On Academic Freedom and Institutional Neutrality

by Eric Schliesser on March 22, 2024

A few months ago Jacob Levy (McGill)  published a lengthy Op-Ed, “Campus culture wars are a teachable moment in how freedom of speech and academic freedom differ,” in the Globe and Mail. It offered a salutary account on the nature of academic freedom in the aftermath of the “Dec. 5 U.S. House of Representatives committee hearing grilling the leaders of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania, and the subsequent resignation of two of them, Harvard’s Claudine Gay and Penn’s Elizabeth Magill.”

Before I get to our differences, I agree with much of Levy’s analysis not the least his account of the difference(s) between academic freedom and freedom of speech. In particular, according to Levy a “university’s core commitment is to the discovery, transmission and preservation of knowledge – paradigmatically, what is done in research, in teaching, and in publication and library collection. The principle that defends that commitment is not freedom of speech as such, but rather academic freedom.”

I differ with Levy on two important points. Let me explain. After listing a number of important characteristics of academic freedom, Levy writes the following:

A rule that has traditionally accompanied and strengthened academic freedom is institutional neutrality. If academic freedom is the ability of scholars and scholarly communities or disciplines to work without having an orthodoxy imposed on them, institutional neutrality is the commitment not to declare an orthodoxy in the first place. Just like a professor at the front of a classroom shouldn’t use it as a pulpit to announce their own political and religious views, so too should the university as a whole not adopt substantive political or religious opinions that would chill the freedom of its members to pursue their own ideas and arguments. A great deal of important political inquiry and debate happens at a university, but it’s undertaken by students and professors with differing views pursuing differing arguments, not by the institution as a whole declaring official conclusions.

Universities sometimes need to speak up in favour of their own institutional interests or the general needs of higher education. A few university decisions unavoidably require substantive moral judgments about political figures: whose contributions are worth honouring with an honorary degree, whose career involved so much injustice that their name should be stripped from buildings. But when there’s not that kind of necessary connection to university business, the institution should stay silent and neutral, to guarantee the freedom of students and professors to inquire, criticize and debate. — Jacob T. Levy (Jan 12, 2024) [emphasis in original]

Levy’s stance on institutional neutrality is a return to and re-affirmation of the principles of the (1967) Kalven Report at The University of Chicago. Levy has appealed to it (here) in the past; this has prompted some of my own writing on academic freedom (recall; and here). Importantly, in the second quoted paragraph, Levy implicitly sides with the majority opinion of the report and distances himself from the then dissenting voice George Stigler (a future Nobel laureate in economics) who thought strict neutrality was even possible in the “few university decisions” that Levy thinks “require substantive moral judgments.”

Before I offer my criticism, I would like to state that I doubt the rule of strict neutrality is possible for universities and colleges, but I won’t rely on this in what follows. I will, however, indirectly indicate that many quite ordinary practices keep strict neutrality far out of reach. And so academic freedom better not rely on this rule.

Be that as it may, I was surprised by Levy’s stance. Levy is a leading thinker of contemporary liberalism, who shows an unusual sensitivity to the significance of intermediate and corporate bodies in a pluralist society. (‘Corporate’ here does not mean ‘business,’ but an institution with a charter or authorized by the state to act as a single entity.) I use ‘corporation’ and its cognates because these can have a personality and a mission-specific character. My reason for my surprise is that Levy proposes institutional uniformity here, which is at odds with his (and my own more skeptical) liberalism.

My first disagreement with Levy is this: as corporate bodies, universities do not have uniform missions. I don’t mean this as a hypothetical point. For, in many places we are familiar with universities that have their roots in some confessional or religious orientation. A number of other universities, public and private, have well known commitments to serve the needs of particular national, linguistic, or ethnic minorities (including some that serve speech or vision impaired), etc. Others serve particular sectors (agriculture, technology, theology, the arts) or are constituted by professional schools, etc.

In my view the liberal position here is that as corporate bodies, universities and colleges should interpret academic freedom in light of their particular corporate identity which involves the general commitment to discovery, transmission and preservation of knowledge. In my first disagreement with Levy, I am not relying on the idea that such particular corporate identities may well shape how one understands what knowledge is. (But see below.) But rather that such identities shape what knowledge is worthy.

