Jim Ryan looked troubled.
The University of Virginia president was meeting with his school’s governing body, and he wanted guidance.
Days before, Ryan and much of the nation had watched as his counterparts at Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were called before Congress, where they were questioned for hours about the rise in antisemitism on their campuses.
“Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate [your university’s] rules or code of conduct, yes or no?” asked Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York in the most memorable exchanges of the Dec. 5 hearing.
None of the three university presidents answered with a simple yea or nay.
Many found the carefully worded, academic responses of the university presidents unsatisfactory. Some called for their resignations. That weekend, facing mounting pressure from donors, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, students and alumni, Penn President Liz Magill resigned.
“One down. Two to go,” tweeted Stefanik, celebrating the news.
The hearing put the world of higher education on notice and raised questions about free speech on college campuses. What language and demonstrations should and shouldn’t universities allow from students on their campuses in response to current events? And what should a university president say in response to those events, if anything?
So when Ryan met with UVa’s Board of Visitors on Dec. 8, the latter question appearing to weigh heavily on his mind, he came prepared with a suggestion: UVa could organize a committee to devise a set of guidelines that would help him determine if and when to respond.
“I think I would start first with a question of whether we should be saying anything,” he told the board. “If the answer is ‘under certain circumstances’ then the question would be, logistically, what are the principles about when and how you’re going to say something?”
It is no surprise Ryan was affected by the congressional hearing or Magill’s resignation. Magill happens to be a UVa Law School alumna who served as provost of the university under Ryan and at Ryan’s request from 2019 to 2022.
But there was another reason the whole affair might have been weighing on Ryan’s mind.
Days after Hamas’ bloody Oct. 7 attack on Israel, Ryan had issued a seven-paragraph statement of his own. The response to Ryan’s statement was split. There were some such as Virginia House Speaker Todd Gilbert, a Shenandoah Republican, who praised it. But there were others, including students at rallies and vigils on Grounds in the days immediately after the attack, who said it came too late or wasn’t enough, missed the mark or shouldn’t have been written at all.
The board agreed with Ryan: A committee should be created to help Ryan and determine when and how UVa communicates about issues or events that happen outside of the university community.
“It would be very helpful to have a policy in place and have a group of folks who would look at this very carefully and determine what that ought to be,” board member and former Democratic congressman L.F. Payne, appointed under Gov. Ralph Northam, told Ryan. “Otherwise it’s an ad hoc, and you go through it over and over and over again.”
Rachel Sheridan, a board member appointed by Youngkin this past summer, was also supportive, saying that such a committee could help “take some pressure” off Ryan.
“I think it’ll be harder to come up with a policy, but I think it’s worth the exercise because the practice now of ad hoc response based on whether or not we’re crossing the street in a crowd because everyone else is doing it, that doesn’t seem like the most appropriate place for us to be as an institution,” Sheridan said. “Obviously it can be institutionally harmful, as we’re seeing play out this week, and what’s happening with miscommunication or direct communication by presidents are harming reputations of universities, period.”
It is not the first time an institute of higher education has grappled with this question.
In 1967, as students across the country were protesting the Vietnam War, the University of Chicago created a committee charged with preparing “a statement on the University’s role in political and social action.”
In slightly more than two pages, the committee’s report effectively said, “Shut up.”
“This is a document that was drafted to support those people who thought that institutions ought to be completely neutral with respect to public issues that weren’t the immediate concern of the university,” Princeton University professor Stanley Katz, who teaches public and international affairs and previously taught at the University of Chicago Law School, told The Daily Progress. “So the university can speak on issues that affect, for instance, labor relations at the university, because that’s a university issue. These principles would say it should not express an opinion about abortion.”
Ryan referenced the report, christened the Kalven Report after Chicago law professor Harry Kalven who chaired the committee that drafted it, during the Board of Visitors meeting, noting one line in particular: “The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.”
In other words, it is not the university’s place to weigh in on matters that do not directly affect it.
“If you’re asked how do you feel about the rights of Palestinians, the Kalven Report is quite clear. Don’t touch it. That’s not a UVa issue,” Katz said, adding that while there is nothing inherently conservative about the Kalven principles, it is often conservatives who appeal to them.
“On our campus, when colleagues think that the university president is being too forthcoming about a public issue, they cite the Kalven Report and tell him he shouldn’t be doing it,” he said.
What Ryan has proposed is not much different from the Kalven committee’s mission.
“Its job was to articulate principles — which sounds like what is going on in Charlottesville — to determine when and if a university should make what were then called ‘political statements,’” professor Austin Sarat, chair of the political science department at Amherst College, told The Daily Progress. “Being a college president is hard enough. When you add to it that the college and university then has to be willing to speak about events in the wider world that don’t have a direct and immediate tie into its central education mission, then the question is when does the president speak.”
