Religion & Liberty Online

Servility, Vanity, and Lack of Conviction: Welcome to College

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In 1967, the University of Chicago released the Kalven Report, which in tumultuous times sought to articulate the core mission of the university: to generate and disseminate knowledge. The Report needs to be revisited.

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Why the gnashing of teeth over the recent Supreme Court decision on affirmative action? Why have some schools responded by eliminating legacy admissions? What does the controversy tell us about how we understand the university itself? Others have observed that affirmative action debates almost always involve questions of admission into elite universities. The debates are seldom, if ever, about who gets to work assembly lines and construction sites. This raises the question as to why these schools became so intent on “diversity” as an institutional goal. One way to get at this question is to review the Kalven Report issued by a faculty committee at the University of Chicago in 1967.

The University of Chicago had long been at the forefront of creating equal opportunity for students regardless of race or sex. Their first class in 1890 had an African American student. “By 1943 some 45 African Americans had earned Chicago PhDs—more than at any other university.” Despite racism at the school, administrators and faculty diligently cleared a path for qualified candidates. The university had no need to be coerced by law to create a school that included everyone in its mission of educating people, not trying to solve the problem of racism.

The report itself was written during a time of enormous social upheaval. The antecedent event animating the report was a student sit-in over the Vietnam War. Student and faculty protesters believed the school had ceased to be relevant, too stodgy and too removed from the concerns of the day. Allan Bloom summarized the phenomenon in The Closing of the American Mind:

“You don’t have to intimidate us,” said the famous professor of philosophy in April 1969 to ten thousand triumphant students supporting a group of black students who had just persuaded “us,” the faculty of Cornell University, to do their will by threatening the use of firearms as well as threatening the lives of individual professors. A member of the ample press corps newly specialized in reporting the hottest item of the day, the university, muttered, “You said it, brother.” The reporter had learned a proper contempt for the moral and intellectual qualities of professors. Servility, vanity and lack of conviction are not difficult to discern.

The professors, the repositories of our best traditions and highest intellectual aspirations, were fawning over what was nothing better than a rabble; publicly confessing their guilt and apologizing for not having understood the most important moral issues, the proper response to which they were learning from the mob; expressing their willingness to change the university’s goals and the content of what they taught. [Emphasis added.]

Not much has changed, and there remains a battle for the soul of the university. That will come as no surprise to most readers, but many will mistake the nature of the conflict. They might assume that it is between those who indoctrinate versus those who educate. Or they will assume it is between ideologues and those who advocate for free speech. Or they will assume it is a battle between liberals, who populate the university in large numbers, and conservatives, who make up only a small percentage of the faculty. Or they will assume it is now the so-called co-curricular bodies and their radicalism. The successful relabeling of support offices as equal to teaching was an enormous assault on both the integrity of the faculty and the very purpose of the university, and resulted in universities where teaching and research became ancillary. This seemingly minor point tells us much about the current battle for the soul of the university. The University of Michigan now has 163 full-time employees staffing their DEI office.

The battle involves conflicts over the very purpose of the university. It is the battle between those who, like the authors of the Kalven Report, see the purpose of the university to be the creation and dissemination of knowledge—that is, researching and teaching within a discipline and a tradition of inquiry—and those who think the university is there to solve social problems. The radicals of the ’60s have repopulated themselves by producing a generation of faculty who have all the passion but none of the literacy of their teachers; and in some instances, those ’60s radicals, like Verkhovensky in Dostoevsky’s Demons, were shocked and dismayed when their progeny turned on them. Little did they understand the nihilism at the core of their own teaching.

While our own moment is more fraught than the time that brought forth the Kalven Report, we would do well to revisit it. The report reaffirmed the central purpose of the university: to generate and disseminate knowledge. While many institutions can concentrate on social reform, only the university is capable of accomplishing its special task, and it will fail in that task if it attempts to take on other responsibilities. Its authority is related to its function. Additionally, other institutions will perform the tasks of social reform better because they will be run by people who actually know what they’re doing. The average faculty member’s grasp of politics is ripped from the headlines. Having a Ph.D. in chemistry doesn’t make one an expert in the detailed nuances of political action and constitutionalism.