This may sound ‘woke,’ but is actually uncontroversial. For example, much research on humans and animals is subject to ethical scrutiny and pre-approval— a clear constraint on discovery of knowledge. In many contexts, there is a requirement to teach or publish in a particular language. That is, a clear constraint on transmission and preservation of knowledge. (Even if these constraints do not always prevent other activities, they do involve huge opportunity costs.) Universities have to make all kinds of substantive moral and political judgments about sponsored research — should one accept tobacco money? — that do not involve its political/social survival.

I understand that this itself may be a source of unease. It is undoubtedly the case that this means that some universities will interpret their mission rather restrictively, whereas others will actively and intensely give the widest freedom to some kinds of research. Obviously, it also means that private universities will have more room for idiosyncratic understanding of academic freedom whereas public universities may well feel much more uniformly constrained by public regulation/jurisprudence.

So, rather than promoting a uniform stance on academic freedom, we (qua liberals) should welcome institutional diversity, even if it involves the thriving of some illiberal corporate identities. (I put this very much in the spirit of Chandran Kukathas’ Liberal Archipelago.) Such intellectual diversity may well have epistemic pay-offs for the discovery, transmission, and preservation of knowledge.

As an aside, obviously it would be best if the corporate mission of a university is established and re-affirmed periodically through self-governing functions. Even in the best of times, mere lip-service to such missions is a risk. In practice, mission statements often seem like they are written by communications departments as recruitment devices or branding purposes. (Lurking here is an even more substantial question about what a university is.)

Okay, so much for my first, most fundamental disagreement with Levy.  There is also another disagreement about what falls under academic freedom.

This second disagreement is based on the thought that what constitutes academic knowledge is itself shaped by academic context: disciplinary or methodological. I don’t view this as controversial. In fact, I assume it is common ground between Levy and myself, and it probably informs his commitment to the rule of institutional neutrality. In the advanced cognitive division of labor of hyperspecialized modern research it’s probably best that University administrators and corporate officers like Trustees are kept at arm’s length from judgments about details that are are only fit for specialists.

But lurking here is a further thought that how one understands academic freedom, thus, has to fit the particular needs of knowledge discovery, transmission, and preservation of knowledge. This, too, will involve departures from neutrality. Let me explain by way of engagement with Levy’s argument. Levy writes, the following:

For example, the odd thing about the centrality of student protests to important moments in university life is that they are so irrelevant to the university’s mission. There is very strong protection for the freedom of protest, not because protest is important to a university the way it is to a democratic society, but because it’s academically irrelevant. It’s wrong to question a student’s (or professor’s) standing in the academic community because of what they say at a protest – or on social media, or in any other non-academic setting. The only appropriate limits are not about the content of what’s said, but about the conduct of the protest action; the university has to protect not only the safety of its other members but also the security of its academic functions. It can’t rule against the language on a sign, but it must intervene to prevent violence between students, or occupations and blockades that would prevent a class from meeting, or an invited speaker from speaking.

To be sure, I agree with Levy what he says about conduct here. I also agree that protest is not especially important to the academy relative to, say, its importance to society. (I am not denying that protests may shape, as Shannon Dea has argued, future citizens in important ways.) Rather, protests have some significance to discovery and transmission of knowledge.

In particular, protests are very informative about what questions are urgently worth asking according to an academic community. (Sometimes protests are about the manner of teaching, and so then it may impact transmission of knowledge.) One can derive this idea from Max Weber’s familiar view on the vocation of an academic, “the capacity to distinguish between empirical knowledge and value-judgments, and the fulfillment of the scientific duty to see the factual truth as well as the practical duty to stand up for our own ideals constitute the program to which we wish to adhere with ever increasing firmness.”

In addition, in so far as there can be knowledge of society, then experiments in living and social protests (which for students are often an education in citizenship) are partially conducive to it. Some social knowledge is itself partially constituted by and the effect of a particular process (think of price formation in markets).* The same can be said of political life. And while as sources of knowledge experiments in living and social protests also have non-trivial epistemic limitations, one need not be a formal decision theorist to agree that more information is better than less. So, rather than treating campus protests as evidence of institutional indifference (or as Marcuse might call it repressive tolerance), one may well understand these as falling under academic freedom and as such even compatible with Levy’s institutional neutrality.


*I thank Nick Cowen and Aris Tranditis for sharing a paper with me pertaining to this idea.

  • A revised version of this post has appeared earlier in Digressionsnimpressions. I thank Michael Nafi, Saskia Bonjour, and Alice MacLachan for comments that influenced some of the changes.



Cervantes 03.22.24 at 2:04 pm

An important complication that seems to be missing here is that right now, at least, certain false factual claims have become associated with political identity, movements and parties. The university’s mission to discover truth requires it, for example, reject the claim that the earth is 6,000 years old or that hydroxychloroquine cures Covid-19, because these claims are unequivocally inconsistent with the scientific inquiry the university exists to foster. Maybe it gets a bit more fraught with the claim that the 2020 presidential election was rigged and that Donald Trump was the legitimate winner, but the Political Science department cannot countenance this and students who write that on their poli sci exam should get an F. Similarly with anthropogenic climate change, the historical facts about racism in America, and a whole lot more. Reality has a well-known liberal bias, and the university is constrained by it.


Alex SL 03.23.24 at 1:07 am

It seems to me that discussions of academic freedom perennially suffer from three interrelated problems: (1) what academic freedom means isn’t written in stone somewhere for everybody to look up; (2) some people have an absurdly broad view of academic freedom that effectively includes the right of an academic not to do the job they are being paid a salary for; (3) some people have an absurdly absolutist, naively libertarian view of academic freedom and freedom of speech that includes being allowed to express any view whatsoever without suffering reputational or professional consequences, something that is unrealistic to assume in any society made up of actual human beings.

The first is pretty inarguable, I think. While it is possible at least in principle to figure out what the first amendment of the US constitution or the UN’s definition of genocide mean by reading relevant texts and, if necessary, having them interpreted by judges, academic freedom isn’t anchored nearly as well. In the German context, I have always taken it to mean that the king of Hanover shouldn’t be allowed to fire seven professors for writing an opinion piece arguing in favour of a written constitution, and logical extension and generalisation that flows from that particular historical crisis.

Which leads to the second point. If the academic is an evolutionary biologist who teaches creationism or a geologist who teaches flat earth, we are in the realm of utter incompetence to do the job that they are being paid for. If the academic says, now that I have tenure, I don’t need to actually show up and teach or do research, they aren’t properly invoking academic freedom either, they simply aren’t doing the job they are being paid for. As mentioned in the post, “In many contexts, there is a requirement to teach or publish in a particular language”. Indeed, if the students understand German and ideally to a decent degree English, because the university is in Germany, but the academic decides that they’d prefer to teach in Basque, then they aren’t making use of academic freedom, they are either unsuited for the job or being psychologically abusive towards the students.

More directly relevant to most of the post is, however, the third point. I am perennially frustrated by the naivete of public discourse about free speech, and that same naivete is paralleled by the discourse about academic freedom. The naive take in free speech is that Twitter shouldn’t be allowed to have content moderation and that Google shouldn’t be allowed to fire a racist and sexist engineer who creates a hostile work environment. The sophisticated US academic says, no, you misunderstand, these things are not at all prescribed by freedom of speech, that is only about whether the government can punish you for your views, but private companies can do whatever they want. (Of course, there is an American myopia in that too, but let’s accept it for the moment.) Then they turn around and say, oh, but here in academia, academic freedom means indeed that universities cannot fire you for your views, be they what they may.

