You Kant Tell Me What To Do: The Rights and Obligations of Campus Protests


Marianne Cowherd

As midnight approached on March 24, 1965, hundreds of people, mostly university students, filed calmly from a heated auditorium out into the frigid Michigan winter as police streamed inside to check the building for explosives. Their gathering, part of the first ever teach-in, was a 12-hour, coffee-fueled, overnight protest of American actions in the Vietnam War. Over three thousand attendants gathered between 8 p.m. March 24 and 8 a.m. March 25 at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus for a program of lectures, debates, seminars, planning sessions, and rallies. The students, faculty, and members of the general public endured pro-war hecklers, sleep deprivation, and three bomb threats in what would be the first of many such events on campuses across the country (photo).

1965_vietnam_teach_in_1Protesters gathered overnight on the Michigan Diag | photo courtesy of Doug Fulton


This was a second-choice plan, moved to after school hours from the original faculty proposition of a day-long work moratorium in the face of overwhelming disapproval from administrators, the media, and state legislators. The overnight plan garnished widespread support, including logistical aid from the administration and positive press. The public response to the proposals, which were identical in content and differed only in timing, fits a pattern of interpretation defined by eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. However, the objection is a misinterpretation of the role of a professor. Faculty, student, and administrative involvement in protests of threats to student safety, including those that disrupt normal academic procedures, is consistent with Kantian ideas because the function of a university is to protect students’ futures.

Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” addresses the place of free discourse in the public and private spheres. Kant holds that while public expression must always be free, there is a place for narrow restriction in the private sphere:

The public use of one’s reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind. On the other hand, the private use of reason may frequently be narrowly restricted without especially hindering the progress of enlightenment… In some affairs affecting the interest of the community a certain mechanism is necessary in which some members of the community remain passive. This creates an artificial unanimity which will serve the fulfillment of public objectives, or at least keep these objectives from being destroyed.

Kant defines the private sphere as professional life in which one fulfills a civic duty. A priest, for example, is in his private sphere when in the church and in that space it is not appropriate for him to criticize the foundations of religion. Once he has removed his robes, he is in his public sphere and is free to express whatever opinions he may hold. At Michigan in 1965, to cancel classes in favor of a teach-in was seen as using the private sphere as a place for public sphere-appropriate activism. It was acceptable for faculty to protest only after-hours because it was during their public lives; to interrupt classes would be to violate the boundaries of their private role.

However, when examining an apparent conflict between the spheres, it is important to properly define the specific private role. The Stanford University Founding Grant, written by Leland and Jane Stanford to birth the university in 1885 lays out both the logistical details of managing the institution as well as the fundamental principles of the school. The object of the University, they write, is “to qualify its students for personal success, and direct usefulness in life; And its purposes, to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization, teaching the blessings of liberty regulated by law, and inculcating love and reverence for the great principles of government as derived from the inalienable rights of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” While this may seem as self-evident as the principles are held to be, it is in fact quite radical. The idea of teaching does not appear until a later section of the grant, in the context of explaining the roles of trustees, where the Stanfords asked for high-quality teaching and strong academic programs. The fundamental purpose, however, of the University is to prepare students to have successful futures and to be good citizens. Faculty are therefore bound to hold the mission of preparing students for a successful and civic future as an utmost priority. They teach out of a genuine belief that a formal education will be the foundation for a meaningful and productive life after college but this is a practical interpretation of what remains an abstract object; the means by which the mission is to be obtained is vague in the grant. In the face of urgent issues that threaten the security of that goal for their students, to disrupt regularly-scheduled classes in favor of a demonstration such as a teach-in is the highest form of conformation to their Kantian private sphere roles because it focuses on the mandate of the university.

Student protests of Vietnam War-related issues became an overwhelming issue on the Stanford campus in 1970, after years of simmering discontent and mild activism. Following the invasion of Cambodia, student opposition to what they saw as University complicity in a war they rejected through classified DOD-funded research and support of the ROTC program, reached a boiling point. Some students staged peaceful sit-ins, distributed flyers, and wrote charged op-eds; some threw Molotov cocktails at the building housing the conservative campus newspaper. At one protest, nonviolent students occupying the Old Union building voted to leave if a violent showdown seemed imminent. Administrators called police, who then raided the building without warning, giving protesters no chance to evacuate and escalating a peaceful protest into an arrest-filled riot. Opinion across campus varied from full support of US war efforts to calls for on-campus violent action. From the student body and from many faculty groups, however, support for non-violent off-ROTC and anti-classified research activism emerged as a majority opinion.

