Many presidents of universities, including my own, have committed their institutions to supporting the Grand Coalition on Climate Change. The founding statement of the Coalition criticizes President’s Trump decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and offers support for various policies by state and local governments to pursue the objectives of that agreement.
It is a serious mistake for universities as institutions to criticize or support controversial political initiatives, let alone become part of political coalitions. Universities must stay of out of politics and refrain from policy endorsements that are by their nature political. By maintaining their institutional neutrality they can best foster debate and further the progress of knowledge about controversial issues of the day. Universities are brokers of knowledge. To be honest brokers, they must eschew politics.
Wading into politics imposes two kinds of costs. The first is a chilling effect on debate and free inquiry within the university.
The recent violence at Trump rallies has been the work of protesters, not of his supporters. I am no fan of Trump, but he has as much right to speak without disruption as any citizen. Indeed, it is even more important to afford him that right than ordinary citizens, because he is the presumptive nominee of one of our two major parties. Violence distracts from the debating his ideas, such as they are, and will create greater political polarization at the expense of deliberation.
Sadly, there is a connection between this violence and the enforcement of political correctness in our educational institutions today. The disruptive protesters at Trump rallies are almost all young—recent products of our educational system. They are thus steeped in the unreformed religion that dominates our schools—one where error has no rights.
Indeed, when Trump 2016 was chalked on the sidewalk of Emory University, the administration began an investigation into who wrote it. More generally, college administrators have permitted events to be cancelled because of the threat of disorder without speaking out against such cancellations.
Almost seventy years ago, C.P. Snow famously warned of a split between two cultures in our universities and society. The first was the scientific culture marked by rigorous modeling and empirical methods. That culture itself divided into defined specialties. The second was humanistic culture marked by a focus on rhetoric and the evaluation of ways of life. That culture was less specialized because it wanted to try to answer some of the great human questions that knew no boundaries.
Snow oddly enough left out the social sciences in general from his schema and law in particular, although the protagonist of his most famous novel, The Masters, was an academic lawyer. But that same cultural divide replicates itself in many of the social sciences and especially on top law schools faculties today. One kind of legal academic is scientific, concerned with models and empiricism. Those working on this side have defined methods—well cultivated gardens of the intellect. And this scholarship tends to be positive, looking at how the world is rather how it should be. The humanistic kind of scholarship is more discursive, sometimes of a bit of jumble. It is less specialized and tends to the normative.
Snow worried that the loss of a common culture would create cliques within universities and make it harder to solve social problems. Neither technocracy nor the refinement of moral ideals suffices to improve the world.