October 12, 2020

What Makes a University Impartial?

President Zimmer’s recent message on nonpartisanship at the University leaves room for interference with essential social science research.

In an October 5 message to members of the University community, President Robert Zimmer emphasized the importance of “Reinforcing the Chicago Principles and the Kalven Report” in an apparent effort to restate the University’s commitment to free expression amid a national conversation about racial justice. He states that the Kalven Report’s guidance that “the University should not take institutional positions on public issues that are not directly related to the core functioning of the University” applies “not only to the University as a whole, but to the departments, schools, centers, and divisions” within the University. He then discusses this guidance as it relates to the recent strategic decision by the Department of English Language and Literature to admit only Ph.D. students focused on Black Studies to the 2020-21 class. It is unclear why President Zimmer decided to respond to public criticism of the Department of English Language and Literature by explicitly reinforcing the Kalven Report’s relevance to internal components of the University. However, his choice to emphasize institutional neutrality toward public issues— “particularly with emotions high”—could have profoundly toxic and tangible consequences for sponsored research at the University.

Given the current state of social science research funding in the United States, President Zimmer’s statement could harm “the core functioning of the University”—another value he espoused in his October 5 message—by having precisely the chilling effect he claims we must avoid. Both public and private funders of social science research now typically expect proposals to demonstrate policy relevance. In fact, some calls for proposals explicitly require the inclusion of a clinical trial. A clinical trial is an experiment to test the efficacy of an intervention. Within the social sciences this almost always means development of an intervention to address a public issue.

Specifically, interventions tested in a social science context tend to take a position on a potential solution to a public issue. For example, a randomized control trial (RCT) is a form of clinical trial commonly used in the social sciences that randomly assigns participants to experiment or control conditions: A professor might propose an RCT to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that fully subsidizes the health care of a subset of students and then, 10 years after graduation, compares their health outcomes to students whose healthcare was not fully subsidized. In this case, the intervention represents a position on a public issue—that socialized healthcare could produce better health outcomes than the current system.

Proposing an RCT is different than actively lobbying for social policy in the name of the University, but it is functionally similar: Since funders want researchers to demonstrate that their proposal has policy relevance, and an intervention inherently represents a position on a public issue (that is, a potential solution to the issue), research proposals have to take indirect but testable positions on public issues in order to be competitive.

Here is where Zimmer’s insistence on University impartiality makes little sense: The University must officially endorse research proposals. What does this mean? First, it means that proposals by University of Chicago researchers must go through a lengthy review process where administrators evaluate whether to endorse the proposal based on a variety of documents to ensure institutional review board (IRB), budgetary, and statutory compliance, as well as the availability of institutional resources. Proposals must be endorsed before the funding agency will even consider reviewing its merit. Second, it means that chairpersons and deanspart of the presumed audience for President Zimmer’s message—must also endorse the proposal. For instance, in order for the NIH to conduct a peer review of the research in the example outlined above, the University would have to endorse the project and, by extension, the potential viability of socialized health care. In other words, the University of Chicago would have to take an institutional position on a public issue. President Zimmer’s emphasis on the Kalven Report as it applies to “departments, schools, centers, and divisions” could be reasonably interpreted as a warning against endorsement of any activities that might be construed as taking a position on a public issue. Such an interpretation, even applied unevenly across the University, is a threat to social scientists’ ability to apply for the funds necessary to conduct their research since virtually any competitive proposal could be construed as taking such a position.

Is President Zimmer suggesting that the University may now decline to endorse such a proposal due to its content? If so, then he is suggesting the abandonment of peer review as the basis for advancing social science research. This would represent not only a direct threat to the University’s core mission but also an abandonment of the Chicago Principles: It would run contrary to the notion that “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive” as well as the imperative that the University community  act in conformity with the principle of free expression.”

If he is not suggesting that the University can now decline to endorse proposed research based on its content, then he must clarify his position immediately. Failure to do so would imply that, to quote the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, administrators, chairpersons, and/or deans “may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University” by actively determining what constitutes the “ordinary activities of the University” through not endorsing research with potentially uncomfortable implications for the University, its affiliates, and/or its individual members. In other words, President Zimmer’s message implies that any person involved in the review of proposals for institutional endorsement can decide, based on the Kalven Report, that the research might be construed as the University taking a position on a public issue. They can then prevent the review of that research for potential funding by…simply doing nothing.

The author is a member of University research staff and has requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation by the University.