“Stanford and the Nuremberg Principles,” a report by 14 faculty members, applies the internationally-recognized concepts of personal responsibility for wartime atrocities to actions of Stanford. The university, it argues, is complicit through its continued allowance of ROTC, support of classified DOD-funded research, conformity-based faculty salaries, and direct benefit from war investments. These arguments are based on internationally-accepted definitions of crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity as well as the standard that  “As faculty members at Stanford we feels we have a duty to protect the traditions of freedom in the academic community, to encourage study, research and the interchange of ideas, and to promote the dedication of the university to peaceful pursuits which will improve the quality of life for all peoples on this planet.” Through a practical evaluation of Stanford activity, they came to the conclusion that Stanford’s continuing support of the ROTC program through offering credit for military classes created a pipeline for war criminals. This, it was argued, ran contrary to the school’s mission of creating a successful future for its students and was also a form of complicity in such crimes, especially the murder of Vietnamese citizens. Eventually, ROTC credit was discontinued but it took overwhelming faculty support through votes and individual department statements as well as student protests, some of which were violent and involved physical conflict between ROTC and non-ROTC students during classes. Throughout the process, faculty were outspoken through all-faculty votes and referenda as well as in departmental statements of support. Some departments stopped teaching regular classes in favor of war-related lectures and discussions; some faculty joined in protests (photo).

bruce.JPGStanford Associate Professor of English, H. Bruce Franklin, who was later fired for provocative rhetoric as well as for preventing the speech of the former Ambassador to South Vietnam (then Ambassador-at-large), argues with police. | photo courtesy of Jose Mercado


In keeping their objections to the Stanford support of students committing war crimes (as opposed to being blanket anti-war), the faculty remained within their private functions as promoters of student productivity.

The ROTC process happened concurrently with a discussion of the place of the large volume of DOD-funded, classified research being undertaken by Stanford faculty, most prevalently in the school of engineering. In the article “Comments about engineers for engineers by an engineer,” Stephen Glantz, then a graduate student in mechanical engineering, discusses the relationship between the engineering school and the Vietnam War. Students who support the research on the grounds that the issue of social good in engineering research is an irrelevant topic, he says, are “suppressing an issue to avoid squarely facing some very disconcerting alternatives and realities.” The unwillingness to take responsibility for the apparent and immediate military relevancy of one’s research is an “abuse of rationality.”The argument that professors may research just for the beauty of the work, as research is their private function, and that any other uses of their results is not their business, ignores the fact that in the cases of DOD grants, “the source of funding has affected the kinds of questions that have been studied here. While it is impossible to foresee all applications of a given research, we are developing the kind of technology that the military needs, as opposed to the kind of technologies most of society needs.” As academics it is within the private sphere roles of professors to accept DOD grants for classified research that directly contributed to the war effort. However it violates their duty to protect students’ futures. It is also contrary to the private role of the university as a politically neutral, humanity-positive institution to support work that has as its only primary function to facilitate atrocities.

This ideal has been upheld in years since, outlasting administrations and providing a continuous guiding principle through Stanford’s 125-year history. In Gerhard Casper’s 1992 convocation speech, his first as president of the University, he addressed exactly this issue, saying “members of a university community must not shy away from the social and political issues of their time, from shaping the social and political values of society, from engaging in public service. Public service is their freedom, indeed their obligation.” The recognition of public service as a fundamental mandate of the faculty position is especially relevant in the context of the climate change conversations currently underway at Stanford. After an initial request from student group Fossil Free Stanford (FFS) to divest from a list of 200 publicly-traded fossil fuel companies, the Stanford Board of Trustees in May 2014 voted to divest from coal but to remain invested in other fossil fuels such as oil and gas. FFS continues to demand an exit from fossil fuels and is supported by the undergraduate and graduate student governments as well as 379 faculty members who have signed an open letter calling for immediate and urgent action. The letter  details the fundamental hypocrisy of Stanford’s continued fossil fuel investment:

The urgency and magnitude of climate change call not for partial solutions, however admirable; they demand the more profound and thorough commitment embodied in divestment from all fossil-fuel companies. The alternative—for Stanford to remain invested in oil and gas companies—presents us with a paradox: If a university seeks to educate extraordinary youth so they may achieve the brightest possible future, what does it mean for that university simultaneously to invest in the destruction of that future?

The instructions for management of the Stanford endowment specify that while social issues may certainly be considered, they are by no means to outweigh the financial implications of a decision. It is on that basis that the initial divestment demand was approved only for coal and not for other fossil fuels. Thus a purely social good argument for or against divestment, while morally respectable, holds little sway. It is, however, legitimate to hold that investment in fossil fuels directly violates the private role of the university.

