Mission Day Keynote

April 7, 2022

President Peñalver delivered the following remarks at Mission Day, attended by faculty and staff in Pigott Auditorium.


Since I first encountered it during my interview process, I have been intrigued by Seattle University’s vision – to be a university that is innovative and progressive and Jesuit and Catholic.


The vision statement was adopted by the University – and approved by the Board of Trustees – after collective deliberation during the first Strategic Directions process, prior to COVID prior to my arrival.


Although we have updated and Reignited those Strategic Directions in the wake of the pandemic and the protests of 2020, and the presidential transition, we have not altered that description of Seattle University’s vision.


Some might consider this a mistake.


Indeed, there are numerous objections one might offer to our vision statement.


Let’s start by setting to the side objections based on the values themselves.  No doubt there are some who disagree with our vision because they are not comfortable with our identity as a Catholic university . . . or as a progressive one.


But these objections are arguably remedied by the existence of the vision statement itself.


There are thousands of institutions of higher education.  Only a couple hundred of them are Catholic.


No one is compelled to be part of an institution that identifies as Catholic, or as progressive, or as progressive and Catholic.


This rich plurality of options is precisely why we have private higher education.


Being clear about who we are and what we stand for helps to avoid confusion.  And it forestalls objections based on a simple rejection of our values.  We have all CHOSEN to be at Seattle University, knowing that it is Catholic . . . knowing that it is progressive.


What I would like to reflect on this morning is a different objection – one rooted in a rejection of the very notion of a university that asserts any substantive values at all.


This is an objection rooted in a particular – but influential – understanding of what a university is.  On this view, a university should never express any substantive values beyond those strictly necessary to support the core activities of research and teaching.


The quintessential statement of that position was articulated by the Kalven Committee at the University of Chicago.


In 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, the President of the University of Chicago convened a committee to consider what the university’s relationship ought to be with respect to the political and social issues of the day.


The Committee, led by the legendary legal scholar Harry Kalven, concluded that the answer was: “not much.”


A “university,” the Committee reasoned, “is a community only for the[] limited and distinctive purposes [of supporting teaching and research].”  As such, it is a “community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.”


According to the Kalven Committee, the articulation by the university of a substantive position necessarily undermines academic freedom and therefore frustrates the university in the pursuit of its primary mission.


As the Kalven committee put it, and I quote, “[t]here is no mechanism by which [the university] can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives.  It cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted.”


As a practical matter, the Kalven committee was probably correct that collective university action carries this danger.  But I do not think it follows inexorably from the university’s articulation of a point of view on some particular issue (or the decision to take collective action on an issue) that individual community members cannot engage in the kind of robust dissent that is the lifeblood of good teaching and rigorous research.


The key to avoiding the danger identified by the Kalven Committee is to vigorously protect academic freedom of community members even while being clear about what the university’s substantive values are. 


The Kalven report argues that this is an impossibility – that these two goals cannot be reconciled.


If that were the case, our vision statement would represent a grave error.


I would go even farther.  If that were the case, the very possibility of Catholic higher education would be called into question.  After all, what does it mean for a university to call itself Catholic if not to express an endorsement of certain substantive values?


Fortunately for us, the Kalven report’s pessimism is unfounded.


To understand why, let’s consider an example:  Seattle University’s decisions to become carbon neutral and to divest from fossil fuels.


The Kalven report would seem to rule out the permissibility of these sorts of collective actions.


Climate change is a contentious issue.  While it is uncontroversial in certain circles, particularly within the academy, it is deeply controversial if we consider society as a whole.


And yet to be among the first universities to achieve carbon neutrality and to divest our endowment from fossil fuels, both of which we have committed to doing, are ways in which we express our deepest values as an innovative and progressive and Jesuit and Catholic institution.


These actions align us with the Universal Apostolic Preferences of the Society of Jesus to care for our common home – and with Pope Francis’s call to action in Laudato Si.


Do they inhibit the academic freedom of members of the Seattle University faculty and student body who may disagree about climate change or about the wisdom of fossil fuel divestment?