For Stanley Fish, the answer is “quite simple.”
“Never,” the dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago told The Daily Progress.
Fish, who has taught at universities across the country and currently is a professor at the New College of Florida, said his stance on the matter is unwavering. University presidents, he said, should not be commenting on affairs that don’t directly affect their institution, in part because they are not qualified to do so.
“The fact that you have an advanced degree does no give you eternal wisdom. It just gives you something like wisdom in your field, the one you’ve been studying in and writing about for years,” he said. “But having an advanced degree doesn’t mean you are then an authorized commentator in worldly affairs.”
The UVa committee, he expects, “will be saying a lot of things I would consider mistaken.”
His advice for future committee members?
“Go home and do something more useful,” he said. “But if you get a committee together, it’ll talk for hours because there’s nothing we academics like more than the sounds of our own voices.”
Pete Mackey has worked in communications for multiple universities. Today he runs a consulting firm, Mackey Strategies, that advises colleges and universities.
“I think it’s entirely legitimate for UVa to do this, and it may end up being very useful to them as a guide point, not only for leadership of the university but for their community to understand their approach to these matters,” Mackey told The Daily Progress. “It seems to me a wise idea to come to an understanding of what would be the basis for making a statement or determining you shouldn’t make one as a matter of principle and a matter of philosophy, rather than deciding each matter as a one-off decision.”
Ryan’s proposal could be especially useful in the age of social media, in which a controversy on campus can explode into national headlines. Mackey said, in some ways, universities are laboratories for some of the most consequential matters of society, with a tension between younger students and older faculty and alumni.
“There’s this generational interplay of ideas that makes it sort of inevitable that there will be a conflict between right and wrong, between ideas on a rolling basis as the culture evolves,” he said. “You add social media into the mix, and you’ve sort of ratcheted up the likelihood of temperatures rising. Because any given campus matter through the prism of social media can quickly become a national matter.”
The role of university presidents has changed significantly since the mid-20th century, when, according to Sarat, colleges were viewed as parents and protectors of students, issuing rules on such matters as whether students of the opposite sex could cohabitate in a dormitory. That changed in the late 1960s, when college students began to be treated as adults and universities as institutions providing guardrails and infrastructure.
In some ways, universities today have gone “back to the future,” taking on more of a pastoral role to make sure all students feel safe and welcomed.
“I think we have to recognize that we’re in a different world in higher education, and there are good reasons we’re in a different world, and universities understand that it’s not enough just to educate minds,” Sarat said. “The college and university educate persons with minds, and if a person doesn’t thrive, then the mind can’t function as well as we demand that it does in higher education.”
Universities today, he said, are centers of care.
“The role of colleges and universities is not to tell students they can’t be in each other’s dorm rooms but to, in a sense, provide validation of the personal and the cultural, political and social concerns of the students and to some extent of faculty and staff,” he said.
Perhaps that is why some university presidents feel compelled to release statements, as a way of making their students feel validated and safe. But that approach may need to be reexamined.
“It asks presidents to do things maybe they ought not be doing and asks them to do things maybe they’re not singularly qualified to do,” said Sarat. “As you saw with MIT, Penn and Harvard, it puts them in the crosshair of political and cultural controversies that open universities up to further kinds of political criticisms.”
The UVa committee, then, could be quite useful, argued Sarat and Katz. With a list of principles to abide by, the university would not have to randomly pick and choose when to issue a statement.
“It gives the university something to, at the very least, rationalize what it does. And I think that’s really very important,” said Katz. “I think that puts [Ryan] in a much better position. And I think that’s better for the campus, because it guarantees that there is some agreed-upon general principles.”
But it’s no panacea. Ryan could always be challenged by elected officials in Richmond or Washington, just like his counterparts at Harvard, Penn and MIT.
“Those three presidents were dragged in front of Congress because Rep. Stefanik wanted to get them. And if there’s a reason why she or somebody else wants to get Ryan, nothing will protect him. That’s politics. That’s not principle,” said Katz.
It could be some time before the committee comes together, and the university doesn’t yet have details on how its members would be selected. But Ryan at the Board of Visitors meeting referenced the Committee on Free Expression and Free Inquiry, which he said took roughly a year to draft a statement that was adopted by the board in 2021. Ironically, one of the appointees on that committee was none other than Liz Magill.
“These topics, once you dig into them, unless everybody’s going to agree you, should never say anything, period. They take a little bit of time,” Ryan said.
The wait could be worth it. If and when the committee comes together, Sarat will be cheering for its success.
“I think it’s extraordinarily important for the future of higher education in the U.S., and I expect that what UVa does will be to this generation what the Kalven Report was to the generation of the 1960s,” he said. “I, for one, can’t wait to read their report.”