The independent news organization of Duke University

Keohane addresses moral authority of universities

President Nan Keohane discussed when a university president should speak out on an issue and, more generally, a university's societal responsibilities at an annual address to the faculty prior to Thursday's meeting of the Academic Council.

The speech examined the role of a university president as a keeper of the moral authority and the university as a safe haven for ideas and viewpoints of all kinds.

"Should the university president be silent?" Keohane asked the audience, saying the president has a responsibility to use the authority of the university to speak out on certain compelling issues.

She emphasized the importance of judiciously contemplating whether an issue necessitates a statement by a university president.

"I have no desire to be a wimp, but I have no illusions about being a moral arbiter," Keohane said. She added that although there are no clear-cut criteria for determining when it is prudent for a university president to take a stand, it is important to consider the impact of the issue at hand, the university's proximity to the issue and whether or not a university statement would lend any benefit to the situation.

Thursday's speech comes several weeks after Keohane declined to endorse a statement cautioning against the intimidation and mistreatment of Jewish students, which was sent to university presidents and chancellors across the country. Keohane reasoned that the statement was too specific, focusing on just a small group.

She also reminded faculty and administrators of the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Trinity College Board of Trustees' decision to support Professor of History John Spencer Bassett, who pushed the envelope of accepted limits on academic freedom by praising the life of Booker T. Washington in the face of popular racist sentiment.

Keohane cited the decision as a turning point in the state of academic freedom in American universities and called on Duke to maintain the tradition of intellectual inquiry and discussion, even when the pursuit of truth is unpopular or unsavory.

"Money, students, and trends are not to be weighed for one moment," the president said of a university's pursuit for truth. She commended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for challenging ideals and promoting discussion through its required freshman reading this year of a book that included selections from the Qur'an.

After Keohane's speech, Dr. Nancy Allen, chair of the council, briefly outlined major Academic Council discussion topics of the past year and previewed several upcoming issues.

She said this year would be marked by discussions of faculty retirement, salary equity, the progress of the Black Faculty Strategic Initiative and the President's Gender Initiative.

Plans for possibly merging the President's Advisory Committee on Resources and the Faculty Priorities Committee are still under consideration and the issue may be addressed this year, she added.

Allen, the first member of the clinical sciences faculty to chair the council, said she also hoped to foster greater unity between the medical community and the University as a whole. She cited parking and interdisciplinary faculty instruction as particular challenges.

"A veil-or a wall of Duke stone, depending on your perspective-may make it difficult for some faculty to function in interdisciplinary ways," she said.

After Allen's remarks, the special faculty meeting adjourned and a perfunctory meeting of the council commenced. Keohane answered a question that had been submitted in writing before the meeting, about why the University did not release its NCAA infractions to the public, like other Atlantic Coast Conference schools. Keohane said the University had only committed three minor infractions this past year, and she believed they were too minor to merit public disclosure. She outlined the incidents in detail, however, in response to the question.

Allen closed the meeting by narrating a chronological overview of the council's achievements to commemorate its 40th anniversary this month.

Discussion

Share and discuss “Keohane addresses moral authority of universities” on social media.