The value of political impartiality in educational institutions

The value of political impartiality in educational institutions


After the May 9 elections, Ateneo de Manila University President Fr. Bobby Yap, S.J. issued a letter to the Ateneo community calling everyone to rebuild “our heavily fractured society.” It was a well-meaning letter and his final message to “bridge the disconnects and make our nation finally be whole” is something that every Filipino who genuinely loves the country should get behind.

But peel back and one can readily discover certain biases underlying Fr. Yap’s letter. It spoke of a “heavily damaged democracy” despite the elections being generally peaceful and three of the other high-profile candidates conceding early and acknowledging the legitimacy of the process. The letter even borrowed a tagline from the university’s preferred candidate, Leni Robredo. A couple of days after it was published, the university hosted Robredo’s thanksgiving event.

These biases are endemic not just in Loyola, but in educational institutions across the country. Ateneo and De La Salle University were the first to encourage their students to wear pink in UAAP games. Other UAAP schools and NCAA colleges followed suit. It’s not limited to the NCR; I randomly received a private message from one of my high school teachers from the province proudly sharing my alma mater’s open support for a candidate. Whether it is naiveté or indifference, the virtue-signaling and lack of self-restraint by people within the academic community have unwittingly contributed to the “fracturing” of society. (For candor’s sake, let us not argue semantics of whether there was an official endorsement.)

Given the way schools have put themselves front and center of the political process, they have apparently become obtuse to the intrinsic value of academic institutions maintaining political impartiality in a democratic society. Like the press, they play a very important political function of supplying information — but with a narrower and more delicate audience. In his article “The Importance of Academic Impartiality” (Quillette, Jan. 15, 2022), Matt Beard identified what I believe to be the primary role of the academe. Summarizing Max Weber’s and Hannah Arendt’s views, Beard wrote: “the scholar’s job is not to preach particular values to their students, but to facilitate a clarity of facts and open debate so that students may choose for themselves.”

Although school officials often couch their statements in non-compulsory terms (i.e., “encourage,” “urge”), these end up carrying more weight because of the nature of the relationship between the school and its students. Simply put, schools, through their officials and faculty members, exercise moral ascendancy over students. The two sides do not stand on equal footing and students are more likely to be influenced by the school than the other way around.

Some would argue that the school’s position is representative of the majority of the student body. This is, of course, beside the point. For one, no school could claim that 100% of its students support one candidate. There will always be dissenters because that is human nature. More importantly, such an argument is itself anti-democratic because it creates a chilling effect for those who hold different views. The minority would feel ostracized by their “second home”; while there is no immediate threat of expulsion for holding politically different views, the exclusion from social groups within the campus is arguably worse. There are those who would simply choose to remain silent due to conformist social pressures. Had the Blue Eagles won the UAAP title on May 13, the post-game bonfire celebration would have ended up an exclusively pink affair.

But the more concerning argument from schools we have heard is: “the values of a specific candidate align with the university’s.” If the statement is true, wouldn’t students be able to independently reach the same conclusion without the school openly favoring a candidate? Or does the assumption that the schools did their job instilling these values not hold? It is also rather simplistic because there are always competing values and it is preposterous, bordering on dogmatism, to claim that there is one candidate who possesses all these. The underlying fallacy, of course, is that these values are somehow scientifically and empirically quantifiable within a person in such a way that would allow school officials to proclaim, as a matter of universal truth, that one candidate possesses more values — both in a collective and individual sense — compared to the others.

Conflating truth and politics is a risky proposition, and the academic community ought to learn the lesson from one of its own. One thing that hangs over the legacy of German philosopher Martin Heidegger during his tenure as rector of Freiburg University is his letter urging students to vote “yes” in support of Hitler’s decision to leave the League of Nations. As head of the university, he told students: “The Führer has awakened this will in the entire people and has welded it into a single resolve. No one can remain away from the polls on the day when this will is manifested.” We all know how that ended up.

This is not to suggest that the schools’ open support for Robredo in the recent elections is remotely comparable to Heidegger’s endorsement of Hitler, but the historical example highlights the limits of human foresight and justifies why academic impartiality is to be considered a categorical imperative. Aung San Suu Kyi was once awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights but was later accused of legitimizing genocide against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. There are no certainties in the political realm and that is why for the academe, as Arendt argues, “no political commitment [is] possible.”

