A University is Not a Political Party · 23 January 2004

Filed under: Miscellaneous

By Stanley Fish

This piece was originally titled "Save The World On Your Own Time" and first appeared on January 23, 2003 on The Chronicle of Higher Education's Career Network Web site.

Recently, Bob Kerrey, President of New School University was besieged by students protesting his call for regime change in Iraq. The students accused Kerrey of "betraying the New School's pacifist legacy and miring the school in controversy (New York Times, December 5, A-39.) It is not clear from the reports whether the students wanted Kerrey to come out against the war or refrain from pronouncing publicly on controversial non-academic matters. I hope it was the second, because in my view no university and therefore no university official should ever take a stand on any social, political, or moral issue.

This is not Mr. Kerrey's view. He is quoted as saying that he did not want "this university...to be led, like so many other universities in America by presidents who are so concerned by fundraising needs that they have no public opinion on anything that matters." Now university presidents are citizens and as citizens they have the right to express themselves on any matter; but when they speak as university presidents they should confine themselves to matters that matter academically. The alternative to an excessive focus on fundraising is not to have a lot of public opinions, but to have opinions that relate directly to the core educational activities fundraising is supposed to subsidize.

Kerrey wants to be a virtuous citizen and there are venues in which this worthy ambition can be pursued, but as president of an academic institution the virtue he should be professing and protecting is the virtue of the academy. Academic virtue is the virtue that is or should be displayed in the course of academic activities--teaching, research, publishing. Teachers should show up for their classes, prepare syllabi, teach what has been advertised, be current in the literature of the field, promptly correct assignments and papers, hold regular office hours, and give academic (not political or moral) advice. Researchers should not falsify their credentials, or make things up, or fudge the evidence, or ignore data that tells against their preferred conclusions. Those who publish should acknowledge predecessors and contributors, provide citations to their sources, and strive always to give an accurate account of the materials they present. This is no small list of professional obligations, and faculty members who are faithful to its imperatives will have little time to look around for causes and agendas to champion.

My concern, however, is not with academic time-management but with academic morality, and my assertion is that it is immoral for academics or for academic institutions to proclaim moral views. The reason was given long ago by a faculty committee report submitted to the president of the University of Chicago. The report declares that the university exists "only for the limited...purposes of teaching and research", and reasons that "since the university is a community only for those limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness." Of course it can and should take collective (and individual) action on those issues relevant to the educational mission--the integrity of scholarship, the evil of plagiarism, the value of a liberal education. Indeed, failure to pronounce early and often on these matters would constitute a dereliction of duty.

The distinction I am insisting on--between what a university properly stands for and what is, at most, tangential to its core activities--can be illustrated by the recent debate about free speech zones on campuses. Some activists on both the left and the right protest such zones and argue that the entire university should be a free speech zone, one large Hyde Park corner, for after all isn't the university primarily a place for the unfettered expression of ideas? The answer is no. The university is primarily a place for teaching and research. The unfettered expression of ideas is a cornerstone of liberal democracy; it is a prime political value. It is not, however, an academic value and if we come to regard it as our primary responsibility, we will default on the responsibilities assigned us and come to be what no one pays us to be --political agents. It is entirely appropriate that special places and times (teach-ins, panel discussions, student rallies) be set aside for the airing of views on disputed matters, but such occasions should be understood in the strongest sense of the term as extra-curricular; valuable and interesting to be sure, but not the point of the enterprise.

Not everyone shares this understanding. Witness the instructor who included in his course description a request that conservative students go elsewhere, and the professor who, in the name of "openness", requires her students to subscribe to the tenets of tolerance and multi-culturalism. However, these lapses in individual judgement pale before the collective lapse of those who put pressure on universities to change practices of which they personally disapprove. In this category I would include the various calls for divestment, the movement to police the work-place conditions of the factories that supply the campus store with sweatshirts, the demand that sneaker manufacturers bring their labor practices into line with the preferences of student activists. I am not saying that putting pressure on South Africa or Israel and agitating for workers' rights are not legitimate political actions. I'm just saying that political actions are what they are, which means that not everyone (either in the polity or the academic community) would approve them, which means that in endorsing them a university aligns itself with a partisan position, which means that sectors of the general public will come to regard the university as a special-interest lobby and decline to support it.