I agree in principle – as I understand it, being allowed to have political opinions that are not aligned with those of university leadership is indeed half of what academic freedom is about, and the other half is being allowed to pursue research questions freely, within reason, see second point. Where the naivete comes in the absolutist expectation that an academic should be able to publicly promote any view whatsoever. That simply isn’t how human societies work, and the mistake in reasoning here is closely related to the idea that ‘centrism’, ‘moderate’, and ‘extremist’ have any substantial meaning beyond ‘relative to where the consensus of your society happens to sit this decade’. The centrist of today who thinks that about half of all professors should be women would have been a wacko extremist a hundred years ago, not to mention two hundred years ago. A centre-right position on economic and tax policy of sixty years ago would now be considered dangerously left-wing extremist loonie.

What this means for academic freedom is that there too an Overton Window is being moved hither and thither, and the idea that an academic can realistically claim academic freedom for views that are hundreds of kilometers outside of its current position is just naive. If a professor makes it their mission to loudly promote the idea that women and black people are unsuited for academia, he creates both a hostile environment for many of their students and a gigantic public relations problem for their employer, the university. I really do not see how he can remain a professor under those circumstances, yet these are views of the exact same nature as many others that are currently being discussed under academic freedom (e.g., denial of the existence of transgender people, ‘human biodiversity’/racial IQ differences).

In practice, all academic freedom can therefore mean is being free to express views and pursue research questions that are within some distance from the current centroid of the Overton Window. That may not sound very noble and principled, but again, actual humans are involved, they are made uncomfortable or even horrified by anything too far from that centroid, and that has practical consequences. Those consequences may even include having an entire university shut down or the entire national science foundation defunded by the elected representatives of the taxpayers who happily cuddle around the window’s centroid when that has just shifted away under an academic’s feet, so that they are now considered to be an extremist.


LFC 03.23.24 at 5:34 pm

The OP says that “academic freedom better not rely on this rule [i.e., institutional neutrality].” But as I read the excerpts from Levy, he’s not saying that academic freedom relies on institutional neutrality. He’s saying these are two separate principles that, in his view, complement each other.

There are lots of universities, afaict, that are committed to academic freedom but do not practice institutional neutrality as — or so I gather — required by the Kalven Report. Take one example that got a fair amount of media attention some months ago. In the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and a controversial statement issued soon thereafter by certain student groups, the then-president of Harvard, Claudine Gay, issued statements (one immediately and one a bit later) that, iirc, made among other things substantive (albeit not v. surprising or contentious) remarks about events in the Mideast. If Harvard had adopted the Kalven principles, she would not have said anything beyond perhaps: “The university, in general and in its institutional or official capacity, does not issue public statements on events in the world, nor does it endorse any particular statements about those events made by student groups.” And she might have added some boilerplate about commitment to freedom of expression and opposition to violence, harassment, and intimidation. It would have been a shorter statement than the ones she actually issued.

The foregoing has to do with institutional neutrality but not directly with academic freedom. The two may well be related, but you can have one without the other. Academic freedom is the principle to which almost all universities adhere or claim to adhere, whereas institutional neutrality is, at least partly, an approach to how the university in its “official” capacity chooses to respond (or not respond) to events in the world, with the general rule being that it does not take “official” positions on such events unless they directly affect the university’s operations.


Peter Dorman 03.23.24 at 6:12 pm

I agree with Levy’s main point about academic freedom and institutional neutrality, and I don’t think ES’s tweak about specialized institutions has much impact on it. Maybe the way to restate the original idea is that, for topics pertinent to academic analysis and position-taking, institutions need to remain neutral in order for substantive academic freedom to be operative.

The next step, however, is to acknowledge the role of gatekeepers in determining who can enjoy this freedom. When it comes to student and faculty recruitment, general institutional disclaimers resolve few questions. It is here that we need better thought out guidelines that preserve openness to different views while acknowledging the difference between incumbent practitioners and those outside the gate. As an economist, I’ve had to wrestle with this conundrum from both sides (though mostly from outside).

One very specific grudge: There seems to be a life cycle of metaphors. At first, a metaphor is introduced that helps to reveal aspects of a situation or problem that had previously gone unrecognized. Then the use becomes a shorthand for those insights. And after this inculcation of the metaphor becomes ritualized, occluding the aspects that don’t fit it. From what I can see, this is a problem on the left just as much as the right, and maybe more so. See “weaponized”, “marginalized”, “colonized”, etc. In many of the recent department statements on Palestine/Israel that have become flashpoints, metaphors are strung up like flags to proclaim particular positions. This strikes me as a clear threat to academic freedom because, whatever the discipline, inspection of metaphors and other generalizations is or should be a primary activity.

