Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Universities Shouldn't Ever Take Sides in a War

| Oct. 31, 2023

Why academic institutions should always avoid taking sides.

The terrorist attack on Israel and resulting war between Israel and Hamas has roiled campuses across the United States. University presidents at PennStanfordHarvard, and elsewhere have come under fire for not saying enough about the conflict, not saying it soon enough, saying too much, or saying the wrong thing. Longtime donors have severed ties, students have had job offers canceled for expressing controversial views, wealthy hedge fund moguls have sought to blacklist students for the positions they have taken, and assorted critics have seen these events as evidence that elite institutions are either indoctrinating students in dangerous ways or failing to instill in them proper ethical values.

I have spent a fair part of the past several weeks reflecting on these issues, pondering what the proper role for a university at a moment like this is. To be sure, these campus controversies pale in comparison to the human consequences for Israelis and Palestinians alike, not to mention the potential geopolitical repercussions of this latest round of fighting. But as institutions dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and the social and intellectual development of young people, universities must be concerned about protecting their ability to perform these missions in the face of these assaults, which are likely to increase over time.

These reflections drew me back to a seminal document that I first encountered during the decade I spent on the faculty of the University of Chicago. It is known as the Kalven Report, the product of a faculty committee chaired by law professor Harry Kalven Jr. Written in 1967, a time when college campuses were divided on Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and other contentious issues, the report lays out a clear and distinct vision of the "university's role in political and social action."

It begins by observing that universities have "a great and unique role to play in fostering the development of social and political values in a society," one defined by "the distinctive mission" and "characteristics of the university as a community." It states boldly that "the mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge," and that its domain of inquiry "includes all aspects and all values of society." As such, a university is a community that "creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones." The committee further notes that "a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting."

But—and it is a very important but—the report emphasizes that "the instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student" and not the university as a collective body. Implicit in that statement is a recognition that "dissent and criticism" may come from many different points of view and draw upon different bodies of knowledge. For this reason, a university must "sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry" and a consistent "independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures."...

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M..“Universities Shouldn't Ever Take Sides in a War.” Foreign Policy, October 31, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt