Discussing Frederick Douglass’s What to the American Slave is Your 4th of July?, my students focused on the abolitionist’s pointed use of the word “your” to illuminate that the July 4th celebration of liberty excluded enslaved people. This led our class to explore who gets to define the civic “we” and articulate a community’s values. This discussion is not merely academic. Since October 7, universities have been embroiled in painful fights over institutional statements on terrorist attacks and war in the Middle East.
These emails from leadership don’t always lead to donor revolts and dueling open letters. My university president’s statement about the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision overruling Roe v Wade did not provide actionable information or declare an institutional position. When universities are under fire for perceived liberal bias, the decision to say nothing of substance was politically wise. Yet the experience of reading the prosaic announcement felt alienating. It might have been the best choice in light of the white-hot politics of the moment, but it exemplifies why we need to end the presumption that presidents will comment on current events.
I believe we need to change—but not by issuing better statements. Instead, I propose we stop lobbying for and reacting to statements by administrators and instead do what colleges are designed to do. “The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge. Its domain of inquiry and scrutiny includes all aspects and all values of society,” asserted the University of Chicago’s famed 1967 Kalven Committee Report on the Role of the University in Social and Political Action.
This mission is unique and vital. Yet fights over what presidents say demonstrate that many of us crave something more than the opportunity to seek knowledge together. Many desire and demand certainty that the institution shares their position on matters of public concern.
I get it. Those of us in the academy sell students a vision of college that is both exclusive (for high achievers) and inclusive (welcoming to everyone). The promise of belonging and community touted in our recruiting materials clashes with the reality that we are bound by our academic mission and the lack of unanimous opinion on even the most critical issues. We also sell donors on the idea that their money means influence—not only on how the money will be spent but on the kinds of institutions we are.
Although higher education is bound by a common mission of inquiry, we do not always agree with one another. Principled disagreement—and rigorous inquiry into the nature of our perspectives—is at the core of what we do.
This is why, at least since the 1967 Kalven Report, many in academia have advocated for institutional neutrality on matters of public concern and for universities to avoid engaging in “social action.” I see this latter commitment as impossible. Integrated education, in terms of race, sex, religion, and ethnicity, was itself among the most contested social actions of its time.
Furthermore, institutional commitments not to engage in “social action” would serve as an invitation to dismantle efforts to make universities accessible to everyone. In Florida, attempts to strip academic courses of any hint of social progress not only degrade the academic enterprise but also demonstrate the folly of pretending education does not reflect policy choices.
However, presidential emails declaring what we stand for and who we are (or “this is not who we are”) don’t serve our mission, nor do they advance whatever social mission universities choose to support. These declarations from remote administrators and the proxy battles over their contents are a one-way conversation—a sign that we are not even attempting honest dialogue. Robbed of our sense of civic agency and unable to imagine listening to each other, we fight about what a few power-wielders say.
Pursuing institutional agreement guarantees that power—not inquiry—will dictate what a university claims to believe. But inquiry—not power—is supposed to be how universities seek and revise consensus about important questions.
Nor do these statements build community. A victory in the statement war produces a few momentary victors and leaves the rest disaffected. I believe conversations—even painful ones—are more likely to help us respect and understand one another. We are more likely to feel like a community because we went through something challenging together than because someone purported to speak for us.
Sigal Ben-Porath, the University of Pennsylvania education professor, wrote in her book Cancel Wars: How Universities Can Foster Free Speech, Promote Inclusion, and Renew Democracy that “The debate over the intersection of speech, truth, and academic inquiry centers on disagreements over what is self-evident, what is already known and requires no further investigation, and what, on the other hand, can be reconsidered, questioned, or revisited.” I see these statement battles as an effort to settle these disagreements.
However, universities already have mechanisms for considering challenging questions and, in some circumstances, reaching consensus. I work on a tobacco-free campus because scientific consensus determined that tobacco causes cancer.
Some consensus is beyond our capacity to model or enforce. Learning that what feels like universal truth is contested can be uncomfortable. I was devastated to learn my position that all children are civilians is not self-evident to everyone. My university president cannot heal this hurt because she lacks the power to produce consensus. But first, we must seek to understand one another—however painful that might be.
In my past life as a lobbyist, my job was to get people in power to adopt my position and give it the force of law. But as a college professor, I am here to facilitate understanding. I guide students in coming to understand complex texts, questions, and ideas. I encourage them to understand how people of goodwill can see the world so differently. I do all of this so my students can become effective civic actors.
Unlike student activism geared toward tangible change, statement advocacy is a sucker’s game because (a) students can’t compete with institutional donors (even at a “tuition-dependent” school where students’ money keeps the lights on and pays the statement writers), and (b) the statements persuade no one.
I recommend universities do the hard work necessary to shift from statement battles to genuine dialogue. That means institutions should issue statements only when it is essential to inform community members about their rights and obligations; when the event directly affects community members’ access to the educational experience (such as when executive orders, say, threaten to exclude international students) or the institution’s operations; specific members of the campus community have been directly affected, and the campus has permission to provide an update (such as if students or alumnae were killed in a terrorist attack); or a community member has violated the rules of conduct and the investigation or consequences are being announced.
Like everyone else, students are often wrong. Sometimes, they are loudly, vocally wrong. Universities are well-positioned to educate students in such cases. But statements are unlikely to persuade nor make anyone whole. University administrators can correct misinformation and should be rigorously self-reflective about the gaps in our students’ understanding (our mission is education, after all). Recently, students, donors, and trustees have pressured universities to condemn student speech. We should resist.
This policy position will require universities to educate their communities about the difference between protected expression (even outrageous, offensive expression) and unprotected conduct, such as harassment, doxing, and targeted intimidation. Universities should clarify this distinction during student orientation and faculty and staff onboarding. Fostering greater civic literacy about expressive freedom and academic freedom should also help institutions avert battles over invited speakers.
In light of recent events, universities should make students aware that although we defend their right to speak, we cannot shield them from social or professional consequences for their stances. Prospective employers may choose not to hire those whose values don’t align with theirs, and peers might choose to condemn their speech or decline to associate with them. These responses are all examples of expressive freedom.
My stance against institutional statements is a challenge to our leaders to do something rather than say something. The endless stream of emails issued by administrators on issues as diverse as #MeToo, the Middle East, the death of George Floyd, and Ukraine come from the impulse to make students feel cared for, but they ring hollow. In an effort to offend no one, they say nothing. But simply refraining from statements is not the solution.
Presidents should be in open, regular dialogue with their communities. Instead of issuing statements, university leadership should hold regular open office hours. They should join students and faculty in places where conversation, including on divisive issues, can take place, such as meals, concerts, chapel services, and intramural sports.
They should work with faculty—who are in conversation with our students every day—to plan a transition from statements to real dialogue. They should be ready to invest in changes that make dialogue possible (such as strengthening their commitment to academic freedom and protecting faculty from retaliation when they engage in good-faith dialogue and inquiry). When they communicate with their communities, they should send a clear message that we will not fight about statements anymore because we have real work to do.
This is the statement I’d like to read from a college leader instead of their take on what’s in the headlines:
Don’t ask me to say something when the world hurts your heart and threatens your well-being. Ask me to do something.
Ask me to fund scholarships and recruit experts to teach you how to make change. Ask me to rebuild this place or burn it down.
But don’t ask me to say something, just so you know whether our college’s corporate “we” is or is not on your side.
Ask me to do something. That’s what I’m here for.