⛓️ Scholarly societies and political crises: the case for neutrality as academic freedom

Political statements hinder the difficult conversations central to the mission of institutions of higher learning and scholarly associations. When institutions like ECPR speak collectively on political controversies, Hana Kubátová argues, they take academic freedom away from individual scholars and their dissenting views. Now is the time for institutional neutrality


The concept of 'polycrisis' was revived by theorists Edgar Morin and Anne Brigitte Kern in their 1999 book Homeland Earth and, more recently, by economic historian Adam Tooze. If ever there was a time that gives meaning to that concept, it is today. The refugee crisis, the Brexit vote, the Covid-19 pandemic, along with a wave of major conflicts — including the Sudanese civil war, the full-scale war in Ukraine, and the terrorist attack launched by Hamas on Israel and the latter’s retaliation — are the most visible elements of this polycrisis. 2024 is not looking any brighter, and we are only halfway through.

Scholarly societies have not only been responding to these crises in practice but are increasingly challenged to take up positions on their underpinnings and consequences.

Universities and scholarly associations are increasingly challenged to take up positions on the major global crises of our time

As the largest political science association in Europe, ECPR has been very active in this regard — from finding ways to keep scholarly conversations going during the pandemic to condemning Russia’s aggression, but also, for instance, offering free membership to Ukrainian institutions and, more recently, launching a new webinar series on the Middle East. This series, in fact, is a response to a growing debate on how scholarly societies should respond to political crises.

ECPR’s decision not to release a statement on Gaza

One of the key agenda items of the final meeting of ECPR's outgoing Executive Committee (EC) in April of this year was to consider a petition from Catherine Moury and Adam Standring, signed by 450 political scientists, calling on ECPR to 'release a statement condemning Israel’s killings of civilians in Palestine'.

The EC ultimately declined to release one. It did, however, pledge to explore practical measures to support affected scholars.

Our decision stirred some controversy. In his recent Loop blog post, for instance, Vladimir Bortun judged that decision 'misguided', and offered five counterarguments to our public reasoning. Vladimir noted that ECPR had taken stands on earlier political crises, and suggested a statement would 'empower some of those who are now staying silent' as a result of the global crackdown on academic freedom. Making a statement, he argued, would align with ECPR’s core mission as a political science association. He felt that ECPR's decision to remain silent calls for a debate on the very purpose of political science as a discipline.

I argue that universities and membership bodies should champion institutional neutrality

Here, I offer my personal take on why universities and membership bodies should take at least a restrained stance when it comes to political statements, and why organisations such as ECPR should champion institutional neutrality.

Three arguments for academic freedom

My argument against scholarly societies taking a political stance is based on three key questions: Who speaks? When does one speak? What does one say?

Who should speak?

Whether or not institutions take a stance on societal and political controversies, writes political scholar Keith E. Whittington, they first need to decide who makes the decision. Is it the body itself (and, if so, does it take a stance at the level of executive or self-governing bodies, for instance)? Or should its individual members make the decision? Who is more equipped to take a position on past, current, and future crises: collective bodies or the individual scholars who study those crises?

Institutional neutrality protects the independence of scholars to take positions free from political pressure and censorship, whether from political parties, public officials, or rectors, deans, and donors. This neutrality ensures that scholars, who are the true experts, can voice their (conflicting) opinions without institutional bias or external influence.

In this sense, institutional neutrality does not mean silence. Quite the reverse: institutional neutrality means academic neutrality; the right, and even obligation, to question what we know. The 1967 Kalven Report became the foundation for the University of Chicago’s policy of neutrality. As the report put it:

The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars

kalven report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action

When does one speak?

Taking a political stance on one issue and not another invites a charge of double standards. Because, when does one speak? A week after the 7 October attack on Israel, member affiliates called on ECPR's Executive Committee to issue a statement condemning the Hamas atrocities. The EC declined, but the question remains as pressing now as then. Institutional neutrality, then, not only cherishes the expertise of its members, but also protects the institution from double standards.

What does one say?

Political statements made by scholarly societies go against the scrutiny and inquiry they claim to celebrate. What do political statements say? Typically worded in a paragraph or two, they make a point about a specific event from a particular perspective. Such statements risk provoking political battles, and even influencing who gets hired. Institutional statements also require all members of that institution to have an opinion on every single issue, rather than admitting that, on many occasions, we do not know. Because again, knowledge comes from the individual, not the institution.

Difficult conversations

Vladimir Bortun suggests that ECPR's mission has a normative dimension. He argues that now is not the time to abandon this principle. I believe the core mission of scholarly societies is to facilitate difficult conversations. Institutional statements on political crises stifle these crucial dialogues, within and outside the scholarly community.

If there is meaning to political science associations, it is to understand that the threat to academic freedom comes when political bodies –– and institutions are always political bodies –– tell us what to think.

⛓️ No.8 in a Loop series examining constraints on academic freedom in a variety of global contexts

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Hana Kubátová
Hana Kubátová
Assistant Professor, Charles University, Prague

Hana is a political scholar and historian specialising in political violence, majority-minority relations, and genocides.

She is currently researching how historical narratives underpin domestic and foreign political decisions across eastern and western Europe.

Hana is a former member of the ECPR Executive Committee, and co-editor, with Daniela Irrera, of The Loop’s ⛓ Constraints on Academic Freedom blog series.

Her book Christian Nationalism, Nation-Building, and the Making of the Holocaust in Slovakia is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.




Read more articles by this author

Share Article

Republish Article

We believe in the free flow of information Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Loop

Cutting-edge analysis showcasing the work of the political science discipline at its best.
Read more
Advancing Political Science
© 2024 European Consortium for Political Research. The ECPR is a charitable incorporated organisation (CIO) number 1167403 ECPR, Harbour House, 6-8 Hythe Quay, Colchester, CO2 8JF, United Kingdom.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram