Should We Take Sides?
On choosing whether, and when, to speak out as a community on contemporary issues of consequence.
In recent weeks, there has been much conversation about the role of universities in the public debate about issues of consequence. Questions have emerged about when institutions of higher learning should take a public position on issues, or, indeed, whether they should be taking positions at all. Today’s note is a synthesis of prior writing I have done on the subject, engaging with the role of universities in a time of political disruption, global unrest, and social change, towards doing right by our mission as academic communities.
We are, as a school of public health, committed to creating healthier communities at the local, national, and global level. This is reflected in our school’s values statement:
We are committed to igniting and sustaining positive change that leads to health and well-being around the world. We strive for a respectful, collaborative, diverse, and inclusive community within our School of Public Health. We aim to promote justice, human rights, and equity within and across our local and global communities.
This means applying our knowledge and practice towards the goal of better health for all. It also means sometimes using our collective voice to support measures that will get us closer to this goal and speaking against policies that may harm health. At a simple operational level, the question therefore arises: should we as a school endorse a particular position, should we lend our collective name to a particular approach? If so, what are the criteria that would support us doing so on a given issue? To answer these questions, it is worth considering a moment when many in academia decided that declining to take a position was not a morally acceptable option in the face of injustice.
This was the case in recent decades when academia took steps to pressure the South African government to end its policy of apartheid. This action took two principal forms—divestment and an academic boycott. Divestment was largely a result of students arguing that schools should stop investing in companies that did business in South Africa. By the end of the 1980s, about 150 educational institutions chose to do so. The academic boycott consisted of institutions and individual scholars refusing to collaborate with South African universities in a range of areas, such as hosting visiting scholars or students, evaluating theses, sharing research, and publishing articles. While the effectiveness of divestment and the boycott remain subject to debate, they nevertheless were part of a broader international stand against apartheid that ultimately yielded results. They were the product of a moral imperative to protest the country’s racist political system. Racial discrimination is inimical to the mission of schools and universities to foster an inclusive, respectful learning environment. Taking an anti-apartheid position was therefore not just a defense of oppressed black South Africans, but of the most cherished values of higher education.
There have been moments when we have acted in the same spirit at the school, choosing, as a community, to take a position on issues when we determined our core values were at stake. In 2018, Massachusetts faced a ballot initiative which would have repealed a law supporting the rights of the state’s transgender population. A “yes” vote on the initiative would have kept in place a prohibition against discriminating against transgender people in public accommodations, while a “no” vote would have ended this protection. While, in the end, “yes” carried the day by an overwhelming margin, in the months leading up to the vote it looked like the question could be decided either way, with polls showing just a slim majority of voters in favor of keeping transgender protections in place. I have written previously about the importance of supporting LGBTQ+ rights, particularly transgender rights, as a key priority for public health. When groups are denied dignity and basic protection under the law, they face greater vulnerability to poor health. This is why supporting the rights of marginalized populations, including LGBTQ+ populations, has long been central to the work of our school. The possible repeal of civil rights protections for transgender people in Massachusetts represented a clear threat to the health of this population. For this reason, many in our community were active in efforts to ensure this repeal did not happen and that transgender rights were upheld. It was in the context of the centrality of this issue to our identity, and of these communitywide efforts, that we endorsed a “yes” vote on the question of whether to keep transgender protections in place.
It is important to note that taking a position on the 2018 ballot initiative, and anti-apartheid efforts in the 1980s, were, in many ways, exceptions to our general rule. It is only infrequently that we, as a school—as opposed to any of us as individual staff, students, faculty, alums—take a particular position. I think this rule is broadly correct. For academia to credibly remain a place where a range of ideas and perspectives can be expressed and debated, it makes sense that we should think very carefully before endorsing positions, erring as much as possible on the side of institutional neutrality. Having said this, there are also times when we should speak out; while these times may be rare, they do occur, and we should be able to recognize them when they arise.
How, then, do we decide which issues rise to the level of urging our endorsement? In answering that question, four criteria come to mind:
First, we only endorse a position when it is in the clear interest of public health. In some, perhaps many, cases, there is room for reasonable debate on whether a given position best serves these interests. In cases where there is genuine ambiguity, our community should not hesitate to engage with the debate and work to provide clarity about the best steps to take. However, we should only formally endorse a position when we are sure that it is unequivocally on the side of health. In the case of the 2018 ballot initiative, the stakes for health were clear. On one side was a position which supported the health of a vulnerable group, on the other side was a position that promised further marginalization and poor health. In endorsing a position, we stood where we have committed to always stand, unambiguously on the side of health. We should not endorse any positions which would place us anywhere else.