On a psychological level the issue is that proclamation of a sweeping position suggests that efforts to make more careful distinctions will run into a wall of cognitive dissonance avoidance.


Bob Michaelson 03.23.24 at 11:14 pm

Although the University of Chicago often boasts about its strict adherence to the Kalven Report, in practice they ignore it when it is convenient to them. For example, in September, 2008, they created the position of Vice President for Civic Engagement and hired former Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski to serve in that post; interestingly, they indicated that one of her specific duties would be to lobby for the City of Chicago’s bid for the 2018 Summer Olympics! That in no way adheres to the principles of the Kalven Report, no matter how those principles are interpreted.


John Q 03.24.24 at 6:46 am

One issue that hasn’t been discussed here is that of collective statements which all members of some unit of a university, or of an academic discipline are invited/encouraged/pushed to sign. I’ve organised a few statements of this kind (Economists for carbon pricing, etc), signed plenty more, and encouraged others to sign.

I can see potential problems with pushing people to join statements with which they might disagree in part or whole, but none have arisen in my experience. Perhaps that’s because economists proverbially disagree among themselves (though the extent of this is often exaggerated, particularly as regards styles of reasoning).


Ebnezer Scrooge 03.24.24 at 9:18 pm

Institutional non-neutrality is not inconsistent with avoiding orthodoxy. An orthodoxy that nonetheless engages with critics is a productive one. I think this is part of JQ’s point.

And one kind of institutional neutrality is downright antithetical to academic freedom: that which treats all ideas as created equal. No ideas are indisputably true, but some are indisputably false. (Indisputably false: homo economicus models the mental processes of human beings. Disputable: people in aggregate often behave as if they were homo economicus.)

Indisputably false ideas can be profitably studied as social phenomena, but cannot otherwise be tolerated by scholars. It is the scholars’ job to decide what “indisputably” means: where sophistry begins.


Casey 03.24.24 at 9:40 pm

A “scientific journal” that accepted papers on the basis of promoting a particular viewpoint (say, Young Earth Creationism), as opposed to accepting papers based on scientific merit, would be failing in it’s function as a journal. It may well have a place in society, and I would certainly defend its “right to exist” on free-speech ground, but it isn’t correct to view it as a journal, even one within an archipelago of sometimes-competing commitments.


J-D 03.25.24 at 2:55 am

The clarity of the definition offered by Jacob Levy of ‘institutional neutrality’ depends on the clarity of the distinction between those opinions which are political or religious and those which aren’t. It seems as if a university would still be conforming to that understanding of institutional neutrality if it takes a position which, at the time it is adopted, is not a subject of political or religious controversy. What, however, is the university supposed to do if, at a later date, political or religious controversy arises around its position as stated? In theory, any statement has the potential to be the subject of political or religious controversy; reading what I do about recent developments in the USA, it seems to me that at least in that country this is not just a theoretical but a serious practical problem for institutional neutrality by the offered definition.


TM 03.25.24 at 8:59 am

Academic freedom debates in the US are often so weird because participants interpret academic freedom in exactly opposite ways. A great example is the “Conservative Thought and Policy Program” at the University of Colorado:

“The Center seeks highly visible individuals who are deeply engaged in either the analytical scholarship or practice of conservative thought and policymaking, or both.”

In other words, in the name of academic freedom and diversity, they created a position (presumably a well-paid one) that only right wing political figures (well, almost exclusively men) can apply for. And yet there is nary a critical debate about this practice.

Academic Freedom in the US is today under greater threat than it has been at least since the 1950s and the movement to abolish or seriously weaken it nowadays proceeds in the name of – academic freedom and diversity (e. g. https://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2024/03/new-indiana-law-allows-tenured-professors-to-be-fired-if-students-dont-think-theyre-promoting-intellectual-diversity).

