In a recent open letter, the Academic Freedom Alliance, Heterodox Academy, and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression say:
In recent years, colleges and universities have increasingly weighed in on social and political issues. This has led our institutions of higher education to become politicized and has created an untenable situation whereby they are expected to weigh in on all social and political issues.
Most critically, these stances risk establishing an orthodox view on campus, threatening the pursuit of knowledge for which higher education exists.
Their recommendation: “if an academic institution is not required to adopt a position in order to fulfill its mission of intellectual freedom or operational capacity, it is required not to adopt a position.” They advise universities to enact versions of the 1967 University of Chicago Kelven report, and many institutions are doing so.
My own views on this matter are complex and conflicted. I am rarely impressed by universities’ statements on political issues. These pronouncements don’t model good participation in the public sphere, and they might chill dissent. However, I doubt that many people have really thought through what it would mean for an institution to refrain from stating or implying views on contested issues. Also, I am a proponent of institutional diversity and can imagine that we should want universities to adopt diverse missions and relationships to the society.
But I am not writing to adopt a stance. Instead, I want to recommend a close reading of Max Weber’s “The Meaning of ‘Ethical Neutrality’ in Sociology and Economics,” which Weber drafted during the First World War, when German universities were being called to support one side in a total war (Weber 1917/1949). In many ways, it sounds like a commentary on our moment–and Weber is a deep thinker.
His conclusion is rather like that of the Kelven Report. He would endorse the report’s view that the “great and unique role” of the university is “the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge”–not criticism or advocacy.
To get there, Weber explicitly cites philosophical premises that don’t seem sustainable to me, above all a “complete distinction” between facts and values (“the evaluative sphere and the empirical sphere,” p. 32), and an assumption that value conflicts “are entirely a matter of choice or compromise” that cannot be settled by any “scientific procedure of any kind” (19). Weber assumes that ethical maxims are “in eternal conflict” (16). I agree that there will always be debate about values, but Weber dismisses the scholarly consideration of them, e.g., in philosophy.
However, Weber complicates his premises in interesting ways. He notes that in order to understand and interpret culture, one must have the “capacity for evaluating” it (33). People create culture to advance values, and an inability to think evaluatively would make human choices unintelligible. I would ask: what does that mean about the education of scholars? Might there be room for the cultivation of ethical and aesthetic judgment?
Weber acknowledges that the comparative, empirical study of ethical (or religious) views can undermine students’ faith in all such views. In that sense, sociology is not neutral and may be a corrosive force (14). He also suggests that–“ultimately”–individuals must choose their own “meaning,” which sounds to me like a liberal, individualistic, and secular view, not a neutral one (18).
Weber recognizes that the selection of problems and topics in the social sciences depends on values, and “cultural (i.e. evaluative) interests give purely empirical scientific work its direction” (21-22). However, he gives this issue little attention, even though it seems fundamental to me and he does discuss it elsewhere (Weber 1905). A university could decide not to publish statements in response to major news events yet drastically expand its research on business applications of Artificial Intelligence while closing its classics department. That hardly seems neutral to me.
In his 1905 essay, Weber had acknowledged that a given intellectual institution–in that case, a major journal that he edited–might strive for neutrality and expressly invite “all political standpoints,” yet it could manifest a certain “character” due to the group of people who gravitate to it. For instance, his journal had mainly attracted non-revolutionary economic progressives (Weber 1905, 62). One could argue that modern American universities also have “characters” (one or more per institution) that are not the result of intentional policies but that diverge from neutrality, for better or worse.
Weber’s situation differs from ours because all German universities in his time were state institutions. In a footnote, he considers the Dutch model, which allowed anyone to create a university as long as it met basic standards. This sounds rather like our policy today. He objects that “it gives the advantage to those with large sums of money and groups which are already in power” (7).
That sounds familiar, and so do Weber’s other targets in the essay. He devotes several pages (35-40) to economists who smuggle strong normative assumptions into their ostensibly scientific models. He is annoyed by obvious partisans who define their positions as the ethically neutral ones (6) and by those who claim that a moderate position or a “‘statesman-like’ compromise” is neutral, when it is just another view that may even be harder than other positions to analyze critically (10). In the earlier essay (Weber 1905, 57), he had written that a centrist stance “is not truer even by a hair’s breadth, than the most extreme party ideals of the right and left.”
Weber alludes critically to colleagues who feel that asking professors to separate their political roles outside the classroom from their teaching duties injures their personalities (5). A central Weberian idea is that modernity requires increasing segmentation into roles.
Weber criticizes the kind of academic who uses data to demonstrate that certain political ideas are unrealistic, as if this were a scientific finding. “The possible is often reached only by striving to attain the impossible that lies beyond it” (24).
He acknowledges that students tend to prefer professors who express opinions in the classroom, and that universities need to hire popular teachers to compete for students, but he maintains that the teacher’s proper job is to inspire “a taste for sober empirical analysis” (9).
When he calls for “the professional thinker” to “keep a cool head” and “swim against the stream” of public opinion (47), Weber is targeting German nationalists and revolutionary socialists.
Weber also objects that academics opine on certain contested issues even though other questions–such as the German monarchy–are officially off limits. He says that the dignified response to partial censorship would be silence (8).
He finds a certain kind of (unnamed) colleague “altogether repugnant.”
An unprecedented situation exists when a large number of officially accredited prophets do not do their preaching on the streets, or in churches or other public places or in sectarian conventicles, but rather feel themselves competent to enunciate their evaluations on ultimate questions “in the name of science” in govenmentally privileged lecture halls in which they are neither controlled, checked by discussion nor subject to contradiction (4).
I suppose that many of us today would recognize this description yet would disagree about whom it describes.
Sources: Weber, M. (1917/1949). The Meaning of “Ethical Neutrality” in Sociology and Economics. In E.A. Shils, & H.A. Finch (Eds.), Max Weber on The Methodology of the Social Sciences (pp. 1–49). Glencoe Ill.: The Free Press; and Weber (1905/1949), “Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy, in ibid (pp. 50- 112). See also: Activism and Objectivity in Political Research; The Democratic Mission of Higher Education; when does a narrower range of opinions reflect learning?; right and left on campus today; academic freedom for individuals and for groups; vaccination, masking, political polarization, and the authority of science; values of a university; etc.