Yesterday, in response to concerns that she had been silent in the wake of Hamas’s unprovoked terrorist attacks on Israel, President Maud Mandel e-mailed Williams students, faculty, and staff, addressing her silence and inviting everyone to join her at a campus vigil next Monday.
She did more than that. She also announced a new policy “not to send out campus-wide messages about domestic or international events or even natural disasters, no matter how tragic or painful”. It is not the “president’s job,” she wrote, “to speak for the whole community”. Her “job is to help ensure that the educational opportunities and personal support are in place so that we can reflect, study and decide what we think and believe, individually and collectively.”
We have been concerned about President Mandel’s past statements on public matters. In her e-mail, she acknowledged that she erred in issuing them:
This position represents an evolution in my thinking. Earlier in my presidency I sent out public statements about various world events. After conversations with members of our community and colleagues at other schools, I have become convinced that such communications do more harm than good. They support some members of our community in particular moments while intentionally or unintentionally leaving out others. They give some issues great visibility while leaving others unseen.
In order to make this policy official, we recommend that trustees adopt the Kalven Report, more precisely, The University of Chicago’s November 1967 Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action. In February of that year, that university's President George W. Beadle appointed a committee chaired by Harry Kalven, Jr., a First Amendment scholar, to prepare “a statement on the University’s role in political and social action.”
In response to the campus unrest of the Vietnam Era, the committee concluded, much as President Mandel did this week, that “The university,” in so many words, “must remain neutral.”
The report explained why:
The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge….
It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.
Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.
In establishing the principle of institutional neutrality, the Kalven Report helps explain the purpose of a university. An “extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry.” Hospitable to and encouraging of “the widest diversity of views within its own community.”
President Mandel learned that her statements on public affairs excluded those who disagreed with her. Similarly, Kalven observed that when the university “takes collective action…, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted.”
We commend President Mandel for a strong statement in favor of institutional neutrality at a very difficult time for the college and the nation. We hope that Williams will build on her statement by adopting the Kalven Report and affirm it as an essential part of its educational mission.