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Amid Debates at Harvard, Legal Scholars Discuss Institutional Neutrality at Harvard Radcliffe Institute Event

The Radcliffe Institute and Council on Academic Freedom co-sponsored an event on institutional neutrality on Tuesday evening.
The Radcliffe Institute and Council on Academic Freedom co-sponsored an event on institutional neutrality on Tuesday evening. By Frank S. Zhou
By Elizabeth R. Huang and Connor J. Yu, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin moderated a Tuesday evening panel discussing the prospect of institutional neutrality across higher education institutions, an event which came amid plans from the University to form a working group dedicated to considering a policy of institutional neutrality.

Co-sponsored by the Harvard Radcliffe Institute and the Council on Academic Freedom, the event featured legal scholars from the University of Chicago, Harvard Law School, and Yale Law School.

Brown-Nagin began the discussion by asking the panelists their “essential positions” on the topic of institutional neutrality.

Tom C. Ginsburg, a professor at the University of Chicago law school, discussed the Kalven report published by UChicago in 1967, which declared “the university as such would not take positions on the issues of the day.”

“I really think neutrality goes hand in hand with the idea that the core mission of the university, to quote Robert Maynard Hutchins: ‘it’s not a kindergarten, it’s not a political club; it is a community of scholars to engage in research,’” Ginsburg said. “If you have that idea, neutrality at the center is designed to protect everyone outside that position.”

Yale Law School professor Robert C. Post ’69 cautioned that for university speech, “there are good reasons to be restrained.”

“When we speak outside of our lane, we invite reprisals, we invite regulations, which we cannot defend in terms of our mission, by definition,” he said. “So we want to be very careful when we do that. There may be reasons to do it. But they have to be pretty good reasons because we're vulnerable, we're especially vulnerable right now.”

Janet E. Halley — an HLS professor who published a column in The Crimson on Feb. 27 arguing against the adoption of institutional neutrality — advocated for “institutional restraint” at Tuesday’s event.

“It's my view that it would be helpful to drive a wedge between university conduct and use of university statements first, and to acknowledge that university conduct has to happen on controversial issues of the day on a constant basis,” she said.

The panelists also spoke on the application of institutional neutrality in the classroom, emphasizing the importance of professors presenting diverse concepts rather than enforcing a particular view.

“There is a distinction between educating and indoctrinating,” Post said. “The only way you can tell the difference is by reference to the epistemological standards of the discipline being taught.”

Halley agreed about the importance of understanding concepts rather than taking a firm stance on any specific one, giving the example of various feminist legal theories.

“My job is to make sure that you understand each one,” she said. “I’m very much committed to that diversity of views pedagogy.”

Ginsburg noted social media’s influence on the way education and discussion are facilitated and perceived.

“You’re trying to have students articulate the best argument independent of holding that position,” Ginsburg said. “We do have instances where students say something in class in a kind of exploratory way, and then it goes out on social media.”

“That’s happening all over the country, and it’s obviously deeply undermining of any kind of educational mission,” Ginsburg added.

The panelists encouraged students to remain optimistic and to use the university’s resources to guide them amidst concerns over voicing opinions.

“You’re in a place of learning, you’re in a place of questioning, you’re in a place of changing your mind every now and then in a place that’s relatively safe for that,” Halley said.

“The tools are on the table,” she added.

—Staff writer Elizabeth R. Huang can be reached at lizzy.huang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @lizzyrhuang.

—Staff writer Connor J. Yu can be reached at connor.yu@thecrimson.com.

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