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A Look at Institutional Speech on Contentious Issues

Colleges and universities frequently utilize forms of institutional speech to communicate their position on social and political issues. However, while institutional speech is a common practice, there is a debate among higher education leaders as to when and why schools should weigh in on certain affairs.

Institutional speech is an action taken by the organization—or a branch within—that represents its collective beliefs. On campus, this can include a departmental statement, a campus-wide message, a presidential tweet, the renaming of a building, divestment, or the de-platforming of a speaker.

Many colleges and universities find themselves dealing with the consequences of institutional speech, such as frustrated community members, resignations, decreased giving, campus division, and, in some rare cases, federal investigations. To grasp the current situation and the on-going debates over institutional speech, it is helpful to look at a previous moment of societal and campus polarization: the 1960s. Although the times have changed, much can be pulled from the actions and byproducts of this era.

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The Tumultuous Era of the 1960s

Just as colleges and universities today find themselves dealing with protests, unrest, and division, colleges and universities in the 1960s faced similar phenomena during the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War. Some institutions, particularly historically Black colleges and universities, were far from silent. For instance, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, then-president of Morehouse College, urged his students in his weekly chapel address and newspaper columns to be “sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings and the injustices of society” and to “accept responsibility for correcting these ills.”

In contrast, the University of Chicago clarified it would not speak as an institution. With the purpose of outlining “the University’s role in political and social action,” the school released the Kalven Committee Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action. The report explained that a “university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community… it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness… There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives.”

No matter the path chosen, few schools have been able to escape controversy and scrutiny.

Contemporary Examples of Institutional Speech

Disinviting a Speaker as a Form of Institutional Speech: Williams College and “Uncomfortable Learning”

As part of its “Uncomfortable Learning” speaker series, a student group at Williams College invited John Derbyshire, a commentator, mathematician, and self-described racist and homophobe, to campus. Adam Falk, then-president of the college, disinvited Derbyshire, writing that the “college didn’t invite Derbyshire, but I have made it clear to the students who did that the college will not provide a platform for him… Many of his expressions clearly constitute hate speech, and we will not promote such speech on this campus or in our community.” The college’s de-platforming of Derbyshire was met with criticism from several organizations and individuals, including the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the Chair of the American Association of University Professors Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, and the student president of the of the Uncomfortable Learning group. Falk intended to protect his students by prohibiting hateful rhetoric in his community, but his actions also resulted in tension and criticism.

A Campus-Wide Email as a Form of Institutional Speech: Brown University and the Murder of George Floyd

After George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, Brown University joined the chorus of colleges and universities condemning the officer’s actions and calling for systemic change. In a campus-wide email, Brown’s senior leadership expressed sadness and frustration over “the racist incidents that continue to cut short the lives of black people every day.” The statement generated mixed responses. The graduate students of the Department of Africana Studies, in a letter to Brown President Christina Paxton and other senior leaders, said their message did not go far enough, and provided four action items for the school to address. On the other end of the spectrum, Professor Glenn Loury found it frustrating that the institution tried to speak as one. In an open response, Loury explained that he “deeply resented the letter” and asked, “why must this university’s senior administration declare, on behalf of the institution as a whole and with one voice, that they unanimously—without any subtle differences of emphasis or nuance—interpret contentious current events through a single lens?” These contrary reactions highlight the challenges of institutional speech and show that it is unlikely that one message will represent and please an entire campus community.

A Presidential Tweet as a Form of Institutional Speech: Liberty University and the Face Mask Controversy

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jerry Falwell Jr., then-president of Liberty University, tweeted an image of a face mask with one person in the Ku Klux Klan and another in blackface. Falwell’s tweet was intended to mock the mask requirement implemented by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, but instead ignited controversy on his own campus. Nearly three dozen Black alumni, comprised of faith leaders and former student-athletes, wrote a letter denouncing Falwell and called for him to step down. The group wrote that “everything you do and say is a reflection of Liberty University, whether you like it or not” and that they “will no longer donate funds to the university” as well as “actively encourage Christian leaders to decline the invitation to speak at Liberty.” The alumni also circulated a petition that garnered nearly forty thousand signatures. Faculty and staff expressed anger, as well, with at least four Black employees resigning in protest of Falwell’s post. Despite an apology statement, the reputational damage was already done, showing that institutional speech is not limited to formal channels, such as campus-wide emails or letters from the president. Rather, any form of communication, including a tweet, can be construed as institutional speech.

A Presidential Statement as a Form of Institutional Speech: Princeton University and Systemic Racism

Princeton University released a message on the school’s efforts to combat systemic racism. In a letter to the university community, President Christopher Eisgruber outlined actions the university would take and acknowledged that for most of Princeton’s history, it has “intentionally and systematically excluded people of color, women, Jews, and other minorities” and that “racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures of the University itself.” Some believed Eisgruber’s statement was insufficient: Jailany Thiaw, a member of Princeton’s Black Leadership Coalition, said that “[o]ne thing which stood out immediately was the lack of numbers. Without supporting these initiatives with any clear metrics, it’s incredibly difficult to know what the University’s proposed change actually looks like, or when a lot of these initiatives will be realized.” The Department of Education had a much different and stronger response. Citing Princeton’s “admitted racism,” the department launched a civil rights investigation focused on the school’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity assurances. Although the Biden administration suspended the investigation, this case exemplified the ways in which institutional speech can result in controversy.