The relevant question seems to me how liberals can reframe the debate to counter this powerful movement – how they can prevent their own liberal rhetoric from being instrumentalized for illiberal purposes.


Cervantes 03.25.24 at 12:32 pm

Well, I would rely on the main point I was trying to make in my first comment. There are generally accepted methods for testing assertions against observable reality. That’s called science. We have ways of deciding what is true, what might be true but may be assignable some degree of high or low likelihood, and what is almost certainly false. There are also categories of assertions — moral values and personal preferences — that aren’t really subject to such tests, although we can require that people make them explicit when they construct an argument. These are by the way the “Three Worlds” as defined by Jurgen Habermas and other philosophers. I think that it is fair to consider living within these parameters to constitute academic freedom. A problem that ought to be acknowledged, however, is that religious beliefs that fall within the First World are for the most part almost certainly false. People can assert them in private, but not in the classroom, where they can be subjects of sociological observation but not claimed to be truths.

Liberty University, for example, requires faculty and students to adhere to false beliefs in the first category, and to specified beliefs in the second and perhaps the third. That is obviously not what would be considered academic freedom at most universities. Conservatives who claim to support academic freedom, however, would assert that it requires accepting the legitimacy of Liberty University. That’s not my definition, and I don’t accept it.


LFC 03.25.24 at 1:28 pm

Cervantes @11
There are so many universities and colleges in the U.S. at any rate (some 4,000, I think) that I don’t see much problem if a smallish number of them conceive of themselves as having a religious identity as a core part of their mission. There will be times when that identity bumps up against academic freedom issues, but if the institution in question generally accepts the norms about not dictating what its professors can research and not micro-managing what they do in their classrooms on a daily basis, it usually won’t be a big problem. I’m not thinking of Liberty University here (which I know little about), but of, say, The Catholic Univ. of America or, say, Yeshiva University. In these cases they don’t make matriculated students sign any kind of profession of faith afaik, but there is, esp at the undergraduate level, a lot of self-selection, so that, for example, the vast majority of undergrads at Catholic Univ. are Catholic, and they know going in that they will have to take a required course in philosophy/theology that will be taught from a particular set of background assumptions. That’s not a problem, imo, because no one has to apply there in the first place. As E. Schliesser suggests in the OP, the notion of institutional neutrality may have to be tweaked for these particular cases.


Cervantes 03.25.24 at 3:31 pm

LTC — Sure. I got my doctorate at Brandeis, where the Jewish identity is apparent but exactly what that means is quite eclectic. Most private universities in the U.S. were originally founded by religious orders of one sort or another and many retain some of that character. I got my B.A. at Swarthmore and there’s still a Friends Meetinghouse on the campus, although it’s hard to discern much Quaker presence otherwise. I haven’t heard much, if any complaint about academic freedom at either institution. I think the same is generally true of Catholic universities in the U.S., although their health services and any affiliated hospitals are constrained by Catholic doctrine. There are several Catholic medical schools in the U.S. and I presume (though I have no direct knowledge) that they are also constrained.

But Liberty University does not accept the norms about not dictating what its professors can research and not micro-managing what they do in their classrooms on a daily basis, nor do other fundamentalist schools such as Oral Roberts and Bob Jones.


steven t johnson 03.25.24 at 4:03 pm

“…university’s core commitment is to the discovery, transmission and preservation of knowledge – paradigmatically, what is done in research, in teaching, and in publication and library collection.”

This may be a common starting point but I’m not at all sure about this. It may seem trivial to object that colleges and universities include community and technical colleges, state public universities with multiples branches, and religious institutions. I suppose we should simply read Levy and the OP as meaning, graduate schools, thus ignoring all those local institutions. State public universities have a varied reputation but it is doubtful whether research stemming from any are as apt to be taken as serious contributions as the relative handful of elite institutions, most of which are privately endowed. As for religious institutions, it is not even clear to me what “research” even means for such. That can be difficult too for the humanities, especially the classics. Policy institutes are fairly openly dedicated to goal-oriented tasks and the distinction between their research and advocacy is unclear.

