by James A. Bacon
Five years ago, University of Virginia President Jim Ryan took to the social media platform formerly known as Twitter to comment upon the horrific murder of 11 Jews in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh by a white nationalist.
“This kind of hate and violence goes against everything this country should stand for, and for which the University of Virginia will always stand,” he tweeted. “It falls to all of us to do everything we can, not just to keep our community safe but to prevent hate and bigotry from taking root in the first place.”
Someone warned him at the time to be careful, Ryan recalled in remarks to the UVa Board of Visitors Friday. Once he started commenting on news headlines, it would be difficult to stop. There is always something happening around the world. If university presidents comment on one story, they are expected to comment on the next. And if they don’t, people read meaning into the silence.
Maybe it’s time to rethink the practice of making public pronouncements on events of the day, Ryan suggested. Maybe it’s time to consider adopting the Kalven principles, a set of principles articulated by the University of Chicago’s Kalven Committee that urged colleges and universities to maintain institutional neutrality on social and political issues.
Ryan proposed appointing a group, similar to the free speech committee he set up two years ago, to devise a set of principles to guide when and how UVa’s president issues pronouncements on current issues.
Ryan’s interest in the Kalven Principles doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Since Hamas’s terrorist attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, he has been barraged by students, faculty, alumni and other members of the UVa community with calls to take one stand or another. He spoke out initially to criticize the Hamas terror attacks. But as a series of pro-Palestinian events roiled the university, he has declined to comment on the ensuing Israeli incursions into Gaza, the relative rightness or wrongness of the Palestinian and Israeli causes, the morality of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea” rhetoric, the overt pro-Palestinian sympathies of many UVa professors, or the expressions of hatred against Jewish students by fellow students. His most notable response has been to create a Task Force on Religious Diversity and Belonging to address concerns of both Jews and Muslims at UVa.
No one pays a political price for speaking out against white nationalists like the murderer of the Tree of Life congregants. The political calculus in university campuses changes, however, if leftist groups are the subjects of criticism. At elite institutions like UVa, leftists have largely gotten a pass from university presidents — until Oct. 7. The presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania came under intense criticism for their tone-deaf comments before Congress last week. Liz Magill, the who served as provost of UVa before becoming president of UPenn, was forced to resign.
Ryan’s remarks Friday echoed the language of the Kalven Report, which was composed during the tumultuous era of Civil Rights and Vietnam War protests: “The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars.”
During his tenure as UVa president since 2018, Ryan said, he has tried to limit his pronouncements to events that are “truly shocking” — the Tree of Life shooting, the George Floyd killing, the Hamas terror attacks. But sometimes saying nothing seems “like a choice” and a statement in itself. A related issue is whether the university president can speak out as an individual without speaking for the university. “I don’t think that works,” he said, but he would welcome a set of guiding principles.
Board members were supportive of the idea of appointing a committee to articulate those principles.
Bert Ellis opened up the conversation. “I’m all in favor of institutional neutrality,” he said. Institutional neutrality is a necessity for debate to occur, he explained.
“An ad hoc response [to events] doesn’t seem the right way for us to go,” said Rachel Sheridan. “Not everyone cares about we think about every topic.”
“Don’t jump out in front [of an issue] too much,” counseled Paul Manning. “See the temperature before jumping in.”
Former Rector Jim Murray said Ryan’s statement on the events of Oct. 7 were justified because it “spoke about fundamental human values.”
“I think we should go out of the way to avoid making any statement that’s overtly political,” said Doug Wetmore. “In general, we should be reluctant to step out on controversial political topics.”
But, as Sheridan noted, “the devil is in the details.”
Vice Rector Carlos Brown brought up some of those details. Students are going to react to world events he said. What rights do they have to express themselves when demonstrating on university property? What rights do they have to use the UVa logo? If a student group speaks out in a way that violates university values, does the president have an obligation to say something?
Rector Hardie elaborated upon the point. UVa needs to think through policies about the use of the university logo, digital communications, and the use of university space. “Where do you draw the line?”
As the conversation progressed, it drifted increasingly into free-speech issues.
“We have a robust set of policies to protect free speech in the pre-digital era,” said Provost Ian Baucom. But social media has changed the dynamics of free speech. “We don’t have a policy” on speech in the digital domain. “We don’t have a clear policy on the use of our logo at events.” Is there a distinction to be made between an event sponsored by UVa as an institution and an event that takes place at UVa?
“I don’t think we should allow anything that feels menacing or threatening” to members of the university community, Wetmore said. From what he hears from students, many say they are afraid. “It is reasonable for us, as an institution, to say, ‘we don’t do that around here.'”
Ryan closed out the discussion by saying he is looking right now for a set of principles, not a set of detailed prescriptions. “Let’s start with the question, should we be saying?”
James A. Bacon is executive director of The Jefferson Council. This column is reposted with permission from the Jefferson Council blog.