The Political Problem on Campus | Opinion

Cancel culture has led to groupthink on university campuses. Mobs shout down, exclude and sometimes even call for the firing of scholars who make public statements contrary to the current politically correct orthodoxy. University administrators only exacerbate this trend when they acquiesce to activists' demands and thereby invite further attacks.

Administrators threaten academic freedom even more seriously, however, when they advance their own social and political agendas in the name of their institutions.

Consider, for example, a letter Princeton University president Christopher L. Eisgruber addressed to the university community in the Fall of 2020. The letter repeatedly used the terms "racism," "structural racism" and "racial justice" to describe American society as a whole and Princeton University in particular. Whether or not one agrees with President Eisgruber, such topics should be the subject of scholarly debate within a university. Official pronouncements by administrators send a message to faculty and students that coming to alternative conclusions risks provoking those who sign their checks, schedule their classes or confirm their promotions. This message contributes to pervasive academic self-censorship. Already, 70 percent of right-leaning faculty and 42 percent of centrists in the social sciences and humanities self-censor in their teaching and research.

To counter this threat, faculty, students and alumni need to demand that their administrations refrain from taking social and political positions. The University of Chicago put forward this principle of neutrality in its seminal 1967 Kalven report. The report maintains that the university cannot project a singular institutional voice on contentious social and political issues of the day without fundamentally undermining its mission:

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.... [I]t 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.

Sadly, American universities are violating the spirit of the Kalven report with increasing frequency. For example, many schools now require pledges of commitment to a totalizing ideological variant of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) as part of faculty position applications. This gross violation of university neutrality excludes dissenting scholars before they even get the chance to dissent. Moreover, it is probably illegal.

University administrators also issue social and political proclamations through suggested or mandatory training programs. In an "anti-racism toolkit" document, Stanford administrators tell the university's community members what they should believe, with the goal of "ensur[ing] commitment to and ownership of" the policy implications of Stanford's worldview.

The toolkit asserts that "In a society that privileges white people and whiteness, racist ideas are considered normal throughout our media, culture, social systems, and institutions." It also invites the Stanford community to "recognize and understand your own privilege," "challenge the 'colorblind' ideology" and "stop saying 'I'm not a racist.'" It calls on faculty to "champion anti-racist ideas and policies" and urges its readers to "be prepared to take needed action." The recommended reading list of this document includes such authors as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, and excludes dissenting viewpoints, such as those of Stanford's own Thomas Sowell or Martin Luther King's dream of a colorblind society.

Stanford University campus
PALO ALTO, CA - OCTOBER 2: A general view of the campus of Stanford University including Hoover Tower as seen from Stanford Stadium before a college football game against the Oregon Ducks on October 2, 2021 in Palo Alto, California. David Madison/Getty Images

This material appears to suggest that Stanford has covertly changed its mission from truth-seeking to so-called social justice activism. Imagine that your university promoted as its official position the philosophy of Ayn Rand or the catechism of the Catholic Church, and instructed you to parrot it. Wouldn't the threat to the unfettered pursuit of truth be self-evident?

Formal pronouncements on social and political issues by high-ranking officials can have long-term consequences that extend throughout the university. The disputed concept of systemic racism President Eisgruber used in the Fall of 2020 was recently echoed in Princeton's mandatory freshman orientation, put on by the office of DEI, which exposed incoming students to unbalanced accusations of racism against the very university where they were supposed to spend their next four years.

Among the long list of such accusations—mostly leveled against past Princeton personalities—was one against a current professor whose offense was to have published an article criticizing the demands a group of Princeton faculty made in an open letter to President Eisgruber. Many of the demands, the professor argued, were divisive, racist and possibly illegal. Accusing the professor of racism, the orientation program's website used an incomplete quote from the article—a deliberate falsification, in clear violation of university regulations concerning "accurate information on official forms and documents." In an interesting reversal, a group of Princeton professors filed a complaint against the DEI person(s) responsible for the website, which illustrates one way faculty can fight back against administrative overreach.

Not even the University of Chicago—the institution which gave us both the Chicago Principles of academic freedom and the Kalven report—has been immune to institutional politicization. For example, the music department posted a statement on its website in the summer of 2020 that expressed certainty on a number of social and political issues that should rightly be matters of open debate. Referring to recent police-involved deaths, the statement said:

We are certain that their deaths are the result of a system that encourages state-supported erasure of Black life without end or consequence. We are certain that this system must be dismantled, and cannot be dismantled without solidarity and myriad action from everyone.... We are also certain that American policing fails in the most basic ways: it does not protect Black life, and it was never designed to do so.... We are certain, then, that reforming the police system is not the answer, and that justice will come only with more structural efforts such as defunding and divestment.

In response to this and similar statements, then-president Robert J. Zimmer issued an important document to clarify that the principles of the Kalven report extend to all levels of the university, not just the central administration.

Make no mistake; the truth-seeking mission of our universities is at stake. Academic freedom is not possible in a community where the leadership takes sides in important debates.

In the words of the Kalven report, "a great university can perform greatly for the betterment of society. It should not therefore permit itself to be diverted from its mission into playing the role of a second-rate political force or influence."

Dorian Abbot is an associate professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago. Sergiu Klainerman the Eugene Higgins professor of mathematics at Princeton University. Ivan Marinovicis an associate professor of accounting at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.