Category Archives: academia

Max Weber on institutional neutrality

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 groupsvaccination, masking, political polarization, and the authority of science; values of a university; etc.

the Tufts prison program and Civic Studies

Rachelle Cohen writes in the Boston Globe:

As a child, Juan Pagan was physically abused by his father. By the time he was 16, his mother, who had battled mental illness all her life, was in prison, and Pagan was expelled from school and had run away from home. His only family became the Lowell gang he was a part of. In May 2006 he stabbed a member of a rival gang, Alexander Castro Santos, and was convicted the following year of first-degree murder — a charge reduced to second-degree in 2008, giving him the possibility of parole down the road.

Now 33, he’ll be awarded his bachelor’s degree from Tufts University Tuesday. He’ll collect it at a ceremony at MCI-Concord along with nine other incarcerated students in the first-ever graduating class of the Tufts University Prison Initiative of the Tisch College of Civic Life.

I’m proud of my colleagues who make this program work, and, above all, proud of the graduates.

These students are earning degrees in Civic Studies, the major that we have developed at Tufts as part of an informal, international network devoted to this emerging field. The Tufts Civic Studies students who are incarcerated often say that the major is ideal because it helps them to understand and change systems. They are part of an international community that consists of hundreds of people who have participated in Summer Institutes of Civic Studies at Tufts, in Europe, and at James Madison University since 2009, plus those who study this subject on Tufts’ main campus.

See also: teaching about institutions, in a prison; article about the Civic Studies major

Maria Avila, Building Collective Leadership for Culture Change, book cover

Maria Avila et al., Building Collective Leadership for Culture Change: Stories of Relational Organizing on Campus and Beyond

Maria Avila is a great community organizer in the tradition of the Industrial Areas Foundation. I often assign her writing to introduce students to principles and strategies for organizing. For instance, this fall, our undergraduates read chapters of her Transformative Civic Engagement Through Community Organizing.

Her latest book is Building Collective Leadership for Culture Change: Stories of Relational Organizing on Campus and Beyond (Cornell University Press, 2023), which she wrote with contributions from Aixle Aman Rivera, Joanna B. Perez, Alan P. Knoerr, Kathleen Tornow Chai, and Philip A. Vieira and a foreword by George J. Sánchez.

This book reflects Maria’s turn to organizing in and from academia. After working in organizations in Chicago and Ciudad Juarez and organizing intensively in neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Albuquerque, she earned a PhD and held positions at Cal State Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) and Occidental College. She says she has used “parts of [the IAF organizing] model to guide my work” in academic jobs “and throughout my doctoral and postdoctoral research” (p. 34). Building Collective Leadership is about being “a civically engaged scholar and organizer,” one who “work[s] with others to create a more democratic, collaborative culture in academic institutions where I work, and in the communities with which I partner (p. 52).”

The model that Maria employs has five very practical components (pp. 38-9).

She starts by “conducting relational one-on-one meetings with people I think might be interested in my work, to learn about people’s self-interest through sharing personal and/or professional stories.”

One-on-one meetings are fundamental to the IAF approach and have a particular character. They are two-way conversations that explore connections between the discussants’ personal values and interests and shared or public issues. These meetings create relationships that are assets for public work. They are not simply friendly and private, nor are they transactional–trying to get another person to do or agree to something. They are the first step in deciding together what we should do.

Maria then invites people who have resonated to her work to join “projects I am working on, based on their interests.” She creates spaces where these people can share their “personal and professional stories,” make and execute plans, and reflect. She educates others about the organizing methods that she has learned and has helped to develop, and she organizes discussions (based on readings) about relevant methods, such as “participatory research in action, narrative inquiry, community organizing, and civically engaged scholarship.”

Building Collective Leadership describes such processes at generally increasing scales. Chapters 1 and 2 are mostly about Maria’s own background and research. In chapter 3, she and her colleagues Kathleen Tornow Chai and Enrique Ortega describe one-on-one interviews and intensive group discussions within CSUDH’s College of Health, Human Services, and Nursing, which shifted the culture of that academic unit.