Not if we simultaneously and vigorously insist on the freedom of academic dissent of our community members.  Nothing in the university’s decision to take these actions, on its own, precludes dissent nor shames dissenters.


To insist that disagreement is foreclosed by university action or by the expression of a university perspective is to adopt too fragile and too precious a model of the conditions necessary for dissent.


Dissent is not squelched merely by virtue of knowing that one’s views do not align with those of the institution’s administration.  No one who has ever been to a faculty meeting could assert otherwise.  (Do I need to remind anyone about the recent debate on the academic calendar?)


There may be social pressure to go along with the views that enjoy consensus support among the faculty or among the student body.  But that kind of informal peer pressure exists independently of an institution’s administrative decision to take (or not to take) some collective action on an issue.


This leads to a related question.  Is Seattle University, as a university committed to a particular position on climate change, wrong to protect the academic freedom of a community member who engages in research or publication or speech about climate change from a contrary perspective?


Does protecting the academic freedom of that dissenting faculty member to express a contrary point of view suggest that Seattle University is not in fact committed to its professed position on climate change (or fill in the blank on some other position you see as reflecting a core value of Seattle University)?


This is not a fanciful question.  I hear this argument all the time – Seattle University claims to (but does not really) care about X, because it tolerates speech or research that is contrary to X.  I just heard this argument this week.


If it were indeed the case that the university COULD NOT tolerate such speech without contradicting its own values, the Kalven Committee warnings would be right on point.


But I do not think the protection of academic freedom – even the academic freedom to dissent from the university’s stated vision – constitutes a betrayal of the values espoused in that vision.


If we were first and foremost an advocacy organization, that might well be the case.  An environmental advocacy group that employed and tolerated widely divergent positions on the issue of climate change would likely be an ineffective one, although even in such a group there is no doubt room for reasonable disagreement.


But Seattle University is not an advocacy group.  We are, as our vision statement affirms, a university.


Consequently, our way of living out our values must take a form appropriate to our distinctive mission as a place for research and teaching and learning.  And essential to the research process (as well as to teaching, and learning) is the freedom for community members to dissent and the provision of ample space for reasonable disagreement, including the presentation of contrary positions.


But surely, some will argue, anyone who disagrees with the prevailing consensus on climate change has set themselves outside of the boundaries of legitimate research and teaching and learning.


The first response to this objection is to insist on precision about the nature of the disagreement.


While there is widespread consensus on the facts about climate change and its causal physical mechanisms, there remains broad and reasonable disagreement about the most effective policy responses to address it.


One might fully accept and affirm the scientific consensus on climate change while rejecting cap and trade, or carbon taxes, or the efficacy or wisdom of a mid-sized private university attempting to combat climate change by divesting its modest endowment.


(In college, I took a seminar on climate change with Carl Sagan – no climate skeptic.  During the course, he referred to efforts to address global environmental issues – like climate change or the ozone hole – through personal or even individual corporate actions as akin to putting a brick in your toilet reservoir to save water.  His reasoning was that those individual actions might feel good for the person who undertakes them, but they do almost nothing to solve the problem.  Even worse, he suggested, such actions may contribute to a misunderstanding about the scale of the challenge and of the collective action required to effectively address it.  We are not ultimately going to solve climate change through voluntary private efforts but only through concerted public action.)


Of course, there might be views on climate change that are so far outside the mainstream that they call into question the professional competence of the person who articulates them.  Is a climate scientist who denies that carbon dioxide tends to warm the atmosphere entitled to the protection of academic freedom?  Or have they simply revealed themselves to be an incompetent climate scientist?


This argument about professional competence would not apply to the English professor who decides to weigh in on the science of climate change (or of a climate scientist who weighs in on criminal justice reform).


That said, even within the domain of views that touch on one’s professional competence, we need to proceed with great caution and with a thumb firmly on the scale in favor of freedom.  The purpose of academic freedom (and the protection of tenure) is precisely to safeguard the ability to challenge prevailing opinions and orthodoxies, whether within society, within the university community or within specific fields of study.


