Silence is Not Violence: The Responsibility of Universities
In the wake of this month’s nationwide protests against police brutality, systemic racism, and a host of other social ills, many businesses across the country have issued statements supporting protestors, rioters, and the Black Lives Matter movement more generally. Often times, they have also made pledges to “do the work” to educate themselves and their employees on the alleged underlying ills — or, rather less charitably, much like the Soviet citizen interested in surviving an authoritarian regime, to convince themselves of the truth or morality or appropriateness or expediency or the like of the ideology these movements push.
Of course, most businesses are well within their rights to make such declarations. After all, whether it be a local bakery or a regional bank, public declarations in support of popular protest movements have no direct bearing on the missions of these organizations, namely the generation of profits and the rendering of services. Put differently, statement or not, it seems like businesses will by and large be able to continue going about their business.
But not all organizations have this same freedom — and in the case of universities, the primary purpose of which is to generate new knowledge, to take a stance regarding protest movements is to undermine the impartiality and intellectual freedom that enable them to pursue this mission at all. It is unfortunate, therefore, that many universities have issued official statements of support for Black Lives Matter. And to be absolutely clear, it is unfortunate not because the movement is unworthy of popular support but because taking a public stance of support on any matter with a political dimension threatens to compromise the ability of students and staff alike to contribute to universities’ core purpose, to conduct and disseminate impartial research.
At my home institution, Columbia University, there has been very little ambivalence about supporting protestors. The Student Affairs Committee of the University Senate, for example, at the beginning of June, wrote to students to share the following message:
We write from the University Senate Student Affairs Committee to stand in solidarity with all those protesting police brutality, systemic racism, and the horrific, senseless killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others. We are outraged and disturbed not only by these killings, but also by the unnecessary, unprovoked acts of violence against Black protesters exercising their constitutional right to assemble. Now, as ever, it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to stand up, speak out, and unequivocally affirm that Black Lives Matter.
In the days and weeks that followed, the Graduate School of Arts and Science, the Office of University Life, and the Graduate Workers’ Union all followed suit with similar messages of support — some of which all but implored students to join various activism campaigns tied to or associated with Black Lives Matter. Reading such messages, one has to wonder if the Right’s otherwise specious allegations of indoctrination have ever been more substantiated.
To see the dangers inherent in such action, consider the protections we have in place in this country for the free exercise of religion—and just why they’re so necessary. This protection rests on the principle, elaborated in the First Amendment, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” While private individuals and private organizations are free to practice whatever religion they desire — so long as it does not violate certain other established rights, of course — the free exercise clause in its broadest interpretation requires rather more of the government, which it forbids from promoting or favoring any one religion over any other. In practice, it establishes ours as a secular state.
Although the secularism of the state is not an exact analog for the impartiality of universities I believe that the two align where it matters most. For sake of thoroughness, though, I’ll briefly canvass the two major differences that I see.
First, each responds to a unique kind of historical force. Unlike protections for religious freedom, the comparatively more recent idea that universities ought to be impartial sites for the production of knowledge did not develop against a background of widespread religious persecution. (On the topic of impartiality, see, e.g., Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties.) And second, while religious freedom is a right guaranteed by the constitution, nothing but institutional momentum and public and institutional norms safeguard the impartiality of universities—though it is worth remembering that most universities are 501c.3 non-profit organizations and as such, lest they lose their non-profit status, are prohibited from endorsing political candidates.
Such differences notwithstanding, secularism and impartiality share in their basic recognition of the chilling effect of the sponsorship by those in authority of certain sensitive positions—where it is the history and present concerns of each society that determine exactly which positions are to count as “sensitive.”
For example, in the United States, and given the prominence of religion worldwide, were the state to endorse any one religion it would be difficult as a matter of practice to ensure thereafter that individuals of differing religious persuasions retain their full rights and remain full citizens. Similarly, given the current divisiveness of politics, the degree to which political speech sparks controversy and outcry, were universities to endorse any one political position over another, it would create an environment hostile to honest intellectual inquiry, one that accommodates mob justice rather than reasoned debate. Such an environment would risk compromising research the findings of which , while true, are politically unpalatable or inconvenient and, in turn, would risk undermining the ability of universities to honor their charters. (Relatedly, the University of Chicago’s Brian Leiter makes a similar argument in defense of freedom of speech.)
(Actually, there is good reason to doubt that scholars in the humanities are searching for truth in the same sense in which scholars in the sciences are searching for truth — but more on this at a later time. If interested, I touch very briefly on this idea in a previous Medium article.)
If secularists and advocates of impartiality recognize the dangers of solidarity statements they just as well recognize the many benefits that derive from proscribing them. Just as the secularism of the state protects the religious freedoms of private citizens, for instance, so the impartiality of universities protects the academic freedoms of individual researchers and research groups.
Thus, to demand that universities remain impartial is not at all to demand that the administrators and researchers they support must do so as individual researches. Rather, it is only to require that, when speaking to students as Presidents and Deans and Provosts and Professors, they either refrain from endorsing politicized positions or make clear that they speak only for themselves. Likewise, this is not at all to censor research: politicized or not, the marketplace of ideas is well-enough equipped on its own to separate the wheat from the chaff, the novel from the old hat, the true from the false — although there is reason to fear that improper internal regulation at times renders this marketplace ineffective. Nor, finally, is it to silence students, who, provided that they have arrived at their views by reasoned consideration, have almost a duty to share their opinions with peers and professors alike.
What room, then, do universities have to respond to current events? If at issue is hate speech, unprovoked violence, incontrovertible discrimination, harassment, lapses of professional integrity, such as the falsification of data, or other matters directly antithetical to the impartial pursuit of knowledge, of course it is their responsibility to speak out against and to condemn such speech or behavior.
From where I stand, however, the definitional slipperiness of social movements and the terms they mobilize makes it nearly impossible to identify with any certainty not only what exactly protestors are against but also whether that cause is in fact a direct threat to the mission of universities. What, for example, does Black Lives Matter stand for and who decides; what does “(systemic) racism” mean; and what kinds of statistical patterns are unquestionable indicators of bias? The difference here, to be explicit, is between condemning hiring policies that state outright that no women shall be hired and condemning systemic racism. While all universities should do the former, as far as I can tell, if systemic racism indeed has any accepted definition, it refers just to outcome inequality, which to my mind is not in itself a sufficiently direct threat to the mission of the university to warrant official public statement. In other words, leave the moralizing to individuals.
Thus, in slippery matters—read: during times of social unrest, when conceptual landscapes are being actively reshaped—universities have but two options: either remain silent or voice their support for only the students and faculty who are engaging their civic duties and using their advanced academic training to shape our world. That is, standing at some remove from protest movements themselves, the most universities should do is congratulate engagement.
(See Agnes Callard’s piece in The New York Times on the related question of whether philosophers ought to sign petitions.)
In fine, in a rare show of pragmatism, the concern and the argument here are patently practical. Which is to say, those of my colleagues in academia who would like to rebut by developing abstruse conceptual connections, by dropping in a line from Foucault or Gramsci or Derrida or Marx or Nietzsche or Butler, have missed the point: if we’d like to ensure that, above all else, universities are capable of facilitating research that tracks the truth, we’d better be careful about how just politically engaged we allow them to become. All of which is really just another way of saying that, if the reader disagrees, either they find implausible my practical predictions or mistaken my definition of just what it is that universities are and do and serve.
All that said, at the end of the day we cannot rewind the clock — and it is unlikely that universities will retract their statements of solidarity. And so, now perhaps more than at any other time in the past several decades, it is with professors and students — with those committed to safeguarding universities from within — that the future of higher education lies.