When the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, the University of California’s president denounced the decision as “antithetical” to UC’s values. Vanderbilt University’s new chancellor took a different approach. Daniel Diermeier, who was appointed in 2020, reaffirmed Vanderbilt’s commitment to “principled neutrality,” in which the college and its leadership refrain from taking positions on controversial issues that don’t directly relate to the function of the university.
Principled neutrality isn’t enough to prepare students to be good and thoughtful citizens. Too many are “taking cues from the polarized culture around them,” Mr. Diermeier says—they’re declaring that those with opposing views aren’t merely incorrect but immoral. Such “moral tribalism” and a culture of condemnation has severely impeded the free exchange of ideas that is higher education’s lifeblood.
Colleges today, Mr. Diermeier believes, must teach students how to debate constructively and “avoid the us-vs.-them dynamic that can lead to a breakdown in discourse.”
To address that problem at Vanderbilt, former Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, historian Jon Meacham and faculty member Samar Ali lead students in the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and Democracy—a new program based in the College of Arts and Science that promotes research and discussion on evidence-based solutions to mediate differences