The Kalven Report affirmed a fundamental Aristotelian principle: that any particular action must aim at an end that is intrinsic to the practice it is engaged in. A professional athlete who is in it only for the money is pursuing an extrinsic end and will never attain excellence. A man who goes into politics only so he can get women is also pursuing an extrinsic end. The same goes for institutions. They exist in a seamless interaction of deed and purpose. The fundamental purpose of a church is to preach the word and administer the sacraments. If it commits itself to social reform, it becomes something other than a church. With reference to the university, the Kalven Committee observed “it is not a social club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.”

Once the purpose of the university has changed, so will the behaviors that maintain it. If the purpose of the university is to effect social change, then agents inside the university will no longer be interested in the creation and dissemination of knowledge but will instead be interested in shaping students into agents of social change, and that social change will always be what the majority of the faculty want it to be. The writers of the Kalven Report wisely observed that:

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. There is no mechanism by which it 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.

After the death of George Floyd, many colleges issued statements restating their commitment to “social” or “racial” justice, as if we were all supposed to know what was meant by that. But the university should not take stands on such issues—that is a faculty prerogative. The Kalven Report addresses this dynamic very concisely:

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. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. 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.

Trends and fashions are what teenagers follow, not well-educated adults. But most faculty and administrators walk around with their fingers in the air testing the prevailing winds and believe that such nonresistance demonstrates their virtue and critical thinking skills. They then try to get the college to commit itself to their preferred positions, and college leaders, as Bloom said, are servile and lack conviction. Not fully believing in or understanding the purpose of the university, they will quickly capitulate.

Only by being the university can it play its role as a social critic: “Its domain of inquiry and scrutiny includes all aspects and all values of society. A university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices, and institutions. By design and by effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones.” Universities cannot be concerned with being “relevant,” except ensuring faculty relevance as regards research and teaching. What faculty do off campus politically is their business, but once they are on campus it becomes everyone’s business because the integrity of the whole enterprise is at stake. We would be outraged if our doctors or nurses shared their political opinions with us and, what’s worse, made the quality of their care contingent on our agreement, yet this is exactly what happens in the academy. Students are a captive audience and are expected to nod in agreement and repeat nostrums on exams as a condition of receiving a decent grade. I heard way too many stories from students about this abuse of faculty power.

This is more than just an abuse of power: it robs students of their singular opportunity to be people who know things other than their professor’s political opinions. It also misspends other people’s money, many of whom disagree with the faculty. But most importantly, it destroys the integrity and necessity of the enterprise. If that’s all the university is, who cares? Who would defend such a thing? The defense of the university rests on its studious attention to intrinsic purposes.

Granted, the university is a major player in our social life. It’s not as if university administrators have no interest in social and political affairs, but they must be guarded in responding to the news of the day. They should comment on social and political trends only when those trends threaten the integrity of the intrinsic purposes of the school. “From time to time instances will arise in which the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry. In such a crisis, it becomes the obligation of the university as an institution to oppose such measures and actively to defend its interests and its values.” Weighing in on political issues not only threatens the integrity of universities but also ensures that the divisions of political life will infect campus life. The unifying principle of commitment to searching for knowledge will be subordinated to the interests of the most powerful factions.

As I indicated above, our current moment is no less fraught than what the University of Chicago faced in the ’60s. Many schools issued statements following the Dobbs decision declaring their unequivocal support of Roe. And then there were all the statements issued in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the election of Donald Trump. Fortunately, some schools have returned to the principles articulated in the Kalven Report. “In recent months, a handful of colleges, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of California at Berkeley, and Princeton University, have reflected on, or declared their commitment to, a 55-year-old report crafted during a similarly contentious time in American history.” Complaints that the Kalven Report does little more than defend the status quo should read it more carefully and realize that the status quo that is being defended is the historical mission of the university—a precious heritage that needs defending now more than ever.

The genius of the Kalven Report is that it allows for universities to be places where debate can take place precisely because the university takes no stand on political questions. Sadly, too many schools have embedded a particular point of view in its administrative and curricular structures, thus both bypassing and stifling free inquiry. So which approach—research and teaching or social reform—is a greater defense of the status quo? Which position has less intellectual humility? Which position is more likely to fulfill the college’s central purpose? The Court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc., by reminding us that diversity is an extrinsic good and not an intrinsic one, also reminds us of the university’s animating principle.

Jeffrey Polet

Jeffrey Polet is professor emeritus of political science at Hope College and director of the Ford Leadership Forum at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation.