Statement from Robert P. George on Institutional Neutrality

August 15, 2022

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022), which overruled Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), is one of the most consequential decisions ever handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States. It is also among the most controversial.

Roe had established, and Casey had confirmed, a constitutional right of women to elective abortion through at least the first six months of pregnancy and gestation. Even some who believed that these decisions were incorrect when made held that they should nevertheless be maintained as a matter of precedent (what lawyers call stare decisis). Others, of course, believed that these decisions were not only wrong, but egregiously wrong, and indeed wrong in no small part because they represented the unconstitutional usurpation of democratic legislative authority by unelected and electorally unaccountable judges.

Some have asked what the position of the James Madison Program is on these matters—and on the underlying moral question of abortion.

It had been my understanding that units of Princeton University were not permitted to adopt official positions on matters of ethics, public policy, constitutional law, and the like. So, although I have in various forums both on and off campus freely expressed my own opinions on such matters, the Madison Program has refrained from taking positions on them and I have been careful never to associate the Madison Program with my personal beliefs. Others connected with the Madison Program have done likewise.

It has, however, been brought to my attention that some units of the University have, in the wake of the Dobbs decision, adopted and proclaimed on their websites official positions on the constitutional law, public policy, and morality of abortion. If in fact, as I had supposed, the University is committed to a policy of institutional neutrality on such questions, then these units are in violation of that policy. But perhaps I have been mistaken about whether that is indeed the University’s policy. I have therefore entered into conversations with appropriate University officials to have the matter clarified.

The question is whether those of us who lead University units may associate those units with, or commit those units to, particular positions on the vast range of moral, political, constitutional, religious, and other issues in dispute among reasonable people of goodwill on our campus and across our country.

I have made clear that my own preference would be for the University and its units to respect institutional neutrality. I think that such a policy best serves the mission of universities such as ours by fostering for our students as well as our faculty the conditions of robust, civil debate. Where institutional neutrality is respected, no one is a heretic for deviating from an official party line. What the university and its units provide is a forum for the presentation of reasons, evidence, and arguments by people representing different views—a forum in which there is a genuine engagement among equals with no institutional thumb placed on the scales.

To my mind, the best policy is the one set forth in the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report, which was issued in 1967 and whose principles have guided that distinguished institution ever since: As it happens, and entirely independently of recent developments such as the Dobbs decision, the Madison Program’s Initiative on Freedom of Thought, Inquiry, and Expression, under the co-directorship of Professors Keith Whittington and Bernard Haykel, is planning a day-long conference on the Kalven Report this Fall.

The alternative, of course, is to allow leaders of units of the University to associate their units with particular positions on disputed questions. If, contrary to what I believed to be the case, that is or becomes Princeton University’s policy, then it seems to me that the key thing is to ensure that it is administered in an evenhanded and content-neutral way. I would, for example, consider posting on behalf of the Madison Program a statement very different from the statements posted by other units. So, in effect, the debate would not be simply at the level of individual faculty and students but would be at the level of programs, departments, and offices of the University. There would still be pluralism (though on some issues perhaps only because the Madison Program is here) but it would be pluralism at that level. To me, as I’ve noted, this is by far the less preferable policy, but if it is indeed our policy, or becomes our policy, we will, of course, respect and work with it (at least until it is changed).


Robert P. George



Robert P. George