Academic institutions often justify their messiah complex by confusing impartiality with apathy. When I was in college, students were often mocked for being “apathetic” because of an apparent lack of passion or ethical commitment. The criticism, however, always felt forced and misguided because it discarded centrism as a valid political outlook and even subtly favored radicalism over rationality. Being impartial does not mean being apathetic. On the contrary, impartiality by the academe actually requires intense fervor to defend these three premises identified by Beard: 1.) that you should speak the factual truth — as opposed to what Arendt referred to as “rational truth” — as you see it even if the consequences will be negative; 2.) that the way to overcome dogmatism is open discussion and an impartial consideration of all perspectives; and, 3.) that academia and journalism ought to be refuges of truth against political and social power.

The most important role of colleges and universities is to promote critical thinking. Equipping students with the skills and knowledge to debate political issues in an informed way is more important than supplying ready-made conclusions. Serving a candidate’s name on a silver platter discourages the use of the students’ intellectual faculties. Unfortunately, the combination of passionate politics and cognitive narrowing has created echo chambers where Dunning-Kruger is in full effect. As Bertrand Russel once lamented, “I am afraid that education is conceived more in terms of indoctrination by most school officials than in terms of enlightenment. My own belief is that education must be subversive if it is to be meaningful. By this I mean that it must challenge all the things we take for granted, examine all accepted assumptions, tamper with every sacred cow, and instill a desire to question and doubt.”

In a democracy, there is danger in allowing academic institutions to dictate public discourse. The foundational principle of Philippine democracy is that “[s]overeignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them.” As an institution’s size and stature grows, there is a risk that it would attract both political power and financial resources, which could tip the balance of power in their favor to the detriment of individual citizens. The more imminent peril, as we have seen in the past two electoral cycles, is the vitriol and divisiveness directly caused by the unbridled partisanship of these institutions. There appears to be a direct correlation between a university’s stature and its own students’ arrogant conviction that they are “correct,” which creates an irrational feeling of superiority that ultimately manifests itself through intolerance and condescension, most visibly on social media.

Ideally, schools ought to self-regulate without need of government action; regrettably, the way they conducted themselves in the recent elections did not inspire confidence. In other democratic countries like the US and the UK, academic institutions are shielded from partisan politics because they have laws that either disincentivize or outright prohibit electioneering. In the US, schools enjoy tax-exempt status on the condition that they do not participate or intervene, directly or indirectly, in any political campaign. In the UK, almost all universities are publicly funded which means they are subject to civil service laws requiring them to maintain, and be seen to maintain, impartiality.

One way forward is to grant tax-exemption only to such educational institutions which do not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office, akin to the condition imposed by section 501(c)(3) of the US Internal Revenue Code (commonly referred to as the “Johnson Amendment,” introduced by then US Senator, later President, Lyndon B. Johnson). However, amending the National Internal Revenue Code (NIRC) would be insufficient for this purpose. For it to be uniformly applicable to all schools, a constitutional amendment would be required since the tax-exempt status of non-stock, non-profit educational institutions is granted by the organic law.

The regulation of academia’s participation in political campaigns is warranted by their special tax treatment. As former US Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist declared in Regan v. Taxation With Representation (461 U.S. 540), this is effectively a form of public subsidy inasmuch as it has “the same effect as a cash grant to the organization of the amount of tax it would have to pay on its income.” The condition attached to the subsidy merely assures that taxpayers do not end up subsidizing partisan politicking by educational institutions. This is analogous to the rationale behind the constitutional proscription on electioneering by civil servants, i.e., to avoid inappropriate use of public resources. In this case, the justification is to avoid the inappropriate use of foregone income by the government.

The Johnson Amendment garnered public attention during Donald Trump’s presidency because of the latter’s claim that it violated the covered institutions’ free speech rights. However, the criticism was more campaign rhetoric than actual legal argument. The restriction only affected their tax-exempt status and did not absolutely prohibit speech. In other words, the restriction is the cost of the public subsidy, which is a matter of privilege rather than right. Educational institutions can still endorse a candidate, but at the risk of losing its preferential tax status and nothing else.

Also note that the condition is narrowly framed and limited to political campaigning. It does not cover a school’s freedom to speak out on various social justice issues, particularly those which are central to its core values. Neither would it abridge the constitutionally guaranteed academic freedom for institutions of higher learning; it would have no effect on their ability to determine for themselves who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study. In fact, political impartiality may even be considered a pre-condition to academic freedom insofar as it ensures that minority, dissenting, or heretical views can be heard, argued against, or even satirized without fear of conformist pressures.

All of society benefits if academia is able to resist the temptation of preaching instead of teaching. Political impartiality fosters inclusivity and diversity of thought and paves the way for healthy, civilized debate within campuses — precisely how a democracy should be. Bridging the societal disconnects requires our academic institutions to first regain the trust of our pluralistic and multi-opinioned society.

Attorney Francis Paolo P. Tiopianco is currently working as a legal counsel for a multinational company. He holds a Master of Law degree from the University of Cambridge.