Universities Abandoning Political Neutrality Harm Free Inquiry

Many presidents of universities, including my own, have committed their institutions to supporting the Grand Coalition on Climate Change.  The founding statement of the Coalition criticizes President’s Trump decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and offers support for various policies by state and local governments to pursue the objectives of that agreement.

It is a serious mistake for universities as institutions to criticize or support controversial political initiatives, let alone become part of political coalitions.  Universities must stay of out of politics and refrain from policy endorsements that are by their nature political. By maintaining their institutional neutrality they can best foster debate and further the progress of knowledge about controversial issues of the day. Universities are brokers of knowledge. To be honest brokers, they must eschew politics.

Wading into politics imposes two kinds of costs.  The first is a chilling effect on debate and free inquiry within the university. Will professors and lecturers, particularly untenured ones, feel as free to take a position against the Paris agreement if their President has committed the university to a political position? Or indeed take any position against the conventional wisdom on climate change? The second is creating the appearance that the university has an ideological or indeed partisan orientation, an appearance which will make some people dismiss research coming out of the university as biased. Particularly in a world where it is widely recognized that university professors and administrators are overwhelming left-liberal in ideology and Democrat in partisan affiliation, the university should bend over backward to avoid reinforcing an impression that it has an institutional ideological slant.

Some might argue that there is no problem in effectively endorsing the Paris Agreement, because it is just science and any university should support science. But this is precisely the kind of mistaken notion that of which universities should be disabusing students.  The predictive claims of science are of a different order from the policy proposals of politics. For instance, even if  science shows that global warming is likely to occur, it remains an open policy question of how much we should focus on adapting to it rather than preventing it.

Others might argue that the Paris Agreement is something from which no reasonable person could dissent and that the university’s opposition to the United States’ exit is like a statement opposing genocide. But this is a frivolous claim  There are  serious arguments like those of Oren Cass that the agreement is unfair to the United States by requiring it to sharply change its policy to curtail its carbon emissions, while allowing other nations simply to continue down their own,  often not very ambitious, trajectories, of reducing emissions. And disagreement with the Paris pact is not limited to President Trump. The  Paris Agreement does not command even majority support in Congress, let alone the supermajority needed to conclude a treaty. That is why President Obama  claimed that is was a non-binding executive agreement that did not require submission to Congress– a characterization that respected legal scholars,  such as Mike Ramsey,  have disputed.