IU, Purdue, and Gay Marriage

by Benjamin Studebaker

There’s an interesting hot-button case going on in my home state of Indiana. The state government’s legislative and executive branches are both controlled by the Republican Party, and this has enabled them to attempt to pass an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage. Indiana already doesn’t allow gay marriage, but by putting it in the constitution, the republicans aim to make it more difficult for a court to reverse that position. The amendment also prevents the state government from recognizing civil unions, partnerships, or other “substantially similar” institutions. Indiana has two big, well-known universities, Indiana University (IU) and Purdue University. IU has chosen to formally announce its opposition to the amendment while Purdue has chosen to remain silent. What are the implications of public institutions taking stands on political issues? Which university acted rightly? These are the questions I’m pursuing today.

Back in February, I wrote a piece about organizations that take political positions that are outside the scope of shared member interests. I gave the hypothetical example of a trucking union that decides to begin campaigning for conservative Christian policies. While it’s perfectly normal for a trucking union to campaign for better working conditions for truck drivers, the trucking union goes outside its mandate when it campaigns for political causes that have nothing to do with the trucking interests that the union exists to serve.

Whenever we have a group or an institution of any kind, it exists to defend the shared interests of some specific subgroup. In the case of the trucking union, the union exists to defend the shared interests that truck drivers have because they are truck drivers. While many truck drivers may be Christian, being Christian does not in and of itself have anything to do with being a truck driver. One does not gain an interest in Christian policies when one becomes a truck driver, so a trucking union that pursues those ends is acting outside its mandated, misusing the funds its members supply and alienating those members with alternative positions.

So when we look at the case of these Indiana universities, it is important to ask what shared interests these institutions exist to serve? It should be noted that universities as a whole are not analogous to student unions or the American Association of University Professors. While they have a stake in defending their students and professors, because these universities are public institutions, they also have a larger responsibility to the citizens of Indiana as a whole. Indeed, these universities defend student and professor interests only as a function of fulfilling this larger role. The government has tasked IU and Purdue with advancing student and professor interests in order to achieve wider social goals. It is for those wider social goals, not for the students and teachers in and of themselves, that public universities operate. What are these goals? There are some number of them–here are the most prominent:

  • Improve the quality of Indiana’s workforce so as to improve its economic performance.
  • Produce valuable research that leads to improvements in the quality of life of citizens.
  • Provide structure to 18-22 year olds to ensure their positive socialization and prevent them from becoming radicalized in ways that might threaten the existing social order.

These universities, in pursuit of these goals, acquire many other smaller goals–acquire and retain good professors, remain popular places for high school graduates to enroll, and so on.  In each of these instances, public universities are acting based on the social interest. They exist to do what is best for all Indiana citizens, to fulfill the role assigned to them by the state government.

In order for IU to legitimately oppose the constitutional amendment against gay marriage, IU needs a theory of how this constitutional amendment contradicts its own mandate, how it is inhibited from doing its assigned task. The reasons it gives must be reasons that any Indiana citizen, regardless of his view on gay marriage, would be forced to acknowledge as valid for an institution in IU’s position to have. Does IU have such a theory? It so happens that IU’s President, Michael McRobbie, gave reasons for the university’s decision. He said the following:

HJR6 sends a powerfully negative message of Indiana as a place to live and work that is not welcoming to people of all backgrounds and beliefs…

We are proud to join the Freedom Indiana coalition and, in doing so, stand with some of Indiana’s most respected employers and organizations on the side of fairness…

The University looks forward to lending a strong voice in the effort to ensure that the state’s Constitution is not altered to codify an intolerance that is not representative of the best of Hoosier values…

This gives us three different reasons:

  1. The amendment discourages LGBT people from living in Indiana, harming its economy, something IU exists to advance.
  2. The amendment harms LGBT IU professors and inhibits IU from being able to convince future LGBT professors to come to IU, harming its ability to educate students well and to conduct worthwhile research.
  3. The amendment is intolerant and consequently not representative of “Hoosier values”.

