Statement | Institutional Neutrality

ACTA Credits Harvard for New Policy on Official Statements, but Urges More Robust Commitment to Institutional Neutrality

May 30, 2024

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) is aware that Harvard University’s leadership has endorsed the Report on Institutional Voice in the University and announced it will no longer issue official statements on events that do not squarely concern its operations. While this is the correct position on institutional statements, we are disheartened to see that the report fails to grapple with the most pressing issue of the day: the throngs of student activists who shout for university corporate divestment from the state of Israel. Harvard has once again squandered an opportunity to exercise moral leadership at a difficult time in higher education.

In an essay published by the New York Times the same day the report was released, Noah Feldman and Alison Simmons, co-chairs of the Institutional Voice Working Group, wrote that they “didn’t address . . . the hard problem of when the university should or shouldn’t divest its endowment funds from a given portfolio.” The University of Chicago, on the other hand, which has led the way on institutional neutrality since the publication of the Kalven Report in 1967, has made clear that divestment is incompatible with the values of a great university. It issued an unequivocal statement in 2016 saying that it will not entertain economic or academic boycotts against any nation, including Israel.

ACTA has also long stood against divestment, including in our 2017 report detailing the coordinated efforts of groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and the Council of National and Islamic Forces in Palestine to advance the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) movement. We explained that BDS referenda passed at 12 colleges in the 2014–15 academic year and urged trustees to stand firmly against this pressure. When external agitators try to bend university governance toward a given agenda, a commitment to institutional neutrality quickly disposes of that.

Other academic leaders have shown a better way forward in recent months. Vanderbilt University’s chancellor, Daniel Diermeier, advocates for (and practices) “principled neutrality,” arguing that a university should be unyielding in the values it upholds and that those values “should be expressed as behavioral norms necessary for fulfilling its mission, not as an imposition of one opinion on the university community.” The same principle enlivens the classroom, too. University of Chicago President Paul Alivisatos wrote in November 2023, “It is the imperative of individuals within the University to seek truth without being limited by authority. This institutional neutrality is essential to vesting freedom of speech in our faculty members and students.” He relied on principle this spring when he refused to consider divestment, as demanded by the protesters on his campus.

ACTA will be carefully monitoring actions taken by Harvard leadership in the coming months and whether the Kalven Report’s principles of institutional neutrality are correctly practiced. At present, ACTA cannot recognize Harvard University as a practitioner of principled institutional neutrality. ACTA President Michael B. Poliakoff stated, “It is good that Harvard will no longer issue official political statements, but we should never forget the circumstances that led to the adoption of this policy, and, in light of them, it is deeply troubling that Harvard could not bring itself to rule out divestment and adopt a full policy of institutional neutrality. In other words, Harvard needs a firm policy, not an evasive pretense.”

Steven McGuire, ACTA’s Paul & Karen Levy Fellow in Campus Freedom, added, “While Harvard has taken an important first step toward adopting institutional neutrality, its new policy remains disappointingly incomplete, and Harvard has a lot of work to do before it will embody the commitments to free expression and diversity of thought that this policy seeks to support and protect. We continue to encourage Harvard to become an institution that truly embraces the values of academic freedom and viewpoint diversity that it appeals to in this report.”


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