Judgment, reason, and the university

Malick Ghachem, professor of history and head of MIT's history faculty, speaks during a question-and-answer session after his lecture,

MIT’s Malick Ghachem extends the “Dialogues across Differences” lecture series with a talk about the past and present of university politics.

Peter Dizikes | MIT News

November 22, 2023

At a time when universities are subject to intense political pressure, it is tempting to think they can follow a template for establishing to all concerned that educational institutions are neutral entities. But circumstances will almost always complicate such efforts, MIT Professor Malick Ghachem suggested in a recent public lecture.

The talk focused on the Kalven Report, a widely cited 1967 University of Chicago document heralding neutrality as a goal for institutions of higher education. While that may often be desirable as a pragmatic goal, Ghachem observed, there is no absolute, immutable condition of neutrality that can be achieved by complex institutions. Instead, sound institutional positioning requires reasonable judgment, applied again and again.

For higher edudation leaders in today’s world, Ghachem noted, who are often implored to comment on civic and global matters, “There is no way to avoid saying something. The issue is, what do you say, how, and how often.”

Ghachem’s lecture, titled “Neutrality, Diversity, and the University,” was part of an MIT event series, “Dialogues Across Difference: Building Community at MIT.” In it, Ghachem, the head of MIT’s History Section, detailed the history of the Kalven Report, which was rooted in Vietnam War-era protests at the University of Chicago. The talk outlined the differing views that existed among its creators and offered further thoughts about the dynamics of seeking neutrality.

“Neutrality is an unstable value,” Ghachem said, noting that professing a goal of neutrality can be deployed as a tactic by people with their own aims and agendas. Indeed, Ghachem added, the idea of neutrality can start “veering off into a nonneutral direction.”

And even in seemingly routine, everyday matters, institutions are often faced with choices about funding and support that may never be viewed as value-free.

“When values and the expenditure of money collide, a decision has to be made,” said Ghachem. “And at that moment, neutrality, or honor, or whatever it is, are not going to tell what the answer is. No report will.”

The community dialogue was held in MIT’s Samberg Conference Center on Oct. 26 and also shown via webcast. The event was co-sponsored by the offices of the President, Provost, and Chancellor at MIT. Interim Deputy Institute Community and Equity Officer Tracie Jones-Barrett served as a moderator for a question-and-answer session following the talk.

Ghachem was introduced by MIT Provost Cynthia Barnhart, who called the talk part of the “essential work of cultivating civil discourse, critical thinking, and empathy among members of the MIT community.” She also noted that the event series was “one of many activities our staff, faculty, and students are working on to foster the respectful exchange of viewpoints.”

Ghachem is both a trained historian and lawyer; he has a BA in history and a JD from Harvard University, and earned his MA and PhD in history from Stanford University. A leading scholar of slavery and abolition in the Atlantic world, as well as legal and constitutional history, he is the author of “The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution” (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

The historical background for the Kalven Report is the Vietnam War, especially the period of student protest following the U.S. government decision to roll back the S-2 student draft deferment rule. That embroiled the University of Chicago and many other institutions in significant contention on campus. 

The Kalven Report, Ghachem said, “embodies a dream of the American university as a space where minds can be free because no one is told what they can or must think.” In the report’s view, the university houses social critics — faculty and students — without itself functioning as a critic; heavy-handed institutional positions would threaten the diversity of viewpoints, in the report’s estimation. The report suggests overturning the stance of neutrality for only a couple of reasons: threats to the university’s mission as a site of free inquiry, and times when the university is acting in its corporate capacity (such as legal matters).

And yet, Ghachem noted, the committee members that worked on the Kalven Report — it is named after its chair, Harry Kalven, a first amendment legal scholar — had varying views about the matter. The eminent historian John Hope Franklin, Ghachem observed, believed we “cannot be indifferent to the disorders and defects in our society that are themselves opposed to its [the university’s] existence as a free intellectual community.” Jacob Getzels, an education professor, warned that the idea of “neutrality” had aided the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany. Gilbert White, a professor of geography and former president of Haverford College, contended it was important for universities to actively “model ethical action,” Ghachem explained.

From still another perspective, the prominent economist George Stigler contended that the sum total of individual actions and views would create a kind of civic equivalent of the “general equilibrium” modeled in market economics, thus providing sufficient balance and rendering institutional views less necessary.

To Ghachem, this disagreement within the Kalven Report committee, and the possible range of ethical stances it encompassed, was glossed over in the final report and is largely and wrongly overlooked today.

“The Kalven Report is an obscuring of real differences that existed among the committee [members] who made up that report,” Ghachem said. “That is why we are struggling with this ideal today. Because we don’t fully acknowledge the extent of the disagreement.”

Ghachem suggested there were a few other shortcomings of the Kalven Report, or at least the way we think about it today. For one thing, referencing the intellectual historian Quentin Skinner, Ghachem noted that, in effect, nothing really exists outside of history; the idea of neutrality will always be set with reference to the politics of its era.

It also may be unclear who at a university is thought to speak for that institution, as Ghachem outlined. Beyond that, he noted, many different kinds of universities may exist, some oriented explicitly around certain priorities that make political neutrality on all issues less of an institutional North Star.

For all of this, Ghachem added, when assessing the Kalven Report, we can still “treat it as a model even if it’s philosophically very problematic.” An institution can move toward balance and fairness at all times, without expecting to achieve a perpetual, self-sustaining state of neutrality.

In a question-and-answer session following his remarks, Ghachem said he strongly agreed that it is important for university members to speak up against political interference — such as state government leaders trying to control curriculum and content decisions at public universities, schools, and libraries. Such a view is also aligned with the Kalven Report.

“Our very mission as a university is bound up with the fate of other universities in the United States,” Ghachem said, adding that he thinks “it’s appropriate for universities to stand up for shared university values.” For instance, he observed, “If we don’t say something about curriculum, then there’s really nothing left for us to stick up for.”

In answering audience questions, Ghachem again underlined the practical value of aiming for something like neutrality in “prudential” everyday terms, rather than thinking of it as a philosophical condition one might enter into. For instance, aiming for balance can often serve scholars and students well in the classroom.

“I try to model a version of the Kalven Report as an instructor,” Ghachem said. “I don’t cite it. But the ethos that it tries to evoke, as a prudential matter, that’s what I try to do, because I think that’s the best way for students to have discussions. And as scholar I try to do the same thing, in the sense that if there are people I disagree with in the field, I feel like I want to read what they say, and understand and learn from it, and respond to it.”

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