Kalvenizing Northwestern University
Northwestern University President Michael Schill has been strongly criticized for refusing to make an official announcement condemning Hamas for their horrific October 7 attack on Israel. While not speaking for Northwestern as President Schill, he nevertheless made his personal feelings clear: “I am deeply repulsed, sickened and disappointed by what Hamas has done. Kidnapping, beheading, murdering people — children and adults, civilians and people in the armed forces — is horrific and inhuman, pure and simple. This sort of behavior is entirely unacceptable regardless of one’s political convictions or grievances. Period. No moral equivalencies needed.” He spoke in his capacities as “Mike Schill, citizen, Jew and human being.”
We agree with Mike Schill’s condemnation of Hamas. We are not only horrified by Hamas’ awful crimes and the immense suffering of Israeli families who have lost loved ones to death or captivity. We are also appalled by the many examples at elite universities of activist students and faculty expressing support for Hamas’ actions and condemning Israel.
But we also agree with President Schill’s decision not to speak for Northwestern University on this grave political matter. This has nothing to do with the present context. If moral clarity were sufficient justification for official pronouncements, it is difficult to imagine a clearer case.
Rather, it is time that university presidents, provosts, deans, and chairs recognize that they should not speak for their students and faculty. As President Schill eloquently observed: “We are a University which celebrates free expression, diversity of people and diversity of viewpoints. This is essential to our role in society. The University does not speak for our faculty, students and staff on these matters — they have their own voices, and I would venture to say, there are no doubt differences among our students and faculty on what Hamas did and how Israel is responding. For me to speak for them displaces their own freedom to speak.”
President Schill admits that he has been influenced by the University of Chicago, where he was Dean of the Law School. Specifically, his position is that recommended by the Kalven Report published there in 1967, during a period of considerable national upheaval. The Kalven Report is stirring and wise and should be read completely. It includes the following propositions: The university’s mission is the “discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge.” “A university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices, and institutions.” “The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars.” That is, faculty and students are allowed and expected to engage in intense debate among themselves. The university should facilitate this but should not take sides: “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.” The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (formerly Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) has recently endorsed the Kalven report.
Our agreement with the Kalven Report reflects not only intellectual appreciation, but bitter experience. Our previous President believed it was his duty to pronounce, widely and frequently, on issues of the day. He did this even when he had no plausible expertise on relevant matters. The summer of 2020, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, saw a seemingly never-ending flood of missives from the President, the Provost, deans, chairs, and other administrators, about police violence and racial politics. These statements were invariably unscholarly, and they were often factually inaccurate. Importantly, they discouraged rigorous discussion and debate in favor of shallow emoting. They were bad for the Northwestern intellectual community, even if many in our community wanted them. We deeply resented administrators making these statements on our behalf and know plenty of others who felt similarly. We are relieved by President Schill’s intention to abstain from this practice and hope that Northwestern can recover some of the intellectual vibrancy it has lost during recent years.
It is unfortunate that the occasion during which President Schill has had to reveal his policy is the Hamas attacks on Israel. These were so harrowing and wicked that it is especially difficult to see the wisdom of not condemning them. Of course, Mike Schill did condemn Hamas. His refusal to do so as President Schill suggests that he is very serious about maintaining institutional neutrality on matters not directly about Northwestern University. We commend him. We will be watching to make sure he maintains his Kalven-like policy in the future, no matter what the issue.
J. Michael Bailey (Department of Psychology)
Thomas J. Meade (Department of Chemistry)
Leif Rasmussen (Department of Computer Science)