#1 and #2 seem fairly indisputable. Even if one was a deeply conservative Christian who was theologically opposed to gay marriage, one would have to concede that the amendment discourages LGBT people to live and work in Indiana. Indeed, discouraging these people from living and working in Indiana is probably one’s intent in supporting the amendment. One could readily accept that the amendment would be inhibiting to the economy while simultaneously supporting it on moral grounds. From even an anti-gay point of view, IU’s position in light of #1 and #2 would be understandable, if ultimately not agreeable.

However, #3 doesn’t fit this mold. The idea that Hoosier values include or ought to include a principle of liberal toleration that protects LGBT people is the very idea presently being debated.  Those who oppose this idea generally believe that Hoosier values are Christian moral values, and that these Christian moral values, while compatible with a principle of toleration in many other areas, are incompatible with tolerating or appearing in any way to endorse LGBT marriages. IU is an institution that these individuals fund, attend, and otherwise contribute to. For its president to make statements about the nature of “Hoosier values” that exclude their views is for it to openly oppose the interests of its own benefactors.

IU is justified in opposing the amendment for the first two reasons, but not for the third. IU has a mandate to advance the economic, academic, and sociological interests of the people of Indiana, but it does not have a mandate to defend any specific moral philosophy or political ideology. It is just as illegitimate for IU to claim that banning gay marriage is against “Hoosier values” as it would be for it to declare the state’s values to be Marxist, fascist, or anything else. One of the most important functions of the state government is that it aspires to be ideologically neutral. In theory (though not in practice), Marxists could win elections in Indiana and make Marxist laws just as easily as could conservative Christians, liberal humanists, fascists, or any other group. What separates the United States from countries like the Soviet Union is that the USSR was formally institutionally committed to communism. In order to participate in Soviet politics, one had to be a communist, and the civil service and the various state institutions were expected to endorse and defend the communist ideology. The civil service and the state institutions in liberal democracies are committed to political neutrality except in cases in which their own mandates are at stake. IU can and should defend its ability to pursue its assigned objectives, but it should not align itself with specific ideological movements, even ones that we think are fine and dandy.

So it’s legitimate for IU to oppose the amendment, albeit not for all of the reasons that IU has provided. What about Purdue? Is it wrong for Purdue to decline to take action on the grounds that it is ignoring its own mandate to advance Indiana’s economic position and secure for itself the very best professors it can lay its hands on? This is certainly a legitimate criticism. However, it’s not the criticism Purdue tends to receive. Instead, Purdue is being attacked for failing to take a moral stand on behalf of LGBT people. The critics of Purdue are overwhelmingly invoking reason #3, a reason which is outside Purdue’s mandate as a state institution. There are good, institutionally-relevant reasons for Purdue to consider opposing the amendment, but these are not the reasons most critics are invoking.

Here we’re exposing a fascinating tension between two very different liberal principles:

  1. The state structure itself should be neutral.
  2. The state should be politically liberal; it should be committed to freedom and equality.

On the one hand, we don’t want our government or the institutions funded by it to endorse any specific political ideology. We want a free public deliberation, in which no idea or set of ideas comes with the state’s blessing or with the state’s scolding. On the other hand, we don’t like ideas that are themselves intolerant or exclusionary, which the amendment in question certainly is. Given the domination Indiana republicans have in the government, it is not likely that liberal ideas are going to prevail in our free public deliberation. This causes otherwise liberal individuals to pursue the implementation of their liberal ideas by illiberal means, looking for allies wherever they can be found whether part of the state structure or not. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it must be conceded that this undermines the neutrality of our state institutions and makes us more like the Soviet Union. In a quite dystopian case, we can imagine a very powerful state institution–the military–taking a formal religious, philosophical, or other ideological position. In such a case, legislators might feel coerced into voting differently due to the perceived threat of a military coup. Since we abandoned the draft, the military has become steadily more ideological–the people who tend to join it tend to be right-wing and they tend to be Christian. By legitimizing the politicization of state institutions on behalf of our causes beyond the scope of their mandates, we open something of a Pandora’s box. In the long-run, such an opening may pose a threat to our political system as presently constituted. This might not necessarily be a bad thing, if you think the political system runs poorly, but whether a good alternative can be generated by a mechanism such as this is questionable, to say the least.