In chapter 4, Aixle Aman Rivera and Ray López-Chang discuss a partnership involving Maria and a Los Angeles Unified School Board district that changed its office culture and daily practices. In chapter 5, the focus shifts to regional organizing across Southern California and a project to build an intercollegiate chapter of the national network known as Imagining America, which emphasizes the humanities and arts. Chapter 6 describes a particular Imagining America research project that connected CSUDH to student-led and community-based groups. Chapter 7 discusses a reform of the curriculum at CSUDH, when civic engagement was built into the General Education requirements. Importantly, this effort involved community partners from the start.

The book reflects many voices, sometimes in the form of co-authored narratives and sometimes as explicit dialogues among participants. Quite a few of the contributors use the opportunity to criticize prevailing norms and systems of US higher education. For example, CSUDH professor Joanna B. Perez contrasts her “parents’ teachings of humility, community, and service” to “the egocentric and competitive nature of academia” (p. 188). Maria aspires to act “in a relational and hopefully more humane way than what the competitive and siloed academic culture tends to allow” (p. 223).

These critical reactions fuel the desire for change. Speaking for myself, I think that higher education deserves criticism. But I also observe that people who effectively use relational organizing methods within institutions, such as universities or government agencies, often demonstrate underlying care, affection, and loyalty for those institutions and their people (including their leaders). In the terms defined by Albert O. Hirschman, they opt to use “voice” rather than “exit” because they are loyal. The missions, histories, and particular roles of entities like a Cal. State public university inspire them.

I say this because I think that community organizing is effective when there is some alignment between the organizer and the institution. When that is completely absent, it is better to organize outside the institution.

If you are a socialist, you should not take a job at a bank, thinking that it has a lot of money and you can organize from within to distribute the money to the people. You will be endlessly frustrated. You would be better off organizing pressure on the bank from outside–from governments, unions, or social movements–or possibly trying to build some kind of cooperative alternative to a bank that can compete with it effectively. Likewise, if you are a true libertarian, you should probably not become a civil servant, unless you are willing to treat your job as Ron Swanson does and gain your personal satisfaction elsewhere.

(To complicate the advice of the previous paragraph, I acknowledge that you might be a little bit of a socialist or a mild libertarian and still think that you can be helpful working for a bank or a government program. Or you might feel you have no choice: there is nowhere to work except at organizations you despise. But in the latter case, you should try to get out of this bind as soon as possible.)

If you do basically appreciate an institution, such as a university, then organizing within it will sometimes be frustrating and will sometimes fail, but it can be deeply satisfying. You will be able to use mission statements and official policies as resources, since you want to reduce the gap between public promises and actual performance. You will find some programs, funding streams, offices, and positions that are useful for your cause. You should be able to identify allies, since other employees (and students) will be drawn to the organization for similar reasons as yours. One-on-one interviews can reveal such shared motivations. If you’re fortunate, your work will be rewarded by colleagues and even supervisors, since you are fundamentally committed to their common purpose. I think it’s OK to acknowledge your love for an institution that you critically engage.

To be an effective organizer, you do not need positional power: the ability to tell subordinates what to do. Aman Rivera and López-Chang note that their purported positional power as city officials was often illusory, anyway (p. 109). (On the other hand, if you happen to hold a high office, Maria’s methods can still be useful for you). You do need hope, relationships, and good strategies. Building Collective Leadership exemplifies all three.

Activism and Objectivity in Political Research

I agree with the main argument of Michael L. Frazer’s “Activism and Objectivity in Political Research (Perspectives on Politics 2023, 21(4), 2023, pp. 1258-1269). Objectivity is usually a red herring. What we need is “active engagement with inconvenient evidence.” Frazer uses the word “evidence” to encompass both empirical data and conceptual or normative arguments. Evidence is inconvenient if it complicates or challenges our prior beliefs.

As Frazer argues, engagement with inconvenient evidence strengthens both research and activism. Therefore, the valuable question is not whether activist academics should or can be objective, but how any kind of thinker should engage with inconvenient evidence.

People who are both scholars and committed activists have the advantage that they know what they stand for, which can help them recognize which evidence they should wrestle with because it’s inconvenient. However, their engaged stance may make them resistant to such evidence. In contrast, a highly detached scholar may be less aware of implicit assumptions that need to be challenged, yet more comfortable exploring diverse views. I happen to value both kinds of colleagues.

