Posted by on November 21, 2023 3:41 pm
Categories: News The Hill

Universities must quit with the BS

The war between Israel and Hamas has led some university administrations to realize the virtues of institutional neutrality, as advocated by the famous Kalven Report. Accustomed to pontificating on current events, they have suddenly discovered that they couldn’t say anything without making somebody angry.

Worse, having established that practice, they found that even silence sent a nasty message, apparently signifying invidious comparative judgments about which deaths mattered. (More likely it signified comparative judgments about which group to pander to.)

It turns out — who knew? — that it is politic for officials to avoid taking sides on contentious issues. But there is another reason why administrators ought to remain silent on such matters: anything they say is almost certainly bullshit, and the mission of the university is antithetical to the production of bullshit.

I here use “bullshit” as a technical term. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt explains in his classic analysis that a bullshitter is uninterested in the truth or falsity of his speech: “the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.” Rather, he merely wants to elicit a certain reaction: “What he cares about is what people think of him.”

In February 1967, the president of the University of Chicago convened a committee of seven faculty to consider “the University’s role in political and social action.” It was chaired by Harry Kalven Jr., a First Amendment scholar. The committee concluded that the university has a distinctive political role: “By design and by effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones.” The source of dissent and criticism, however, “is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.”

So a university “must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community.” If it takes a collective position on anything, “it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted.” 

Among the overlooked virtues of the Kalven Report’s recommendations is that it gets the university out of the bullshit business.

These principles do have a cost. They mean that the university will be home to, and will not denounce, ideas that are deeply offensive to many.

Some will say that Hamas was justified in its campaign of mass murder. Others will defend the ethnic cleansing now being undertaken by West Bank settlers. I think both views are repellent, but I don’t want to intimidate those who say those things. I want to debate them. I’d like to force them to openly defend their views.

Official university statements are necessarily bullshit, because the administration is aiming to produce a result — inducing the public to admire the school, and signifying a certain flavor of social solidarity. The bullshitter, Frankfurt writes, “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”

The responsibility of university officials, crafting public statements, is to focus entirely on what will be good for the university. If I were an administrator, rather than a professor, I would feel its gravitational pull. The enterprise, however, is entirely instrumental.

The demand for blather, we see today, can become intense. There is a market for bullshit. Each faction demands, and sometimes gets, ritual obeisance.

Frankfurt writes that “the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.” This “is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled — whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others — to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.”

The Kalven Report observes that a university “is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.” Universities today are plagued by a climate of orthodoxy that chills thought and incapacitates us from thinking about how to address real and pressing problems. Administrations have a responsibility to dispel that climate, not contribute to it.

The job of academia is the discovery of truth. Universities should not be in the bullshit business.

Andrew Koppelman, John Paul Stevens Professor of Law at Northwestern University, is the author of “Burning Down the House: How Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed” (St. Martin’s Press). Follow him @AndrewKoppelman.

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