Published Summer 1996
University of Southern Mississippi
Hattiesburg. MS, USA
The university’s commitment to its social responsibility has so far been manifested in remarkably conventional terms, funding for its community service programs, occasional faculty debates over university policies that have larger social implications and commitment (nominally, at least) to student and faculty diversity. Maybe it is time, however, that the University of Southern Mississippi participate even more fully in the difficult dilemmas facing our society.
What I am suggesting is an explicit and constructive engagement between USM and the world beyond campus. Universities have long refused to take stands on important social issues, hiding instead behind the banners of institutional neutrality and academic freedom. these excuses are not only disingenuous, but also inconsistent in their practical implications. Instead, I want USM to take, by means of faculty votes, clear and intellectual moral stances on important social issues. I believe that by lending its reputation and resources to a well articulated social position, USM could move beyond tokenism in its commitment to social welfare.
The Myth of Neutrality
This is not the first time such a proposal has been made. In the late 1960s, for instance, students and faculty members across the nation pressed for institutional statements of disapproval for the Vietnam War. At that time, and whenever such calls have been made, opponents deflected demands for moral positions by citing the importance of institutional neutrality. The institutional goal of universities, it has repeatedly been argued, is the pursuit of knowledge in isolation from controversial political and social issues. This concept of neutrality is problematic, however. If neutrality means silence on political debates then I feel that USM’s silence is especially loud. USM has great intellectual and financial clout. Any refusal to use that influence represents an implicit (even if unintended) vote of support outcome since USM could have thrown its weight behind the alternative.
The suggestion that there are political debates that do not concern USM is even more problematic. USM is enmeshed in a web of interests that extends far beyond Hattiesburg Government contracts for research, federal funds for financial aid and professors in government positions all increasingly blur the border between USM and the outside world. Furthermore, USM is already knee-deep in several contentious social debates. Affirmative action in admissions, USM’s ties with ROTC – repeatedly suggest that academic isolation is untenable; a modern university cannot avoid taking a moral stand.
But my call for a socially engaged university is based on more than a simple rejection of neutrality as a viable alternative. I believe that all universities, USM included, have a certain social obligation. This assumption is not contrary to the traditional vision of the academic institution: In some form or another, universities have always recognized their social responsibilities. Even the most isolationist of academics have seen the independent pursuit of knowledge and research as good for society.
My call for an explicit stand on social issues does not, therefore, violate any sacred cows of institutional autonomy. USM has taken numerous policy decision that represent an implicit moral position. So far, however, these have had a narrow administrative focus and have not dealt with the social questions implicit in the decisions. Yet the university clearly acknowledges a social responsibility. It’s time that social positions and social responsibility were brought together. I am not so naive, of course, as to believe that a simple word from USM is sufficient to alter government policies. Nor is this a question of imposing or forcing our will upon society. But there can be little doubt that a statement from USM will be noticed. In addressing the military’s ban on homosexuals, the 1992 Verba Report on the status of ROTC makes this very same point: “I have no illusions that USM’s actions with respect to the ROTC will influence national policy or cause the military to abandon its policy of exclusion. However, I also believe that we should not ignore USM’s resources as an agent for changing what we think to be an antiquated and damaging public policy.” The point is that a well argued position supported by USM’s intellectual and financial resources can powerfully affect, if not decisively influence, the course of social events.
A Price to Pay
Critics contend that social responsibility is fine in principle, but not at the expense of the university’s primary academic mission. An official university position, they argue, would intimidate professors with dissenting opinions and stifle the intellectual debate that is so vital to any pursuit of knowledge.
This is indeed an important consideration, and any decision in favor of institutional positions should be careful to discern between administrative implications and subject matter for the classrooms. Occasionally, administrative decisions spill over into the realm of morality. These decisions, I believe, should be consistent with, and governed by, the faculty votes. But there is no reason why the underpinning ideology of administrative decisions cannot be contradicted in the classroom. For example, there is a clear distinction between a university’s decision to allow women’s studies and the same university’s decision to tenure an outspoken sexist professor.
Granted, the professors who voted for a women’s studies curriculum would be the people doing the hiring, and it is possible that their ideologies would spill over into the final decision. But the same ideological conflicts could exist today. Any belief held by a majority of the faculty is likely to be disproportionately represented on a hiring board, whether or not a formal vote has been taken. The existence of a university position is unlikely to affect the degree to which individual members of hiring board allow their ideologies to influence their respect for the principle of academic freedom. Even if the hiring process remains relatively untainted, critics counter, it is unlikely that professors are going to feel welcome or comfortable in a university with an official position that contradicts their own. I feel that this argument doesn’t give enough credit to the intellectual convictions of USM’s professors.
Furthermore, provided their numbers are sizable enough, professors with dissenting opinions will have the comfort of knowing that their views can be stated along with the official USM position. Finally no university position is irreversible. I propose that a position require a two-thirds majority to be adopted and a simple majority to be reversed.