I would add that scholars can be activists in many different ways. For example, I have served on about 30 non-academic boards or committees that make collective decisions. Sometimes in these deliberations, I present inconvenient evidence. This can be my particular contribution as an academic–someone who has the time and scope to explore a range of ideas. On the other hand, sometimes I hold back because I am sensitive to group dynamics and I believe that the organization has value even if I can’t completely endorse its current theory-of-change. Besides, tact is a virtue.

Sometimes I refrain from publicly expressing views that would challenge the public stance of a group to which I belong. On the other hand, involvement with a group may make me aware of current assumptions that I then want to study critically. In such cases, being an activist scholar actually promotes my engagement with inconvenient evidence. But I may choose the slower and quieter medium of academic scholarship or a seminar room to explore complications, so that I don’t disrupt the immediate needs of a group. Exiting and publicly disagreeing always remain options.

Belonging to groups involves literal accountability. I could be removed from a committee. A fiduciary board assesses staff and makes decisions about personnel and budget. Speech in this context has tangible implications and raises many ethical considerations.

The situation is very different if one’s activism consists mainly of addressing public audiences as an individual writer or speaker. Forcefully saying simple things may attract the most attention, but fame is a lure and temptation. I often wish that public intellectuals would be more humble and less certain.

We may also be hired to play a role within an organization, whether that is an academic entity like a university or a nonprofit or government agency. Then we are responsible for the effects of our public speech on our colleagues and students or clients. The organization may need to engage with inconvenient evidence, but introducing difficult ideas may not be timely or appropriate for a given employee. For instance, when you have positional authority over someone else, it can be wise to hold back one’s skeptical thoughts.

I would start with a view much like Frazer’s–and I appreciate his literature review–but I would then explore what “engagement with inconvenient evidence” means for people who play various roles in various social contexts. Often the genuine virtue of intellectual humility is in tension with other valid needs, and the question is how to negotiate those tradeoffs. To make matters even more complicated, many of us play multiple roles, and we fall on continua rather than within discrete categories. For instance, one may be more or less open to inconvenient evidence of various types while spending various amounts of one’s time and energy performing various functions in settings as diverse as a department meeting, a lecture room, a team writing a grant proposal, a community meeting, a political campaign, and a protest action. Both the ethical and epistemic issues are quite diverse and hard.

See also: making our models explicit; analytical moral philosophy as a way of life; du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”; Civically Engaged Research in Political Science; Henry Milner, Participant/Observer: An Unconventional Life in Politics and Academia

spammy academic invitations

I am getting an average of more than one invitation to contribute to a journal every day. They are generally dubious, and some are deliciously so. These are among my favorites from the past two weeks:

Dear Doctor. Levine Peter,

Hope you are doing good…!

This is a reminder mail as we have not received any response from your end regarding manuscript submision.

The  Journal of Clinical and Medical Images (ISSN 2640-9615) (IF – 2.6)” is pleased to submit your valuable research to our esteemed journal.

Dear Levine Peter

We hope this letter finds you in good health and high spirits. It gives us great pleasure to cordially extend our invitation to you to attend the IPHC 2024 event. …

Greetings Levine P,

We have genuinely emailed you quite a lot of times but received no response, so we’d like to try once more as courtesy.

The most recent issue (New Edition) is missing one article. Could you please aid us by putting forward an article to this edition of the Journal of Pulmonology and Respiratory Research

Dear Doctor,

Hope you are doing well.

As you being eminent author in the field who have contributed excellent work. With an immense pleasure, we would like to request to help us release best quality articles for the Upcoming issue of the journal.

Dear Dr. Levine P,

Wishes for the day!

We are excited to announce the Call for submissions, an engaging platform for researchers, academics, and industry professionals to share their latest findings and insights. This invitation is dedicated to promoting open access to knowledge and fostering collaboration.

We invite you to contribute your expertise by submitting your research papers on diverse topics within Emergency Preparedness. This is an opportunity to showcase your work to a global audience and be part of meaningful discussions on the latest trends and advancements.

Hi, Doctor,

Greetings from “Current trends in Internal Medicine”

We have gone through your recent publications, have found them interesting, and are of Superior Quality. We would be grateful if you can submit your next paper for our volume-7, issue-04.

We are looking forward for a long and productive relationship with you.
Hoping for your positive reply.
Have a nice day.