Talking leadership: Daniel Diermeier on institutional neutrality

Vanderbilt chancellor reflects on traversing the increasingly polarised US political landscape and on disagreeing with staff and students pressing for the university to take sides

September 25, 2023
Daniel Diermeier on institutional neutrality

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It is not the first time that Vanderbilt University’s chancellor has found himself in a politically polarised place. But unlike his peers, Daniel Diermeier seems to be more careful about the stances he takes as a university leader.

In a divided US, his philosophy of “institutional neutrality” flies in the face of calls for academic leaders to adopt a strong position on everything from gendered bathrooms to race-based admissions. Yet Diermeier insists that universities “should not come down with a party line”.

Having grown up next door to the failed totalitarian German Democratic Republic, informally known as East Germany, he holds firmly to his views, which were shaped in his student days.

A first-generation high schooler turned first-generation university student in West Germany, the young Diermeier moved to the US on a graduate fellowship to study philosophy. But he soon discovered that academic philosophy was “super-narrow and very deep”. Disillusioned, he returned home, his studies unfinished. Already, he had a simmering interest in politics and economics. Then, in November 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, and Diermeier witnessed at first-hand the power of free thinking – and that spark inspired his career trajectory.

“That really created, I think, a strong experience, that political institutions really matter,” he says of the event and its effect on him. “The same people that were suffering under the eastern regime, once they were put in a different context, were really liberated. And you could see…just a joy.”

Convinced of the power of politics, Diermeier switched his field of study to political science. Not long after, he returned to the US to pursue a PhD. In the years since, he has taught at several top US institutions, with his administrative career spent mostly at the University of Chicago and Vanderbilt.

While he is a renowned political scientist and management scholar, Diermeier’s leadership style seems to be firmly founded in his “first love, so to speak”, philosophy, which he admires for its “fearlessness to tackle big questions”. Universities, in his view, are “delicate things” with “big, important questions to get right”.

To function most effectively, universities should adhere to “principled neutrality” and refrain from taking stances on political issues, he believes. While his experience of growing up in a divided Germany paved the way for this belief, the idea also has a more formal provenance in the University of Chicago’s long-established “Chicago Principles”.

As described by a 2014 committee at the institution that reviewed its policy on freedom of expression: “The University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.”

At Vanderbilt, a research university that has a liberal arts college and a strong biomedical research reputation as well as a distinctly different feel from the Chicago-based institution, Diermeier has promoted the adoption of this principle.

He explains: “The Chicago Principles work really, really well to protect students and faculty from interference from the administration. That’s really fundamentally what they’re about.”

But it’s clear that with rising polarisation in the US, Vanderbilt has changed in recent years. Conflict is no longer limited to disagreements between academics and the administration – now, disputes increasingly break out between students and among groups of faculty.

Broader US politics have proven divisive. In the past year, for example, Diermeier observed some faculty express relief at the end of RoeWade – the 1973 Supreme Court case that recognised a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, which was recently overturned in favour of leaving the decision to individual states. Others have been devastated.

In this context, having an institutional stance on political issues “immediately reduces” the willingness of students and scholars to speak up, Diermeier believes. Civil discourse, he says, is important to keep dissenting students from feeling silenced.

“That is not captured by the principles that the University of Chicago has espoused. So that is something that we have been very adamant on.”

As chancellor, Diermeier sees himself as one-third an academic leader who cares deeply about the academy, one-third a CEO managing a $1.5 billion (£1.2 billion) budget, and one-third the “mayor of a small village with young people”.

He has been vocal about his stance – a decision that has drawn criticism. In January 2022, a student advocacy climate group called Dores Divest filed a complaint requesting an investigation into Diermeier’s alleged conflict of interest in advising businesses in the fossil fuel industry.

“Despite claiming a stance of ‘principled neutrality’, Diermeier has concealed external consulting work for the fossil fuel industry while simultaneously arguing against fossil fuel divestment to the Vanderbilt community,” the student group said. An investigation that concluded in February found that there had been no conflict of interest.

The student group also questioned the institution’s 2021 financial report, which declared 4 per cent of its endowment allocation in natural resources as part of “oil and gas production”. At the time, Diermeier told the student newspaper, The Vanderbilt Hustler, that the university’s endowment was “not an advocacy tool” and that it would continue holding money in fossil fuels, in part to ensure that it was “maximizing the returns” on its investments.

Later, in May 2022, Diermeier wrote an article for Inside HE about the convictions of principled neutrality at Vanderbilt. A year later, a faculty member criticised the position. Arguing that the city of Nashville and the state of Tennessee had become “demonstrably less free” as a result of changes in local and state laws, the academic criticised the university for remaining “publicly silent”.

But Diermeier appears undeterred by the criticism. “It’s our responsibility to be firm” about freedom, he says. “If there’s pushback, that’s OK.”

But even for Diermeier, his philosophy clearly has some limits. Despite being a strong proponent of the idea that institutions should not adopt political stances, Diermeier admits he can often be found in Washington DC lobbying – in his case, for more research funding. During the pandemic, the leader even issued a statement saying that he “strongly opposed” a policy by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency requiring international students in the US to leave the country if their course was fully online.

Most recently, the US Supreme Court’s decision to ban affirmative action in the admission process struck a chord. Diermeier says the ruling makes it challenging for universities to create a diverse community going forward.

“We’re firmly committed that having different perspectives and different experiences and different backgrounds on campus benefits every student. It is not a good education if everybody looks and thinks the same, he says, adding that admissions is about more than “just picking people from a list”.

“When you do admissions, you’re creating a student community. That will become much more difficult,” he notes.

In that case, where does he draw the line on his philosophy? According to Diermeier, principled neutrality applies only to issues “that do not affect the university directly”.

Admissions, which is a “core function” of the university, is fair game for him. Abortion, however – another strongly polarising topic in the US, which the Supreme Court ruled on in 2022 – is not. He feels there’s a key difference.

“It affects the members of my community, but not more than other members of the community. We will not comment. That’s the principle.”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

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