Born amidst ’60s student protests, Kalven Report remains controversial

By Marina Fang

In May 1966, then University President George Beadle decided that the University would comply with a Selective Service system policy that requested academic information, including class ranks, of students who had applied for the Vietnam War draft, provided that each student allowed the Selective Service to receive his information. In response, a group of over 400 students staged a sit-in at the Administration Building to demonstrate their opposition. It was the first such protest in University history (a precursor to the more famous 1969 sit-in) and would influence similar events at other universities.

The 1960s were a tumultuous time in the United States, particularly on college campuses, where student activism and protest heightened. The decade was accompanied by a transformation in social and cultural ideals, as a desire to question authority and a greater sense of earnestness regarding political issues emerged. The draft, for example, became a hot-button issue at UChicago and on college campuses nationwide in 1965 and 1966, and a sense of deepening social divide over the war, as well as over civil rights issues and race relations, pervaded the country.

It was these circumstances that spurred the penning of the 1967 Kalven Report, which promoted individual rights and free thinking and proclaimed an official University policy of neutrality regarding political and social issues.

“To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain its independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures,” the committee charged with the Report’s creation wrote.

While the Kalven Report, named after its chief author, Law Professor Harry Kalven, Jr., became the University’s definitive statement on academic freedom, there had been previous attempts to craft such a statement dating back to the University’s earliest days. In 1899, faculty members William Gardner Hale and Albion Small wrote “[I]t is desirable to have it clearly understood that the University as such does not appear as disputant on either side of any public question.”

Given the contentious social issues of the era, the 1960s presented an ideal opportunity for University administrators to tackle the issue head-on. In addition to the war protests, 200 students who were part of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) rallied in front of the Administration Building, demanding that the University cease conducting business with the Continental Illinois National Bank, which had investments in apartheid-ruled South Africa.

In late January 1967, amidst such widespread student protest, Beadle formed a committee of senior faculty and assigned them the task of preparing “a statement on the University’s role in political and social action.” The timing was ripe: Two weeks earlier, the University’s Committee of the Council of the Senate had arranged what turned out to be an inconclusive meeting with student leaders about the previous spring’s sit-in.

Chaired by Kalven, the newly established Committee on the Role of the University in Political and Social Action convened throughout February and March to draft what became the Kalven Report. The committee members determined that the crux of the document should be to preserve students’ and faculty’s individual rights and facilitate policies enabling the University to uphold that principle. What emerged was a philosophy that “only an ideologically neutral University could and would guarantee each individual member’s rights to full self-expression,” as current Dean of the College John W. Boyer explained in his 2002 history of academic freedom at the University.

Although the Committee agreed on this idea, what complicated the matter was how the University would handle its business partnerships.

In March, Committee member Gilbert White implored Kalven to include in the Report a section stating that the University’s “ownership of property or act of delegation and membership” should address ethical concerns, particularly if it positively impacts the community.

“As an institution concerned with the role which its students will play in society it cannot comfortably limit such consideration to action which seems necessary to protect its immediate property interests,” he wrote in a letter to Kalven. “In instances where the public significance is large or where the University’s influence is clearly strong it may appropriately withhold participation or make inquiries which would not serve its ordinary business procedures.” However, White assumed these situations were “unlikely to be numerous,” so he felt administrators could deal with them on a case-by-case basis.

Another Committee member, Nobel laureate economist George Stigler, disagreed with White, noting that “while the University should act honorably in its material dealings, it should refrain from any expressions of social or political values, since such expressions might compromise the independence of individual faculty members.”

Kalven attempted to resolve the dispute, writing back to White: “I have thought it better, at the moment, to put our emphasis on reaffirming the neutral role of the university as an institution.”

After it was drafted, the Kalven Report was unanimously approved by the University’s Council of the Senate in June 1967 and published in the University of Chicago Record on November 11, 1967.

The Report emphasized that neutrality applied only to the University as an institution—not to any individual within it—and that academic freedom depends on the inclusion of “the widest diversity of views within its own community.”

Taking “collective action on the issues of the day,” the Committee believed, would complicate the University’s presence as a “community of scholars” and a bastion of academic freedom.

“[The University] cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who does not agree with the view adopted,” the Report stated.

For economic matters, the Committee seemed to side with White.

“[T]he university, however it acts, must act as an institution in its corporate capacity. In the exceptional instance, these corporate activities of the university may appear so incompatible with paramount social values as to require careful assessment of the consequences.”

Today, the Kalven Report continues to influence University discourse and administrative decisions. It has remained relevant in discussions over the University’s investments in Sudan, in HEI Hotels & Resorts (which has practiced anti-union policies), and even the recent protests at the Medical Center’s Center for Care and Discovery, which prompted a conversation about the extent of the University’s role in providing health care to the community. The Report could also potentially impact efforts to bring the Obama Presidential Library to Hyde Park.

Although students and faculty often debate its interpretation and applicability, the Kalven Report remains integral to the University as an institution. In a 2009 speech on academic freedom, University President Robert Zimmer defended the Report as a symbol of the University’s values.

“Universities are institutions with a long history and the prospects for a very long future,” he said. “It is essential to preserve their value, their capacity for inquiry, discovery, and education over time, which will inevitably far outlast any particular political issue of the day, no matter how important it is.”