We do not need to go back as far as Galileo to find academic ideas that were considered heretical by the prevailing professional standards of their time but that ultimately proved true.  This is not to say that there are no limits.  But academic freedom requires wide latitude to challenge positions that many deem to be obviously true.


In sum, a robust commitment to academic freedom is essential if we are to remain true to our vision as an innovative and progressive and Jesuit and Catholic UNIVERSITY while continuing to be a place where rigorous research, as well as and teaching and learning, can thrive.


But I will go one step farther.


Rather than constraining the universe of permissible opinions, our vision to be a university that is BOTH progressive AND Catholic pushes us to EXPAND the scope for reasonable disagreement.


This is a crucial point.


It is no more the case that for Seattle University to be true to our vision we must all be progressive than that we must all be Catholic . . . or that we must all be progressive or Catholic in precisely the same way.


Calls at Seattle University to limit the scope of academic freedom with regard to the expression of positions that are insufficiently progressive necessarily imply the propriety of limiting the scope of academic freedom with respect to positions that are insufficiently Catholic.


But – and let me be clear on this point – both suggestions are wrong.


Both would be inconsistent with our vision to be progressive AND Catholic.  Both would be inconsistent with our vision to be a university.


Our aspiration to be a university that is both progressive AND Catholic requires an even more expansive scope for academic freedom than might be necessary at a university that aspired to be JUST progressive or JUST Catholic.


Indeed, at a very basic level, what our vision statement invites us to do – what it encourages us to do – is to disagree.


Our vision of being a university that is innovative and progressive and Jesuit and Catholic is not a recipe for consensus.  In fact, it seems nearly perfectly designed to be intellectually uncomfortable, intellectually unsettling, for nearly all of us, regardless of our points of view.


Intellectual discomfort can be incredibly productive, pushing us to question the underpinnings of our own perspectives and forcing us to deepen our understandings of the commitments that we take for granted.


We derive great insight from this kind of dialogue and disagreement.  Think about the concept of “freedom.”  In the secular progressive tradition, it is often understood to reflect the absent of external constraint – the liberty to pursue one’s desires or aspirations without limits.


In the Catholic tradition, drawing on strains that run deep in both Greek philosophy and the scriptural tradition, freedom is often understood instead as self-mastery of one’s natural inclinations, as when Paul talks about becoming free from the bondage of sin and the flesh.


The dialogue between these two important conceptions of freedom has been profoundly fertile, arguably yielding insights that informed the Second Vatican Council’s teachings on the importance of religious freedom and freedom of conscience.  And they may have important things to say to current debates among secular thinkers about the best ways to conceptualize sexual morality.  The recent work of the Oxford philosopher Amia Srinavasan brings out the possibilities very richly.


Another example is provided by the difference between secular and Catholic critiques of capitalism.  During the 20th century, the most trenchant secular critique of capitalism came from Marxist thinkers.  But the language of Catholic Social Teaching offered a rich vocabulary for engaging with the excesses of capitalism while remaining skeptical of Marxist materialism.  Arguably, dialogue among these various perspectives informed some of the greatest social reforms of the last century.


Productive discomfort.


But that discomfort is only productive it is grounded in a culture of academic freedom that ensures our ability to disagree, even with the majority, while still remaining in good standing.


Our shared commitment to a vision that encourages – guarantees – disagreement is a recipe for a vibrant intellectual community.


But to make it work, we must also ensure that our disagreements are tempered by an equally powerful commitment to our ongoing existence as a community that tolerates – that welcomes -- disagreement.


Our disagreements, when they inevitably arise, should therefore be characterized by the kind of intellectual charity and generosity – what the Jesuits call presupposition – that sustains intellectual community even as we challenge one another.


To conclude, our goal should not be to avoid disagreement but to become better at disagreeing.


Our vision statement is breathtaking in its ambition.


I am inspired by the richness of the conversations it invites.


And yet those conversations can only happen if we have both the courage to disagree, and the generosity and grace to welcome the dissent of others.