There’s a story about one Ivy League university’s response to tensions on campus that hasn’t graced the headlines as much as the protests. John Tomasi, president of the Heterodox Academy and a Brown University professor, thinks the response could be a key model for universities.

After the Oct. 7 attack, Dartmouth College held a series of public events. One of the workshops was co-led by a pro-Israeli Jewish professor and a pro-Palestinian Muslim professor, said Tomasi in a recent video call with the Deseret News.

“What they did was they took that moment of incredible anguish and horror — the attacks and then the counterattacks — and they tried to do this distinctively university thing,” said Tomasi. “They tried to help us learn.”

Tomasi said universities have a special role in society that they could lean into right now — fostering disagreement and civil dialogue. He draws inspiration from the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report. A faculty committee created the report in 1967 to tease out the role of a university in responding to political and social action.

It espouses the principle of institutional neutrality — something Tomasi says is critical for universities to flourish. Quoting from the report, he said, “The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.” If university presidents issue statements on issues, then Tomasi said “they chill the voices and the thinking of dissenting students who might not have their minds quite made up yet.”

The question of institutional neutrality is one that some schools are considering as they face a divided reaction over how they handled student protests. But not everyone agrees with universities adopting the position of institutional neutrality.

Brian Rosenberg, former president of Macalester College, wrote in The Chronicle, “Racism and xenophobia, climate change and voting rights, the future of democracy and the response to a pandemic: No day goes by without demands on some campus that the institution take a position and competing demands that taking a position is inconsistent with the role of the university.”

Universities not speaking out “on all or most of these matters strikes me as unacceptable: as something perilously close to the ‘lack of courage,’ ‘indifference,’ and ‘insensitivity’ that are dismissed in the Kalven Report as possible reasons for the university’s neutrality,” wrote Rosenberg.

In the current climate, universities have become used to issuing statements about current events, but they might want to consider pulling back from that practice, said Tomasi.

“When a public event happens, or there’s a breaking political issue or a big political debate going on, the president has to ask herself or himself the question, does this incident directly affect the mission of this university?” said Tomasi. In those incidents, it may make sense for a university to issue a statement.

Tomasi gave two examples.

If Congress were to raise taxes on universities, it would make it harder for universities to carry out their missions and the presidents could speak out then, he offered.

“Another example, let’s say a (nation’s) president announces a ban on immigration from a larger number of countries, especially where your school has a lot of researchers, faculty and student from those countries,” said Tomasi. “The (school) president probably has an obligation to speak out to say, ‘Listen, you may have your reasons for putting this ban on immigration from these countries, but as a university president, I have to defend the interest of my school.’”

Related
Perspective: A university is not the voice of expression, but the forum for it

Tomasi also noted that he believes universities shouldn’t pick controversial commencement speakers. But this neutrality doesn’t mean universities cannot have specific missions, said Tomasi. Giving religious schools as an example, he said there are plenty of times where university speakers there will give speeches about ideas unique to the distinctive mission and won’t be neutral.

Instead, universities should foster viewpoint diversity on campus, said Tomasi.

Tomasi believes the speech rights of protesters should be protected and that universities “have a strong obligation to encourage them.” But these protests should follow the rules, he said.

“The other side of it is that it can cross into civil disobedience,” said Tomasi as he explained that when protests cross into obstruction and intimidation, it edges on other people’s rights.

Still, Tomasi sees tense times on campuses as “a teaching moment” for universities where they could embrace their role of neutrality and facilitators of civil discourse.

University officials could say to students, “This is what neutrality means. It doesn’t mean we don’t care. We care deeply. We care so much we’re not going to let anyone speak for us and neither are we going to speak for the whole university ourselves,” said Tomasi.

Washington State University student Kestra Engstrom argued in an op-ed for the campus newspaper that universities should be upfront about political stances to be accountable to students.

“University administrators should make their political beliefs public knowledge for the sake of their young adult students, who are part of a generation that is more politically motivated and principle than any before them,” said Engstrom. “Education is a highly politicized system, and it is time for colleges to stop trying to remain apolitical and be open about what they support and how they will allow students to be taught within their walls.”

On the flip side, proponents of institutional neutrality argue that when universities are neutral, they can cultivate viewpoint diversity and create a better learning environment for students.

When universities are at their best, “they’re going to house all kinds of interesting idiosyncratic characters, hopefully, who are going to say strange, interesting things,” said Tomasi. Everyone can be improved by hearing opinions different than their own, especially opinions they may not have encountered otherwise.

“We may keep our same views after hearing the wacky professors speak out,” said Tomasi. “But at least hopefully if they speak out thoughtfully, we’ll think more clearly about our own views.”

Tomasi said he was on campus the morning Brown University made the decision to vote on divestment from Israel next fall in response to protesters.

“Some people think that was a real mistake, that it was a caving into threats to disrupt the graduation,” said Tomasi. “But that president said to me that she really was trying to have a conversation and dialogue and to demonstrate that they value dialogue.”

“I think that’s an edge case, you can probably see that either way,” said Tomasi.

Tomasi wants to see more university administrators lean into opportunities to create dialogue. He pointed toward an experience he had speaking on a panel with Utah Gov. Spencer Cox in Boulder, Colorado, in conjunction with the “Disagree Better” initiative. He said that more than any other institution, universities should be actively seeking for ways to disagree better.

Now after this year where many campuses have dealt with encampments and protests and counterprotests, Tomasi said universities can take stock of what they’re doing and what they need to still do to foster dialogue. He said he’s optimistic for the future, but university presidents need to be proactive as they lay the groundwork for conversation.

At Heterodox Academy, a nonprofit committed to promoting civil discourse in higher education, Tomasi said there are three values they try to remind university presidents and leaders of: open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive dialogue.

“Having lively, fearless conversations and discussions — even angry ones — should take place on universities,” said Tomasi. “And yet, universities aren’t there for any kind of expression. We’re not simply free speech zones. We want these conversations for a certain purpose.”

“The purpose is try to understand the world better.”