In addition, much of the research that is done is contracted, either directly (usually so far as I can tell some degree of government support even when business corporations are engaged, but also indirectly in the form of policy institutes (“think tanks”.) And much research is conducted by separate institutions, often directly governmental, often enough military. STEM research in particular usually requires such large and stable funding that such outsiders are essential, yet the notion that the university is doing the research is more ambiguous than always remembered? The situation with publication of research in journals is similar. Yes, many universities have their own publishing arms but many or most journals are business ventures, and college libraries are the customers, not the creators.

In research, the university in practice is a hybrid of an educational institution and private and state parties. Simultaneously much of this research is directed at a purpose. The argument that academic freedom is a principle essential to research is not clear. The Institute for Advanced Studies is one of the most notorious of open-ended research institutes with as I understand it well-established and very strong commitment to academic freedom. It’s not clear the principle has paid off and the same seems to be true of the handful of similar institutions like the Santa Fe or Perimeter.

The transmission of knowledge means the education of the youth. Opinions will differ on whether education elicits the potential of the student or whether it is indoctrination. As to the notion that education produces a critical thinker, that presumes the function of the university is to critique (society or something equally nebulous?)

Abstractly speaking this supposed injunction conflicts directly with the function of preserving knowledge. In practice, preserving knowledge means deciding what is worth preserving. Thus as an institution the university edits knowledge, rationalizes it in the sense of systematizing and formalizing it in a curriculum. The academic freedom of the individual instructor to write the course syllabus is constrained by this, especially for knowledge not deemed worthy of hiring an instructor to teach.

The upshot I think is that real discussion of universities and colleges starts with whose universities and colleges they are. I am highly skeptical of any suggestion they are the students’. As to Levy’s pluralism, I am well aware that the many descendants of Federalist No. 10 are held in high honor. Yet I think in the end the pluralism is not to be measured by the number of subsidiaries but the number of owners.


TM 03.25.24 at 4:27 pm

Does Liberty University have any kind of accreditation? To my knowledge, in the US, anything can be called University or College, unlike other countries where what is called a University actually has to meet certain legal standards.


Cervantes 03.25.24 at 7:35 pm

Sadly, Liberty U is accredited despite this, from its Wikipedia page, which is only a small excerpt from the full catalog of horrors.

In 2009, Liberty University withdrew official recognition of the student Young Democrats club, saying that the club’s political positions, including support of abortion rights, conflicted with the school’s. The school’s College Republicans club remains officially recognized.[33]

In 2010, Liberty students received about $445 million in federal financial aid money, the highest total of any school in Virginia and one of the highest in the country.[34][35] A 56 percent increase over the previous year, the money was mostly in the form of student loans, but also included some grants and other forms of aid.[34]

In 2011, Liberty blocked campus access to a local Lynchburg newspaper, the News & Advocate, after the newspaper reported on the school’s dependence on federal financial aid.[36] Falwell Jr. said that the decision to block the newspaper was unrelated to content published in the paper.[37]

As of 2017, the university’s endowment stood at more than $1 billion and gross assets exceeded $2 billion.[38]

In 2019, Will E. Young, a former editor-in-chief of Liberty’s Champion student newspaper, described the “culture of fear” at Liberty University, noting that the school “founded on principles of fundamental Christianity, is now a place that has zero tolerance for new questions and ideas. Those who harbor them must remain silent, or leave.”[39] Young later argued that Liberty must address its racist past, beginning with Jerry Falwell, Sr. and that it must include people of color and LGBTQ people as it makes decisions.[40]”

It goes on and on . . . Apparently it’s easy enough to get accredited so as to receive federal largesse.


J-D 03.25.24 at 11:26 pm

The relevant question seems to me how liberals can reframe the debate …

The King to Oxford sent a troop of horse
For Tories own no argument but force;
With equal skill to Cambridge books he sent
For Whigs admit no force but argument.


SusanC 03.29.24 at 2:16 pm

DARPA program managers decide which projects to fund, and journal editors decide which papers to accept, so at least someone is making deciding which research is relavent/

And, I guess, faculty can make decisions as to which speakers are worth inviting.