A Faculty Resolution as a Form of Institutional Speech: City University of New York and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

A faculty group at the City University of New York (CUNY) decided to weigh in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Professional Staff Congress, the university’s official faculty union, adopted a resolution criticizing Israel for recent violence against Palestinians and called “on the administration of Joe Biden to stop all aid funding human rights violations and an occupation that is illegal under international law.” The resolution drew stark reactions. Eugene Chudnovsky, a professor at Lehman College and the Graduate School of CUNY, took offense to the statement, noting that many faculty and students “see the assertion that Jews are not the indigenous people of the land of Israel as anti-Semitic” and criticizing the “unexplained fixation of the union on the topic not related to its primary mission.” Other faculty went a step further by quitting the union altogether. However, a separate statement signed by CUNY community members and organizations, articulated that “this is not a ‘conflict’ that is too ‘controversial and complex’ to assess… We vow to support those who are most vulnerable to attack for organizing and speaking out on our campuses.” While the faculty union fulfilled its quest to take a stand in support of the Palestinian people, it resulted in division and disgruntled community members.

A Refusal to Engage in Institutional Speech: Boston College and Fossil Fuel Divestment

In an article in Boston College’s student newspaper, the editorial board called on the school “to divest from fossil fuel companies,” writing that “divestment is an opportunity for BC to be an ethical leader among Jesuit and top-40 institutions, and investing in fossil fuels betrays BC’s Jesuit, Catholic roots and ethics.” In response to the calls for divestment, the university stated that “The endowment exists to be a permanent source of funding for financial aid, faculty chairs, and student programs… and is not a tool to promote social and political change, however desirable that change might be.” A group of alumni and supporting groups asked the Massachusetts Attorney General to investigate the school’s investment practices, claiming that “the Trustees have steadfastly refused to apply Boston College’s values to their investment activity.” Although the investigation is still on-going and Boston College’s position has remained unchanged, the divestment dilemma goes to show that even a college or university’s business operations and investment strategy have the potential to convey institutional values, regardless of whether they are truly reflective of the institution’s beliefs. Likewise, a decision to uphold institutional neutrality, in this case by refusing to divest, may also be criticized.

Differing Views of Institutional Speech

When it comes to institutional speech on contentious issues, there is no clear consensus on how to proceed. College and university professionals vary in their perceptions and actions, with some feeling a sense of obligation to speak out and others feeling a need to remain silent and neutral.

Some believe that college and university leaders are in no place to broadcast their personal point of view. Richard Pattenuade, a former university president, states that “the presidency is not about me, my opinions, and my view of the new world order… I consider it inappropriate to think I might somehow represent the political views of all the people who work and learn on our campus.”

Others argue that college and university leaders have a duty to actively engage. Margaret McKenna, another former president, asks: “If college presidents don’t ask questions about war and civil liberties, who will? If we don’t speak out on such issues and act as role models for our students, who will? Many academic leaders take the position that anything has the potential to alienate some constituency [and], by definition, poses risk to the institution and should be avoided. I disagree.” Brian Rosenburg, a former president himself, strikes a similar chord, writing that “there are three important reasons why American college and university presidents keep their distance from the political arena… the educational, the legal, and the financial. But enough is enough. Presidents should not stay silent when politicians actively undermine the core values by which our institutions live.”

In debating the appropriate course, certain groups and individuals have developed a set of criteria for leaders to consider before speaking out. Pete Mackey, President of Mackey Strategies, explains that there are a few questions to consider, such as: “Are core values of the institution being called into question?… Have members of the campus community been especially affected by events?… Is the scale of the event sufficient to markedly affect the campus community?… Do we have something to say that is unambiguous?… [and] How can the statement meet an educational institution’s obligation to teach as much as to inspire?”

Barbara McFadden Allen, Robin Keller, and Ruth Watkins—three current and former higher education administrators—advocate for similar questions to be asked and argue that “a presidential message carries for only the very highest priorities, crucial matters of compliance, or emergency messages. Every use of the presidential bully pulpit makes future uses less effective.”

Even the University of Chicago—an institution that prides itself on campus free expression and institutional neutrality—believes there is a time and place for institutional speech. This was on full display when Chicago President Robert Zimmer urged then-President Donald Trump to continue the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and when he vocalized concern about an executive order concerning free expression on campuses. Citing the Kalven Report, Zimmer defended institutional speech by reminding his campus that institutions can take positions on “political and social action” when they involve “matters that threaten the very mission of the University, its commitment to freedom of inquiry and its basic operations.”

Looking Ahead

As higher education continues to find itself embroiled in cultural and political debates, there is no doubt that institutional speech will remain an important tool to convey the values of the school. Going forward, colleges and universities will need to consider the competing reputational and institutional factors in whether to speak.

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