Fossil fuel issues are not political; they are in the realm of social good and protection of students, the local community, and every inhabitant of earth. It is therefore entirely appropriate for professors to use their private sphere influences to speak up on the issue. During the five-day sit-in held outside the Stanford president’s office in November of 2015 (photo), numerous faculty members held teach-ins and some relocated their regularly-scheduled classes to the quad in support of the protesters.

01a35a6bcb0c9e5fce2172c96e2ece4dbaf7a2d8edStudents camp outside the President’s office in November 2015. The sit-in lasted five days and included numerous lectures and sit-ins, such as “Radical Democracy and the Power of the People,” center. | photo courtesy the author

In non-disruptive teach-in situations, professors acted as knowledgeable, concerned members of the public. Their faculty association is relevant but their presence did not alter standard classroom activity. While the support of divestment as a necessary step to fight climate change is more politically-charged than the urgency of climate change, the sit-in that professors supported in their private spheres, had as its primary objective to demand administrative action on climate change. To relocate classes in support of the movement is therefore a private-sphere movement which was, in this case Kant-conformative in that it supported a cause directly relevant to student safety. It is not Kantian for faculty to preach personal beliefs in the classroom; to do so would be to conflate their private and public lives. However, faculty may have opinions and their role is not specific to classroom teaching. While faculty are hired to teach students and primarily do so in that way, it is valid under the Stanford founding grant to assert that a replacing scheduled classes with urgent, student safety-directed protests is a fulfillment of private roles.

The university entity must protect this freedom at all costs and therefore itself does not have the same liberty. In 1967 at the University of Chicago, a group of faculty under the leadership of Henry Kalven met to consider the role of the university as Vietnam War protests became an increasingly prominent campus issue. Their report, which they sent to the president and published, discussed how the school must avoid stifling the freedom of its members:

The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge… 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… And this neutrality as an institution has its complement in the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest.

This conclusion is widely relevant and can be applied to a wide variety of foundational principles. A university must remain neutral on social issues in order to uphold the freedom of dissent that defines it as an enlightened institution. In the cases of campus protests, however, it is overwhelmingly the case that neutrality on social issues is not a relevant argument. Vietnam War protesters were not demanding that the university come out strongly against the war, only that it cease practices that supported practices that actively oppressed student freedom. Climate change is not a social issue; it is an objective fact. The demand to divest is a plea for the university to stop practices that actively threaten the safety of its students and that function is included in the private spheres of faculty members.

The primary duty of the faculty is to students. This is not a neutral stance. While the university at an administrative level must preserve neutrality, it is that upper-level apolitical structure that allows for the unrestricted expression and action of faculty as they carry out their service to students. This is not to say that personal political beliefs have a place in the classroom; the Founding Grant explicitly prohibits sectarian teaching, which is a ban that applies to religion and politics. However, the private commitment to student success includes protest and taking a stand on non-sectarian issues that have direct applications in the protection and encouragement of students’ success. The Vietnam War and climate change fit that definition. Therefore, outspoken active protest of the Vietnam War and climate change are essential aspects of the private role of university faculty members. Faculty, student, and administrative involvement in active protests, including those that disrupt normal academic procedures, are consistent with Kantian ideas because the function of a university is to make students as successful as possible. That includes teaching them to be active, involved citizens and it also involves taking direct action to fight for the security of its students’ futures.


Works Cited

  1. Casper, Gerhard. “Inaugural Address.” Stanford University Convocation. Stanford, California. 2 Oct. 1992. Web. 20 Sept. 2015.
  2. Glantz, Stephen A. “Comments about engineers for engineers by an engineer.” The Grindstone Volume I No. 1. 30 November 1970. Box 1 Folder 2. Stanford University Radical Movement  Collection. SC112. Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.
  3. Kant, Immanuel. An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment. Trans. James Schmidt. Berkeley: U of California, 1996. Print.
  4. Kalven, Henry, Jr., John Hope Franklin, Gwin J. Kolb, George Stigler, Jacob Getzels, Julian Goldsmith, and Gilbert F. White. Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action. Rep. Record, Vol I, No. 1. 11 November 1967.
  5. Stanford, Leland and Jane Lathrop Stanford. “The Founding Grant.” 11 November 1885. Stanford University: The Founding Grant with Amendments, Legislation, and Court Degrees. 1987. Stanford University.
  6. “Stanford and the Nuremberg Principles; Aspects of Complicity of Stanford University in the War.” Box 1 Folder 1. Stanford University Radical Movement Collection. SC112. Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.
  7. 379 Stanford Faculty Signees. “Faculty Letter in Support of Fossil Fuel Divestment.” Letter to President Hennessy and the Stanford Board of Trustees. 11 Jan. 2015. Stanford Faculty Divest. Stanford Faculty For Fossil Fuel Divestment. Web.