And as e/g/ an ungergrad, you are allowed to express the opinion that the guest speaker is a dumbass and the faculty member who invited them is a moron. My own institutions free speech policy is quite clear that your criticism doesnt even have to be politely phrased Faculty may or may not take into account the expressed views of students that they erred in inviting That Guy.


SusanC 03.29.24 at 2:25 pm

Now, of course undergraduate lecture courses have specified content and a specified language (English in my case) but a far as I am aware my university really isnt going to stop me if I try and publish an article in French in a French language journal. (As noted above, journal editors certainly can reject your submission, e/g/ for being in the wrong language)

Rarely effects me, as most high rated journals are in English, but e.g. a French academic at a French university giving unergrad lectures in French is most likely allowed to publish in English.


SusanC 03.29.24 at 2:32 pm

On the other had, in the UK we have legal obligations under the Equalities Act not to discriminate against certain protected class of person. Also, this is a matter of university policy wrt to the kind of product they are attempting to provide. Thus, even supposing there were to be some exploitable legal loopholes in the Equalities Act, my employer would not let me do that/

Where this gets complicated is where a prof’s publiclly stated views about some protected class of person give rise to a reasonable suspicion that the prof. might be engaging in illegal discrimination wrt that protected class. Also hostile environment, etc.


SusanC 03.29.24 at 2:37 pm

Also: we had a research seminar on the works of Immanuel Velikovsky once. It was hilarious. And if the faculty is up for it, central university admin cant tell us we cant do that, even, if, Veliokovsky’s theories are obviously false.


SusanC 03.29.24 at 9:18 pm

And, as an academic I have obligations under Section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.

Having dug through my esteemed institutions guidance … your proposed guest lecture is cancelled if we have a reasonable belief that you are going to say something that is actually illegal to say (or libellous).


One time on a computer security conference program committee (or so my informants tell me):

“I am not a lawyer, but I strongly suspect it would be illegal to carry out the procedure described in this paper.”

“Could we get an FBI agent to be in the audience and arrest him after he’s presented his paper?”

Reader, they did not accept that paper.


J-D 03.30.24 at 2:52 am

Also: we had a research seminar on the works of Immanuel Velikovsky once. It was hilarious. And if the faculty is up for it, central university admin cant tell us we cant do that, even, if, Veliokovsky’s theories are obviously false.

I can believe that there might be some value in a research seminar discussing Immanuel Velikovsky’s horseshit (for example, just how it’s hilariously false, and just how suckers swallow it regardless) without believing that there would be value in an invitation to a Velikovskian to speak (or, worse, hiring a Velikovskian to teach that horseshit), which obviously there isn’t. As I recently observed elsewhere and have also observed here in the past, it’s important for historians, political scientists and sociologists to study the ideas of the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, but that doesn’t mean universities should start hiring Nazis and Kluxers to teach those ideas–they certainly should not.


Tm 03.30.24 at 12:00 pm

Susanc, a really important point:
„Where this gets complicated is where a prof’s publiclly stated views about some protected class of person give rise to a reasonable suspicion that the prof. might be engaging in illegal discrimination wrt that protected class. Also hostile environment, etc.“

In Germany, professors as public servants are also required to uphold the core values of the constitution. Which I think is right in principle but obviously opens up a whole area of contention. The newest development here is the theory that loyalty to the German constitution really means refraining from criticizing the Israeli government.

Americans, if you think your first amendment would never let that happen, think again.


Tm 03.30.24 at 12:08 pm

J-D: „it’s important for historians, political scientists and sociologists to study the ideas of the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, but that doesn’t mean universities should start hiring Nazis and Kluxers to teach those ideas–they certainly should not.“

Which is why I think the creation of a position explicitly open only to conservative operatives at Colorado University should be a huge scandal, and I’m amazed nobody seems to care about such a blatant violation of core academic values.

A forteriori as at least one of those hired was an actual fascist, John Eastman. But apparently the problem goes much deeper as US universities are apparently willing to higher monstrous political criminals (other example John Yoo) as a matter of routine in order to expose their students to „stimulating“ viewpoints.

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