Letter to the Editor: Why you should Support Political Neutrality AND Divestment

Submitted 22 September 2019

Letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Quest or the Editorial Board.

Recently, Political Neutrality has gotten something of a bad rap. Reed’s trustees have blithely declared that political neutrality precludes any divestment, and in response, students have asserted that political neutrality is an ideal both outdated and harmful. What if, however, they’re both wrong? What if political neutrality is both an important regulative ideal for Reed’s proper functioning and no barrier to divesting, at least when properly applied?

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about these questions because, though I’m something of a supporter of political neutrality, I find the trustees invocation of the ideal to be less than intellectually honest. Let me first be clear about what I think political neutrality mandates: it states that in situations where the college has not taken any particular political stance, it does not do so, and in situations where the college has taken a particular political stance, it ceases to do so. This is bracketed, of course, by an important qualification: if political neutrality prevents Reed from fulfilling its educational mission, it is political neutrality rather than Reed’s educational mission that is to be sacrificed.

Let’s closely examine the trustees argument. They contend that divestment driven by political aims will violate the principle of political neutrality. This is incorrect on the face of things: the college might be driven to act because of political aims but not thereby endorse any political position. So, more charitably, let’s suppose that the trustees believe that, by divesting, the college will commit itself to some political position. I find it questionable whether one can reasonably deduce a series of political positions purely by examining an investment profile; however, the trustees seem to be committed to the thesis that, if the college divests from institutions like Wells Fargo, they will thereby be violating political neutrality. However, if it is the case that divesting from Wells Fargo will violate political neutrality, isn’t it also quite obvious that investing in Wells Fargo is a violation of political neutrality? If the trustees believe that one would express a certain political belief by refusing to engage with certain institutions, doesn’t it follow that committing oneself to those same institutions is also expressive of a certain set of political beliefs and commitments?

Let’s briefly examine Wells Fargo itself. Wells Fargo spent nearly two and a half million dollars on lobbying in 2019 alone, and nearly eight million dollars on lobbying in 2011. Wells Fargo has committed substantial sums of money to influence politicians. Surely, if one believes that divesting in them would be to forswear these political commitments, the same must hold for those who invest in Wells Fargo. Someone might object, at this point, that the college’s investment in Wells Fargo is driven purely by prudential financial considerations, and that divestment from Wells Fargo would be purely political in its aim. However, it’s unclear that motive matters in this situation: if the college decided to adopt a right or left wing political ideology because it believed that would aid the college’s long-term health, surely this would be just as much a violation of political neutrality as anything else.

To summarize: if the trustees are committed to viewing divestment as a violation of political neutrality, they are also committed to viewing their investment in Wells Fargo as a similar violation. Therefore, the entire invocation of “political neutrality” stands on shaky ground. What political neutrality would dictate in this case is crafting an investment profile that would involve as few political commitments as possible. That’s if one believes investment profiles really reflect political commitments in the first place, of course: I think there are good reasons to think that political neutrality’s proper realm isn’t really in determining investment profiles.

I hope I’ve shown thus far that political neutrality does not offer real grounds to oppose divestment. If this is right, though, one can simultaneously support political neutrality and divestment. Should one, though? Many students believe that political neutrality is nothing other than a cover for all sorts of moral malpractice. And I will be the first to admit that political neutrality has in the past been used to support a variety of reactionary measures, from investment in apartheid South Africa to the consistent refusal to divest from predatory financial institutions. Yet it’s hard to find any political ideal, however worthwhile, that hasn’t been consistently misused. Socialism, for example, has been invoked to legitimate all sorts of authoritarian and oppressive political regimes, but I hardly believe that by self-identifying as a democratic socialist I have thereby committed myself to the full range of political measures justified in the name of socialism. Similarly, appreciating the importance of political neutrality at Reed need not involve a blanket endorsement of all the actions carried out in its name.

At this point, many students will concede all this, but ask, what good can political neutrality really do? I think we can clearly answer this by imagining an institution which had no commitment to political neutrality. Imagine, for example, if Reed decided to commit itself to some particular political ideology, and took measures to promote it. This would warrant promoting particular forms of speech, and potentially violating the speech-rights of those who held heterodox political positions. It might justify reprisals against faculty members who did not toe the official line, or students who organized events which departed from the preferred ideological program. All this would be destructive of academic freedom, and hence damaging to an ideal which stands at the very heart of Liberal Arts education: the free and open exchange of ideas. For where there is much desire to learn, Milton writes in the Areopagitica, “there of necessity will be much arguing”, “much writing”, and “many opinions”.

If Milton is right about this, for Reed to truly fulfill its educational mission, we must have a space where students can freely assert their opinions on all matters political and non-political without fear of intimidation, bullying, or verbal attack. And, if my argument is correct, political neutrality is an indispensable means to properly securing and protecting this space. It follows that political neutrality, though perhaps possessing an instrumental rather than intrinsic value, is vital to Reed’s educational mission.

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