It might be objected that the line between the academic and the political is not so easy to draw; perhaps, but neither is it so difficult. The basic test of any action contemplated by a university should take the form of a simple question: has the decision to do this (or not do this) been reached on educational grounds? Let's suppose the issue is whether or not a university should fund a program of intercollegiate athletics. Some will say "yes" and argue that athletics contributes to the academic mission; others will say "no" and argue that it doesn't. If the question is decided in the affirmative, all other questions--Should we have football? Should we sell sweatshirts? Should we have a marching band?--are business questions and should be decided in business terms, not in terms of global equity. Once the university has committed itself to an athletic program it has also committed itself to making it as profitable as possible, if only because the profits, if there are any, will be turned into scholarships for student athletes and others.

The same reasoning applies to investment strategies. It is the obligation of the investment managers to secure the best possible return; it is not their obligation to secure political or social or economic justice. They may wish to do those things as private citizens or as members of an investment club, but as university officers their duty is to grow the endowment by any legal means available. The general argument holds also for those in charge of maintenance and facilities.

The goal should be to employ the best workers at the lowest possible wages. The goal should not be redress economic disparities by unilaterally paying more than the market demands. If you want to work for economic reform, pressure Congress to raise the minimum wage or otherwise alter conditions you could not and should not try to alter as an educational institution.

A university administration that does not hew (or at least try to hew) to the line I am drawing will set a bad example and encourage a confusion it might later have to rebuke. A couple of months ago a professor of history at a mid-western university got into trouble when he replied to an e-mail from an air-force cadet by impugning the cadet's patriotism and suggesting that he and his colleagues were partly responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001. The university's President found himself doing damage control, something he might have avoided had he looked at the professor's web page where he would have found a declaration that teachers should teach "peace, freedom, diversity...and challenge American unilateralism".

No, teachers should teach their subjects. They should not teach peace or war or freedom or obedience or diversity or uniformity or nationalism or anti-nationalism or any other agenda that might properly be taught by a political leader or a talk-show host. Of course they can and should teach about such topics --something very different from urging them as commitments--when they are part of the history or philosophy or literature or sociology that is being studied. The only advocacy that should go on in the classroom is the advocacy of what James Murphy has identified as the intellectual virtues, "thoroughness, perseverance, intellectual honesty", all components of the cardinal academic virtue of being "conscientious in the pursuit of truth" ("Good Students and Good Citizens," New York Times ,September 15). A recent Harris poll revealed that in the public's eye teachers are the professionals most likely to tell the truth; and this means, I think, that telling the truth is what the public expects us to be doing. If you're not in the pursuit of truth business, then you should not be in the university.

I was told something very different in the 60's when I was teaching at Berkeley. In the wake of the Free Speech Movement a faculty union had been formed and I had declined to join it. Some members of the steering committee asked me why and I asked them to tell me about the union's agenda. They answered that the union would (1) work to change America's foreign policy by fighting militarism, (2) demand that automobiles be banned from the campus and that parking structures be torn down, and (3) speak out strongly in favor of student rights. In response I said (1) that if I were interested in influencing government policy I would vote for certain candidates and contribute to their campaigns, (2) that I loved automobiles and wanted even more places to park mine, and (3) that I didn't see the point of paying dues to an organization dedicated to the interests of a group of which I was not a member. How about improvements in faculty salaries, better funding for the library, and a reduction in teaching load? You, sir, I was admonished, do not belong in a university. No, they didn't know what a university was and a lot of people still don't.

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