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The red and blue Tennessee state flag flies in front of the state capitol building.

The Tennessee state flag flies outside the state capitol building in Nashville.

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In a May 2022 Inside Higher Ed opinion piece, the relatively new Vanderbilt University chancellor married our great institution to his doctrine of “principled neutrality,” asserting that university leaders should refrain from commenting on political matters. During the year since its publication, the Tennessee General Assembly has eviscerated women’s reproductive rights, maltreated our transgender citizens, persecuted our immigrant population, moved to dismantle our Nashville Metropolitan Council and significantly restricted academic freedom and faculty autonomy. Our city and state have become demonstrably less free while our university has remained publicly silent. Many of us—faculty, students, staff and alumni—are ready for a divorce from the chancellor’s position.

Since their founding, universities have been moral and political actors. The University of Bologna, considered by most scholars to be the first modern university, was organized not by scholars, but by diverse groups of foreign students in Italy who were seeking advanced knowledge as a form of protection against oppressive city laws that were specifically designed to target them. As the university formalized its processes of instruction, students became increasingly enfranchised and ultimately successful in abolishing these government repressions. Moreover, student groups enjoyed significant rights to review the performance and even pay of the scholars who instructed them. This was likely the earliest model of shared governance, and it established the basis of the university as a powerful institutional actor against state oppression.

Quite to the contrary, Vanderbilt’s chancellor, Daniel Diermeier, has argued that the modern university should steer clear of government entanglements, because of the “pervasive threat [that] lies in academic leaders taking political positions or making politicized statements while speaking on behalf of their universities.” His expanded rationale follows: “University leaders can better serve students and faculty by maintaining a stance of principled neutrality—by reserving comment on political matters and leaving space for varied ideas and opinions to flourish on campus and for respectful, if passionate, discourse to go where it will.” In the simplest terms, such a position is both morally inconsistent with our university’s shared values and strategically dangerous for Vanderbilt’s future.

Despite the chancellor’s insistence that “staying neutral requires courage,” many of our university stakeholders are experiencing significant fear as Nashville’s social conditions have deteriorated for women and members of our LGBTQI, Jewish, Black and immigrant communities. In this context, such neutrality is better understood as a toxic form of indifference to the lived realities of our citizens. We have also experienced horrific gun violence arriving on our doorstep, and our undergraduate students have taken the lead in defending our community’s safety. In this context, such neutrality is better understood as a brutal fear of governmental intrusion into our affairs.

Due in large part to our exceptional stock of human capital and economic impact, universities can be powerful—even profound—actors in the public discourse. But adeptly leveraging this potential requires transformational leadership, political acumen and a steadfast commitment to prioritizing the common good. Universities can—and often do—create significant social cohesion by using their knowledge capital to shape the public’s understanding of and commitment to inclusive causes. But this potential must also be activated by administrators who believe that it is worth their time and effort to engage with their larger communities on difficult issues.

To be clear, the chancellor and I agree that universities require significant internal freedom—academic freedom—to enable the continuous free flow of ideas that leads to everything from drug discoveries to political revolutions. We also agree that universities have an obligation to safeguard the intellectual freedom of our stakeholders—especially when their views are offensive—so long as it is exercised in constructive and nonviolent ways. However, his assertion that advancing institutional positions on political and policy-making issues somehow undermines an institution’s commitment to free speech and open discourse is utterly wrong. To the contrary, it is impossible to guarantee the free exchange of ideas without first assuring the participants of those exchanges that their basic human rights will be protected and defended, internally and externally. Failing to publicly defend those rights permits faculty, students and staff to be interrogated (and marginalized) on the basis of their human identities, rather than on the merits of their ideas and scholarship. From this vantage, “principled neutrality” is intellectually unprincipled and incongruent with the tasks of assuring personal safety and equal opportunity for all members of our university community. It is best interpreted as a privileged position of political convenience rather than a requisite for rigorous intellectual engagement.

Diermeier’s position on insulating higher education from the political fray is a structural artifact (and form of cultural bias) of our growth as an industry. As every first-year higher education masters student knows, the Humboldtian university model, named after the German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, emphasized the fundamental integration of research into teaching in higher education. It established that universities should become institutions where students were taught by “experienced researchers” who were actively engaged in their fields of study. This model, which served as one of primacy for the creation of American research universities, rigorously promotes scientific progress above all other aims of the modern university, such as undergraduate teaching, advising, advocacy and service. And while this model is compelling for generating new research and capitalizing on it, it also dramatically distances universities from the application of that knowledge for purposes of creating stronger democratic societies. It often assumes that the creation of knowledge for its own sake will somehow spontaneously produce social benefits, even as countless examples to the contrary proliferate.

Practically speaking, it is implausible to seek to recruit the best academic talent in the world while one’s university is silent on matters of great importance to those same humans whom we seek to attract. Diverse professors and students are embodied and connected to families that desire them to move to cities with high qualities of life, which includes the freedom to be who they are and flourish according to their own cultural needs and desires within their larger social contexts. The increasing political threats against members of our community based on their sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity and national origin is not something our university can continue to remain distanced from if our leadership has any hope for us to retain our reputational legitimacy. As universities have become highly adept at recruiting diverse talent for their own competitive purposes, they have also assumed the responsibility to faithfully advocate for these colleagues to all constituents, including governments.

Moreover, as colleges and universities have increasingly sought to leverage their diversity, equity and inclusion affinity groups for fundraising campaigns, they have concomitantly sought to align their stated missions more closely with marginalized identities and their respective priorities. Choosing to remain publicly silent on political matters of importance to these alumni is to risk alienating them at the exact time when their role in development endeavors has never been more important to institutional success. It is also ethically dubious to seek increased funding from the same individuals you refuse to publicly defend.

Vanderbilt is a test case for navigating the perilous crossroads that await other universities’ relationships with public engagement for democratic purposes. Narrowly embracing the Humboldtian model is likely to bring increased revenues from government grants and perhaps even a bit more prestige. It will also placate conservative boards, administrators, legislators and donors—but at what cost to the physical and psychological well-being of the humans who comprise the core of our shared academic work?

Brian L. Heuser is associate professor of the practice of international education policy and past vice chair of the Vanderbilt Faculty Senate. He teaches, researches and administrates without the protection of tenure.

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