Second, we only take a position when it aligns with our fundamental values. I lean on our values mindful that there is room for interpretation of what these values are and how they should be applied. But, at core, they are a central focus on improving the health of populations with special concern for the marginalized and vulnerable. Everything we say and do is, fundamentally, an extension of this. Anything that does not relate to this mission is not something we need to comment on. Our position in 2018 was core to our shared values. In emphasizing values, I am in agreement with former Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, who wrote in 2017:
“[I]t is critically important that [we] not take stands on ideological or political issues. Yet it is also true that the University, as an institution in the society, must step forward to object when policies and state action conflict with its fundamental values, and especially when they bespeak purposes and a mentality that are at odds with our basic mission.”
Schools and universities are indeed part of society and, as such, have a role to play in advancing values that make society better, healthier, even as we preserve our nonideological priors. This means being willing to speak out on issues when doing so reflects our core values and when not doing so could help support a status quo that is antithetical to our mission.
Third, we are sensitive to positions that reflect the overwhelming sentiment of our community. Ours is a community of ideas, united in our common goal of shaping a healthier world. While we all wish to get to such a world, we sometimes (maybe often) disagree on the best routes to take, or on what constitutes the most significant obstacles in our path. Our school should only take a formal position when we can be reasonably sure that our position reflects the general feeling of the community. In 2018, our endorsement reflected much work that had already been done by members of our community on the issue. This included a planned seminar on the ballot initiative, the efforts of our Activist Lab, and the advocacy of our students, faculty, staff, and alumni. This groundswell of support meant that, when we made the choice to endorse a position, we were echoing what was already being said, loudly and clearly, by our school community. Future endorsements should happen in a similar context, reflecting a consensus on the part of our community. I note an important caveat here: it is possible for our community to feel strongly about an issue that is nevertheless not relevant to our core values, making an endorsement inappropriate.
Finally, it is important for us to consider, when thinking about taking a position, the extent to which our endorsement will influence a given issue for the better. In 2018, when it looked like the ballot initiative could go either way, speaking as a school seemed like a practical step towards helping to move the issue to an outcome which supported health. Saving our endorsement for such times means that, when we do speak, our words have the potential to make a difference on issues of consequence. On the other hand, if we endorse positions more frequently, regularly speaking collectively on many issues, we run the risk of undercutting our capacity to make an impact. Sometimes having an impact may mean joining our voices with other institutions and sometimes it may mean speaking out alone. What is most important is that we weigh our ability to support a positive outcome in considering whether to make an endorsement, saving our collective voice for when it can truly make a difference.
Even if these four criteria are met, and we choose to speak out as an institution, it is important to recognize and make space for voices within our community that may not agree with the position we have taken. Just because a position is supported by most of us does not mean it is supported by all of us and those who find themselves in the minority should not fear to speak their mind. This means that we need to take care that, in endorsing a position as a community, we do not shut off avenues for disagreement about the course we have taken. Some may disagree with the positions we take or disagree on principle with academic institutions endorsing any position at all. And this is OK. For our school to remain a place of free speech and open debate, it must remain a place where those who wish to raise such points feel able to do so. We should take care that in speaking together we do not drown out the voices of those who do not share the view of the majority, mindful that the presence of these voices in our community is vital to keeping our school a space where all can think and speak freely.
Taking positions as a school while respecting our commitment to free speech, open debate, and shaping a context of institutional neutrality that nevertheless allows for moments when we will endorse a position requires a delicate balance. It also requires us to remember that we are part of a larger University, one not only legally responsible to abide by lobbying rules as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, but also a collective body composed of a diverse range of views and values. There are often circumstances that align with the criteria discussed here that do not necessarily align with the values and perspectives of the larger University unit. But this does not mean we should not speak, doing so always thoughtfully, with care. It does, however, mean that whenever we speak collectively, we should do so while respecting nuance, engaging in an open and transparent conversation about where we as a community stand on issues, acting decisively while making space for voices that may not agree with our action. This can be difficult. But we, as a school, can engage with difficulty. Being able to do so is the mark of a mature, confident academic community, one which knows where it stands in relation to its mission and values without fearing dissent or the conversations that might cause us to reevaluate what we believe. We are fully up to having these conversations, to balancing moral clarity with the airing of different views, towards the goal of keeping our school a place where ideas can be freely shared.
Thank you to each member of our community for working to ensure our school remains such a place.
Sandro Galea, MD, DrPH
Dean and Robert A. Knox Professor
This Dean’s Note is a modified version of a prior Dean’s Note.
Previous Dean’s Notes are archived at: http://www.bu.edu/sph/tag/deansnote/