Reinforcing the Chicago Principles and the Kalven Report

To: Members of the University Community
From: Robert J. Zimmer, President
Subject: Reinforcing the Chicago Principles and the Kalven Report
Date: October 5, 2020

We are at a complex moment in our society, with a pandemic, social unrest, and an impending national election. Each one of these raises serious questions for individuals, communities, organizations, and governments. At such a moment, particularly with emotions high and each of these forces being brought to bear on all of us, it is important that we reaffirm key and defining principles of the University – in particular free expression and open discourse, as articulated in the Report of the Faculty Committee on Freedom of Expression, now widely known as the Chicago Principles, and on a related topic, the relationship of the views of individuals, namely faculty, students, and staff, to any particular position the University might take on matters external to the University. 

The latter was the core focus of the Kalven Report, a report of a faculty committee that warned against University positions on political and social action, with the exception of matters that threaten the very mission of the University, its commitment to freedom of inquiry and its basic operations. The Kalven Report explains that the very taking of a position by the University might chill the environment for free expression and academic freedom, and that it is essential that the University remain a place where individuals can explore and hold whatever positions they wish. The report states, “The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.”  The principles and values outlined in the Chicago Principles and the Kalven Report are intrinsic to the University’s exceptional capacity to create and sustain an environment of intellectual challenge and freedom, and are critical to our University’s approach to both education and research. For students, this enables the development of habits of mind and intellectual skills that reflect our aspirations for our education, and for faculty, this promotes an environment of freedom and intellectual challenge that enables their research to flourish.

The principles of the Kalven Report apply not only to the University as a whole, but to the departments, schools, centers, and divisions as well, and for exactly the same reasons, i.e., these essential components of the University should not take institutional positions on public issues that are not directly related to the core functioning of the University.  Of course, faculty, students, and staff, either individually or in groups, are free to take positions as individuals or as collections of individuals, but this expression must be distinct from expression advanced by official units of the University. This distinction must be maintained, because the process of assessing complex issues must always allow for the broadest diversity of views to be heard and held, and the diversity of views that lies at the heart of a great university must never be chilled by formal institutional positions on such issues.  

I have received several comments recently raising the question whether certain actions within the University were consistent with the Kalven Report and the Chicago Principles, or whether the actions were inconsistent with these principles.

Representative of these actions was the recent English Department announcement that for the 2020-21 admissions cycle the Department would accept applications for admission to the doctoral program only from students “interested in working in and with Black Studies.” Because of the questions raised by this action, I would like to address the issue whether this action is inconsistent with either the Kalven Report or the Chicago Principles.

Some of the complexity of such a question turns on what is intended by this policy and how it is implemented. I would like to address two competing views.  On the one hand, some members of the University community have expressed concern that the exclusive disciplinary commitment effectively represents a political test for admission. To the extent this was the intent of adopting this policy, or to the extent it is implemented in such a manner, or to the extent it is reasonably perceived by students and faculty as having this purpose, this action would stand in direct opposition to both the Kalven Report and the Chicago Principles. The idea or even implication that there would be a political criterion applied to admission to our doctoral program would be incompatible with the fundamental principles of our University. 

On the other hand, this action also can be understood to be the natural exercise of the prerogatives of an academic department to make decisions about the choice of scholarly directions it wants to emphasize in its educational and research programs. From this perspective, viewing Black Studies as an area of emphasis is not different from many other decisions departments often make about their priorities and intellectual direction. Viewed in this light, it is no different from a History Department deciding to emphasize American history or a Law School deciding to emphasize international law. Indeed, from that perspective, the English Department’s action can be viewed as an important manifestation of academic freedom. 

These considerations are fundamentally about whether an action comports with fundamental principles that have defined the University’s approach to creating an educational and research environment of freedom, rigor, and integrity. Only after one believes that an action does so comport comes the question of whether the action is wise or not. The lively questioning of wisdom of actions has always been and will likely remain a prominent feature of the University and discussions within it. But it is important to recognize that this is a separate question that arises only after the question about comporting with fundamental values sustains scrutiny and invites dialogue about the wisdom of the action.

The differences between these two perspectives about this action, both of which I have heard, underscore the importance of attention to the Kalven Report and the Chicago Principles, and ensuring that the University and its units take full cognizance of their importance so actions that might be seen as in conflict with them are explained carefully and are implemented in such a way as not to diverge from these core principles of our University. And it is perfectly appropriate for members of our community to raise questions about whether such actions are, in fact, consistent with these principles.

This moment is a fraught one for our society given the multiple challenges we now face. Varying perspectives about our society, our nation, and our University have led many to call for an open-minded re-examination of the state of our society, our nation and our institutions.

This will inevitably have an impact on how we might approach these challenges in the context of our University.  As we consider these issues, it is imperative that we continue to uphold the values of academic freedom, free expression and open discourse, as captured in the two seminal documents – the Chicago Principles, and the Kalven Report.