THE FOLLOWING ESSAY was written before Cambodia, Kent and Jackson, hence at a moment the classes of 1970-74 may consider prehistoric. My essay defends a position that has perhaps been passed over by events. I argue that the university as such should preserve its political neutrality, or try to preserve as much of it as possible; but the fact is that since May it has become the most political place in the country. By ordinary standards, I should then withdraw my essay, capitulating to the power of fact. But I am not quite prepared to do that.
Insofar as the university is a place for study and analysis, it is not an agency for action—except on matters concerning its own affairs. Members of the university, whether teachers, students, or administrators, are of course entirely free to act politically, as individuals or in groups. But in moments of great political crisis, this distinction may become blurred. Suppose the Nixon administration manages to achieve what so far has been possible only to a Republican or Democratic administration separately: that is, to have both a depression and a war. Suppose, moreover, that the American working class will be no more inclined to revolutionary action than it was during the thirties, and that none of the constituted powers, such as Congress, is prepared to assume leadership. In such a case, it might be conceivable that only the academy could provide leadership for the country. I do not say this will happen; only that it is possible. The university would then exchange its scholarly functions for public action, its detached stance of objectivity for ardent advocacy.
To recognize such a possibility is not, however, to rejoice over it. What might, in extreme emergencies, be regarded as tolerable, or even necessary, need not be justified as desirable or be allowed to become the norm. On the contrary, the academy should remain conscious of its obligation to return to its autonomous position and proper functions as soon as possible; otherwise, it may cease being a university. And it must be free to criticize the new powers, if and when they are constituted, as it criticized the old ones.
Even if one grants—as do some people who in principle are committed to the idea of a disinterested and autonomous university—that we may enter an emergency of such dimensions that it is necessary for a time to suspend this principle, it still remains necessary to assert the principle and to insist that measures taken in behalf of an emergency not be allowed to become permanent.
For these reasons I commit my essay to print, hoping that its claim to relevance will in time be vindicated.—June 1, 1970.