Partisan Attacks on Universities Show Administrators Need to Drop the Charade of Political NeutralityBreaking News
tags: higher education, colleges and universities, critical race theory
Holden Thorp is editor in chief of the Science family of journals. He was previously the provost of Washington University in St. Louis and the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Abortion. Guns. Climate change. The role of race and slavery in the history of the United States. Transgender rights. Are these political issues? Sure. Are they also squarely within the wheelhouse of higher education? You bet. Every. Single. One. Yet, as we careen into the election of November 2022, university administrators will tie themselves in knots trying to somehow stay neutral on issues that are clearly in the purview of research and teaching at their institutions. It’s not going to work very well.
There was a dry run of all of this after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to overturn Roe v. Wade. Every university — especially those with academic medicine — studies and teaches about abortion. And the social-science and medical-practice research is abundantly clear that access to abortion services is good public-health policy. A procedure taught to medical students to save lives is certainly well within the remit of institutions.
Nevertheless, the statements that came from university presidents in the aftermath of the decision mostly bent over backward to avoid taking a firm position. Presidents said things like, “We know this is a contentious issue” or “We must make space for those who disagree.” Did any of them believe the university should even debate whether to provide access to abortion services for patients and students (much less stop doing so)? Very few. But to come right out and say they disagreed with the decision would create at the least a time-consuming firestorm and at the worst a budget penalty for the university.
One president who spoke her mind directly was Mary Sue Coleman, the longtime president of the University of Michigan who is now serving as interim president in a second stint. “I strongly support access to abortion services, and I will do everything in my power as president to ensure we continue to provide this critically important care,” she said in a letter to the campus. “I am deeply concerned about how prohibiting abortion would affect U-M’s medical teaching, our research, and our service to communities in need.”
Coleman has always spoken her mind more forcefully than most of her colleagues. She’s also leaving in October, so her statement is a good lens for seeing the way presidents would talk if they weren’t under the thumb of political players who prioritize ideology over objective analysis. In a recent survey published by The Chronicle, 83 percent of college presidents said they censor their public remarks about national politics to avoid creating controversy.
This tension has led many universities to adopt the so-called Chicago Principles, which is a mostly innocuous statement by the University of Chicago about welcoming different points of view. But to conservative university stakeholders, it sounds like something that will tamp down the purported liberal bias of the campus and lead to speakers and courses about conservative ideals. This supposedly sets the stage for the administration to try to stay neutral and affirm the ability for the faculty to speak their minds. But as we saw in recent reporting on the University of Florida, the end goal of the politicians is also to silence the faculty.
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