
If you go through the list, the conventional understanding of “Department of English” will not come to mind: in 2006, Azmi Bishara’s “War, Occupation and Democracy: US Strategy in the Middle East” (after the 2006 Lebanon War, Bishara was accused of passing information to Hezbollah and fled Israel for Qatar, never to return); in 2010, Noam Chomsky’s “‘I am Kinda’: Reflections on the Culture of Imperialism”; in 2012, Mahmood Mamdani’s “Settler Colonialism: Then and Now”; in 2017, Rashid Khalidi’s “The Balfour Declaration from the Perspective of Its Victims”; and so on.
For what it is worth, the lecturers and their titles at the other institutions look similar—indeed, quite a number of people have given multiple Said lectures: Chomsky four and Khalidi three, for instance—and while there have been some speakers, especially early on, with impeccable credentials in English language or literature (e.g., Frank Kermode and David Bromwich at Columbia in 2006 and 2007, with the former talking about Yeats; Terry Eagleton and Michael Wood at the American University in Cairo in 2008 and 2012), this is unusual. A rare exception at Princeton came in 2022, when the Departments of English and Classics (in which I was then a professor) linked the Said lecture with the Robert Fagles Lecture for Classics in the Contemporary Arts and invited the Pakistani-British novelist Kamila Shamsie, whose title was “Antigone of Pakistan: Narrative Violence and the Impossibility of Homecoming.”
I will not speak here for or against the intellectual or personal qualities of any of the lecturers or the topics they addressed, except to say that bringing El-Kurd to campus appears to me a new low, or close to it. The issue, as I see it, is who’s in charge. At Princeton, English sometimes has cosponsors: Classics for Shamsie, for example, and History and the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies for Khalidi. But English always takes the lead, working with a student group, the Princeton Committee on Palestine. (Should departments routinely partner with student groups in this way? Maybe, but it seems unwise.)
My point: invitations by a department of English to people—sometimes professors, sometimes activists, sometimes both—who are likely to speak about Gaza or foreign policy in the Middle East complicate the line between academic freedom and institutional neutrality. I would say the same thing about a similar series in English that invited Zionists or experts in foreign policy in Ukraine.
What is academic freedom? Free speech is the right of an individual to speak freely—a right protected at public institutions by the First Amendment and, as FIRE regularly articulates, at private institutions by their own established standards. By contrast, in the words of the American Association of University Professors, “[a]cademic freedom rights are regulated by the collective—peers determine what constitutes disciplinary competence.” That is to say, professors determine the “mission” of their discipline.
When the “collective” that is Princeton’s Department of English consistently invites people like Bishara and El-Kurd to give lectures, this establishes a precedent. The subjects of their talks can reasonably be considered to “constitute disciplinary competence.” Dolven and his colleagues are normalizing anti-Semitism—and in the case of El-Kurd, anti-Semitism that doesn’t even pretend to be academic—in an academic context that is, furthermore, significantly removed from what most people would consider the mission of an English department.
This returns us to institutional neutrality. If Princeton adopts the Kalven Report, then individuals will still be able to say whatever they wish in a personal capacity, but the Department of Molecular Biology will not be able to issue a statement condemning or supporting the state of Israel. The Department of Near Eastern Studies, though, might—under the guise of academic freedom. And so, too, might the Department of English.
Dolven’s remark that “[t]he commitment of the English Department is to making sure that [El-Kurd’s] voice can be heard” has revealed something that would have been unthinkable a generation ago: to “do English” is to be committed to making sure that Princetonians hear such gems as “What else would you do if an occupying power is in your backyard, beating the shit out of your family? Of course you’re gonna throw stones.” I cannot be alone in finding this depressing.
The Kalven Report, for all its virtues, provides insufficient guidelines to help departments, programs, centers, and academic divisions and schools navigate the line between institutional neutrality and academic freedom. I urge my former colleagues at Princeton, as well as professors and administrators around the country, to put on the books a revised version of the report that bars any unit of the university from issuing statements about hotly contested matters outside the most exceptional of circumstances—and these circumstances should not include hotly contested matters loosely connected to the unit’s self-defined “mission.”
To be clear: a beefed-up version of institutional neutrality would not and should not prevent Princeton’s Department of English from inviting Mohammed El-Kurd or anyone else it wishes—or from teaching courses with whatever slant the professorial collective deems appropriate. But the dean of SPIA would not be allowed officially to weigh in on the fate of Kyle Rittenhouse, the directors of JMP and GSS would not be allowed officially to weigh in on Dobbs, and the redefined Department of English would not be allowed officially to weigh in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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