Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Taking a Stand

An article in Inside Higher Ed poses the question of whether college faculties should vote to take institutional stands on public issues. The publication reports the events at William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota, where the faculty voted 24-7 in favor of a resolution opposing a proposed amendment to the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. As the article discusses, this is an instance of a continuing debate on the rights and responsibilities of educational organizations regarding public issues.

One of those who argued against institutions taking positions cited the 1967 report of the Kalven Committee on the University's Role in Political and Social Action, one of my own favorite documents. Under the chairmanship of Harry Kalven, this University of Chicago faculty committee came to the conclusion that teaching and scholarship, the legitimate purposes of higher education, could be fostered only by allowing all individuals to think for themselves.  Kalven's committee wrote that "there is no mechanism by which it [the university] can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues." In the case of William Mitchell College, it is perfectly legitimate for most or even all of those at the college to decide they are against the amendment, to voice this opinion publicly, and to campaign for their chosen position. But when they vote on it as an organizational resolution, they impose the majority opinion as a standard of political correctness.

"Taking a stand" sounds bold, but there is nothing courageous about proclaiming popular ideas to be official policy.  If anything, expressing institutional approval for those who think the "right" way  creates an environment in which cowardice and conformity thrive.  In saying this, I'm not suggesting that our colleges are somehow above politics or that higher education should be unconcerned with the issues of our day.  But those issues are best addressed when we respect the rights of individuals to think for themselves. And our colleges show that respect when they strive for institutional neutrality in social and political controversies.  

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