Bowen’s Policy of ‘No Policies’
Nassau Weekly (10/3/85)
By Randy Schoenberg
In his speech at Opening Exercises, President Bowen discussed a state of mind that has become all too prevalent at this University and in the United States in general. He believes that institutions should refrain from political actions and moral statements in order to facilitate a more “open” environment for discussion and research. I question the ability of any institution to completely sever itself from the political and moral world and the desirability of doing so.
Who really benefits from such a system? How can one change policies whose existence an administration denies? And do “openness” and “freedom of discussion” merely cloak the hidden conservatism of a policy which maintains the status quo? Bowen’s speech did not address these questions.
Bowen feels that an institution which maintains no official positions better facilitates open discussion and free argumentation. “This reluctance [of universities to take institutional stands on issues],” he says, “has been viewed as a positive thing: a direct demonstration of the institutions’ openness to all points of view.” On the contrary, such non-involvement has the effect of stifling discussion.
Instead of being open to all ideas, the University as an institution is open to none, save those which already form University policy. Few people will argue or speak out for their beliefs if they know that their speech has no hope of affecting University policy. The consequence of Bowen’s program of institutional restraint is a lifeless and impotent ideological vacuum, void of new ideas.
Bowen also believes that “openness to conflicting viewpoints and free debate” necessitates an environment in which all ideas are respected equally. But will an institution which is afraid to show a preference for one ideology over another, fearing that such an action will be seen as favoritism, ever resolve to change the status quo?
Bowen’s belief, that “given an opportunity, truth and right will eventually triumph over falsehood and wrong,” is naïve and, in conjunction with his opinion on restraint, self-defeating. How can truth and right triumph if the University refuses to take a stand or reverse its existing policies?
In order to avoid these inevitable questions, Bowen attempts to justify inaction on the part of the University as an institution. He refers to “the number of errors and even crimes that have been committed in the names of Truth and Conscience,” implying that acting on the belief in one’s understanding of Truth is dangerous. This assertion does not address the potential harms of inaction, and instead relies upon blind faith in the “eventual triumph of truth.”
One cannot hope to counteract the wrongs and untruths of others without forthright action in accordance with one’s own beliefs. On a societal or institutional level, this action is important, because conservatism will always maintain the status quo, no matter how unjust any given group of individuals believe it to be. Any institution or society which chooses not to take a position one way or another commits a sin of omission as great as, if not greater than, the wrongful act itself. Inaction makes future change more difficult.
Bowen’s policy is the ultimate form of conservatism. If the University has no official policies, under the auspices of “openness” and “freedom of discussion,” it then removes the impetus for discussion—the opportunity to change or create University policies.
Is it possible for Princeton to have no “official” policies? Evolution is taught by the Biology Department to the exclusion of Creation Theory; counseling on both birth control devices and abortions is offered at McCosh Health Center, and professors are encouraged to accept money for research related to the Strategic Defense Initiative. Some would consider these “policies” more political than the University’s investment in companies which do business in South Africa.
The University cannot and should not shy away from such actions, nor should it fear that they may harm the integrity of the University as a free forum for discussion. Institutional policies, and the uproar or approval they evoke, are an essential tool for social change and progress.
Bowen, in accordance with this role as the President of the corporation which is Princeton, states that “to be free, [an institution] must be solvent.” Does this mean that the University will forget its commitment to institutional restraint, if and when money is at stake? If so, this conflicts with Bowen’s claim that “[Princeton] is not for sale.” At times, Princeton must act politically to protect its own monetary interests. The University supports a large lobbying organization expressly for such purposes.
Will Princeton begin disinvestment from companies doing a large amount of business in South Africa? The trustees and Bowen have said no. But it seems likely that the violence in South Africa will cause stocks of those companies to fall. If so, is it not fiscally wise to divest? (Rutgers has cited economic instability as their foremost reason for divestment.) Were Princeton to divest, it would be a purely monetary decision, having nothing to do with the political discussion going on within the University.
If, however, the University is willing to make essentially political decisions based on monetary considerations, is this truly an institution which can be said, under Bowen’s definition, to be “open to all points of view?”
Taking political stands may do more to encourage discussion than institutional restraint. If the University were to act politically, there would be a reason to argue and discuss—the hope that such discussion would lead to a more consistent policy. Bowen is reluctant to take an institutional position at all, or to acknowledge that such positions already exist. What then, is the point of discussion?
It is not, as Bowen suggests, “the unrelenting, open-minded search for truth” which is “itself the highest value,” but the debate and discussion surrounding institutional action which leads to the ultimate truth and correctness of University policies.
Bowen’s image of Princeton, “at a slight angle to the world,” does not fit his speech. In fact, he describes an amorphous, boundless enclosure, without an orientation with respect to the rest of the world. An institution which stands at an angle to the world challenges the correctness of the standard orientation, attracts attention to itself, and perhaps signifies a defiance of accepted norms without completely rejecting them—this is the image which Princeton should project.
If Bowen’s speech suggests anything with its numerous allusions to past times when academic freedom was less prevalent, it is that we should be content with our present situation. Conservatism is carefully hidden behind the façade of protecting academic freedom. But if freedom of discussion is to have any value at all, it must be able to manifest itself in progressive actions which challenge existing inequities. The University as an institution must be committed to education, to progress, and to the dissemination of new research and ideas which attempt to change society for the better.
One should not be so open-minded that one’s brains fall out. If what we want is integrity, solvency, and academic freedom, we should support an institution which enables us to realize our hopes and dreams of a better society, not one which holds politically and morally progressive action in contempt.