Editorial: Is ‘neutrality’ another name for failing to lead?

A group of prospective students and theiir families receive a tour from Supriya Ganti, center, who is on campus for her sophomore summer term, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Thursday, June 29, 2023. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

A group of prospective students and theiir families receive a tour from Supriya Ganti, center, who is on campus for her sophomore summer term, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Thursday, June 29, 2023. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus—Valley News / Report For...

Published: 06-14-2024 10:01 PM

Modified: 06-18-2024 1:31 PM


Dartmouth president Sian Leah Beilock is considering whether the college “should formally adopt a position of institutional neutrality,” according to Liz Lempres, chairwoman of the college’s board of trustees. If it does, Dartmouth would join Harvard and a handful of other institutions that have recently embraced a code of silence on political and social issues in the wake of campus unrest over the war between Israel and Hamas.

The institutional appeal of doing so is obvious: It removes the university and its administrators from the withering political crossfire that has erupted in recent months between mega-donors and right-wing politicians on the one hand and pro-Palestinian demonstrators on the other. Silence, the colleges hope, will be golden.

Harvard’s version, adopted late last month, says the administration will no longer take official positions on matters that are not relevant to core university functions. No formal statements will be forthcoming in the future on issues such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine or the Hamas attacks in Israel and the Israeli response in Gaza. Nonetheless, Harvard pledges to defend fundamental academic values.

We think threading the neutrality needle stands to be difficult, if not impossible, to pull off in these contentious times. For one thing, academic institutions make statements all the time in ways other than by issuing official pronouncements. For instance, Dartmouth’s precipitate decision on May 1 to call in cops in riot gear to arrest scores of peaceful pro-Palestinian protesters on the green was — and perhaps was intended to be — a powerful political statement about official tolerance for dissent. And as our colleague Jim Kenyon noted last week, even the choice of honorary degree recipients can send a political message.

The investments that make up university endowments also can be regarded as political or social statements. Fossil fuel investments in the face of looming climate disaster make a statement; as does academic research and contracts with what used to be called the war machine — U.S. and foreign military establishments.

And then there’s the uncomfortable truth that silence can itself be a statement. Academic freedom and the pursuit of truth, core values for universities, flourish under democratic rule. If democracy itself is under assault, as it surely will be in this fall’s election, does Harvard propose to remain silent about that threat or regard it as relevant to its core university functions? If it’s the former, then academic freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.

One thing that Harvard apparently will defend is its endowment. Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor who was co-chair of the working group that developed the new policy, told The New York Times that the university could and should weigh in on some political matters.

He cited as an example a proposal by Donald Trump to collect “billions and billions of dollars” through taxation of large private university endowments. Opposing such a plan, Feldman said, “would fall squarely within the function of the university.” This brings to mind the old advice dispensed to novice reporters: If you want to know why things happen, follow the money.

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Maybe the bigger question is whether institutional neutrality is another term for moral cowardice. University presidents have historically been looked to for moral clarity and leadership on essential issues facing the nation. This is especially important now that big corporations and many people in political life have largely shunned that role.

Certainly universities are big tents that cover myriad opposing opinions about public affairs among faculty, students and staff. But universities have independent lives of their own; with that comes the responsibility to publicly distinguish right from wrong in keeping with their institutional values — and not just academic ones. If universities don’t know or won’t communicate where they stand or whose side they’re on in public controversies, they are failing to educate in the broadest sense.