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Neutrality: A Foundational Principle NOT a Policy of Convenience
By Neil Gonsalves | Discusses why post secondary institutions should focus on sustainable governance and avoid virtue signalling
“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.”
Lessons from History
I’m not sure why we don’t spend more time in primary, secondary, and post secondary schooling teaching and learning history. So often those stories are almost perfectly analogous to some contemporary issue we are dealing with and could offer a blueprint for potential strategies we might consider.
During the 1960s American society was contending with widespread escalating racial tension, a sexual revolution that sought to redefine traditional gender roles, and opposition protests against a perceived unjust war on the other side of the world. - Any of that sound familiar? If I merely took the date out would you be able to tell it apart from 2023?
Corporations, including colleges and universities have taken a beating in the media for positions they’ve expressed or refuse to express on current world events. Boards and senior leadership everywhere are spinning their wheels figuring out what kind of message they should be putting out. Afraid that any comment is likely to incite anger with one of the many groups affected by current events.
In a recent article by FIRE the organization urged colleges and universities to adopt a position of institutional neutrality; the article utilized the principles outlined in the Kalven Report, commissioned in 1967 by the then president of the University of Chicago. - Chaired by Harry Kalven, Jr. a leading First Amendment scholar, the committee produced a report containing recommendations on how the institution should approach “political and social action.”
(You can read segment of the Kalven Report quoted throughout this post in block quotations)
“The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge.”
The question leaders are grappling with surrounds what message they should be sending; I’d argue that is the wrong question in the first place, and one that sets everyone down a path that is highly problematic.
The reason that post secondary institutions are expected to take a stance on current geopolitical issues is because the sector has voluntarily engaged in social issues in the past. The drift towards virtue signalling and supporting the cause of the day has become almost common practice in North American corporations and on educational campuses.
It is however the root of the problem not a symptom of the operation. - The core business of an academic institution is to provide education, disseminate knowledge and prepare the workforce of the future. That purpose gets compromised when we drift outside our lane.
Binary thinking which dominates our contemporary discourse has taken up a disproportionate amount of air time lately. It inaccurately reflects only the polar ends of the ideological spectrum, while ignoring the vast space in the middle, occupied by everyday people. It also abhors complexity and in so doing takes a reductive approach to complex social issues.
“The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic… To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community.”
A common practice in many organizations is to point to some headline in the newspaper, express sorrow for the pain being felt by those encountering the newsworthy incident, and then link it to local communities far removed by alluding to vicarious trauma. - Of course everyone who may or may not have read that news story (a reasonable proposition given the decline in news readership) is offered wellness services.
Some people will argue that there is an arbitrary decision being made about which world events require messaging based on what is trending - Here is a simple idea, if wellness and awareness of resources is the goal, just regularly communicate the organization’s commitment to wellness and availability of supports. I assure you that the minute you pick one headline, someone else will point to another; if you picked every headline in the National Post, someone is sure to ask why you didn’t review the Globe & Mail. - That’s the nature of following trends, they just keep changing.
“It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby. Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.”
So what is an organization to do in these confusing times of “corporate citizenship”? Perhaps focus on sustainable governance rather than virtue signalling. Remember that the institution houses the critics and revolutionaries, the institution shouldn’t play that role. Step back for a moment, refresh your memory on “why” the institution exists, “how” it meets it objectives and “when” it should just shut up!
Post-secondary institutions should steer clear of making moralistic pronouncements on social issues; diverse staff and student bodies benefit more from;
Consistency of application,
Clarity of communication, and
Judicious management of risk.
Rather than stack ranking marginalized communities, - (the evaluation of suffering and privilege is highly subjective and emotionally charged) - focus rather on the removal of barriers to access and opportunity writ large, rather than guarantees of equality of outcome. Focus on more universal principles like respect for other on campus rather feeling the need to lobby a particular position. Choose common humanity over immutable differences, and common cause rather than common enemy as your guiding principle.
Accept that intellectual inquiry is messy, but necessary. But most of all, model restraint, facts move and shift as situations unfold and life rarely, if ever, is made of wholly right or wholly wrong perspectives. Make no mistake, neutrality is neither easy nor comfortable, but it is a principle worthy of consideration and deliberation.
As the Kalven Report so adroitly highlights; The neutrality of an institution does not signal a lack of courage nor indifference and insensitivity. It opts consciously and deliberately for neutrality out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.
About the author:
Neil Gonsalves is an Indian-born Canadian immigrant who grew up in Dubai, U.A.E. and moved to Canada in 1995. He is an Ontario college educator, a TEDx speaker, an author and columnist, and an advocate for new immigrant integration and viewpoint diversity.