Why I admired the Queen

A beautiful rainbow over Buckingham Palace followed the Queen’s death on September 8, 2022.

Imagine life without expressing your views. Your country joins the EU. Your country exits the EU. Your children severely, potentially criminally, misbehave and do so publicly. You meet myriad governmental heads, some of whom intrigue you, others who leave you indifferent, and inevitably some who you abhor. And now imagine that you say and show nothing of your feelings. Even when your beloved spouse of more than seventy years dies, you curtail your emotion. Queen Elizabeth II lived this life.

Since 1689, Parliament rather than the English monarch has been sovereign, the seat of governmental power in the British Isles. The monarchy has persisted with the queen or king of the day serving as the head of state. Queen Elizabeth II steadfastly held to the letter as well of the spirit of this split. She recognized that policy was not her purview. She showed incredible discipline from a young age to maintain herself as a public figure absent of opinions on the questions of the day.

I marvel at how the Queen stayed out of politics despite being one of the most well-informed individuals in the world’s goings-on. I watched in wonder throughout the prolonged Brexit as the Queen never broke out of the role she viewed and accepted as hers. She never dropped a hint as to how she felt, what she believed was the best course of action for the country.

I happened to be at one of the biggest Brexit demonstrations held in London in March 2019. There were a lot of people there which made me all the more amazed by the Queen’s deliberate and conscientious neutrality on this dominating issue.

When I heard of the Queen’s death, I thought with great admiration of her discipline in the context of The University of Chicago’s Kalven report. The Kalven report, published in the unrest of the late 1960s, dictates that the University take no political stance. It is worth reading in its [short] entirety; I am challenged to choose a short excerpt but here goes:

“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. … To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.” – The Kalven report

The Queen recognized herself as institutional, akin to a university; and always acted in complete accord with Kalven principles. She did not see herself as a unit of dissent or of free expression. She recognized that the Parliament and the people trumped her in this regard. Her abstention from politics was the ultimate act of respect for her country.

Refraining from personal opining encourages discourse and free expression of the full diversity of opinion. Rather than promoting one version of public good, institutional neutrality promotes the most vigorous discussion of what constitutes the public good:

“The neutrality of the university … arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints. 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. It finds its complement, too, in the obligation of the university to provide a forum for the most searching and candid discussion of public issues.” – The Kalven report

Full discourse, in turn, works to everyone’s advantage as it hones arguments, as so beautifully articulated by the great John Stuart Mill:

“”…the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race … – those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.” – John Stuart Mil, On Liberty

We can all take a cue from London’s advice to foreign tourists with respect to opinions. Listen to the left and listen to the right. As JSM said, even if you don’t change your mind, you’ll hone your argument.

King Charles III promises to pursue a different path than his mother did. We are already hearing that he intends to continue to champion his preferred causes. While my personal views appear to align with his broadly stated goals, I rue this change. First, expressing personal and political views as the King is not respectful of the Parliament and constitutional rule of law. Second, to use a cliché: the Devil is in the details. What King Charles III believes advances his goal of combatting climate change, for example, surely differs from others’ beliefs, most notably the beliefs of all those in Parliament. The King’s own viewpoint holds exactly the same worth as does Jane Doe’s from Twickenham. Yet, any expressed opinion from the King would be afforded far more than Ms Doe’s.

I resonate with the Queen’s approach in my role as teacher. Despite being a highly (and I mean highly) opinionated person, I prefer to let neurobiology take the lead. To the infinitesimal extent that I am a public person – here on the campus of the University of Chicago, online through my MOOC, and in various media outlets – I would rather sacrifice my public opining in order to reach the widest audience possible with neurobiology. The worst case scenario for me would be someone who chooses not to further their interest in neurobiology because they were put off by my personal characteristics or viewpoints.

I am not in the Queen’s league as far as keeping who I am out of my teaching persona. Many students divine my thoughts; occasionally I outright share them. But I aspire to the Queen’s abnegation of self (to quote Fareed Zakaria’s recent WaPo editorial). In my case, this would be in service of neurobiology. In the Queen’s case, it was for the great nation she served.


  1. You are so exceptional. It is my honor to know you just a little bit & to value your friendship & opinion, when you choose to share it. Mark


  2. Peggy, that is beautiful. Insightful, Over and above. Your thoughts and ability to express your thoughts belong on every editorial page.

    Have you sent this to the family? If not, I will, plus to many of my good friends. OK??



  3. Ah but Peggy, coming out in favour of open discourse and neutrality isn’t really being neutral at all – not in a time when the debate over what constitutes free speech is raging, and when the hottest topic of the moment, guaranteed to start people frothing at the mouth, is “cancel culture”. (You say Switzerland; Twitter says Red Flag.)

    But about the monarchy! I’m curious to see what happens next. I’ve always seen the monarch as a symbolic figure, something like the Marianne in France; it’ll be interesting to see how things change when the figurehead steps off the postage stamps and becomes a flesh and blood human.

    I really enjoyed your post! Will you be back in Paris this year?


    • The opposite of neutrality is taking a position. Fine for Jane and Joe. Not so fine for a monarch whose opinion would carry inappropriate weight when in fact it does not warrant that weight. Nothing says that good policy judgment comes along with royal blood. Edward loved himself some Nazis. When it comes to university presidents, no way that I want the person that holds that position to venture into politics even if the politics seem obvious to me. Just NO.
      I will be in Paris in November – let’s get together.


  4. I very much enjoyed your commentary on the Queen and the correlation of it with the Kalven report, reflective of views of the UofC. It awakens us to what we would not tend to recognize in silence and withholding, behaviors which are seldom relished in today’s society. I loved your perspectives when I took a class with you during the pandemic and and am delighted to continue to be exposed to your thoughts on on-going topics.. Thanks, Linda


  5. Peggy – you are a hero of mine for sure! On this though, I have to say that there is no such thing as staying out of politics. Doing nothing is a political statement. When Margaret Thatcher brought before her documents to sign into law that were inhuman and disenfranchising – she signed them. Now even if this is a constitutional must, she could still have said something, because some things public figures can’t just sit on the fence about. Certainly, fascist and racist people of power have no qualms about swaying public opinion. Sitting on the fence? That, in itself, is political.


    • Dear James,
      The Queen should indeed participate in politics with her one vote as a citizen. No more. Anything more that she would do would have an unwarranted and outsized effect. She is nobody politically. Or to be more precise, she is the same as any other citizen and absolutely no more. And to quote Michelle Obama, go high: just because opponents that you do not respect do something, use some tactic, does not make it one that you should also choose to use.
      This is even more clear for university presidents. Just keep in your institutional lane.
      All the best,


  6. Peggy, I admire you very much, and have taken part in your MOOC a few years ago. I enjoy reading your blog posts, and this one has made me think very deeply. I agree that a democratically elected body representing the will, of the people should be in a position of power above any one potential autocrat. However, I think I am not alone in feeling that the democratic process is very much influenced by the agenda of the media and big business, both here in the UK and in the US.. I would welcome some political interference from a monarch who would listen to the grave concerns of many people who feel that the looming environmental ( and therefore socio economic ) calamity is not being addressed by elected governments.


    • Dear Alison,

      I think the drafters of the English constitution were smart when they set this up. You identify the key problem when you say that you would welcome interference from “a monarch who …” No matter how you end that phrase, there are no guarantees. You could end up with someone who you agree with just as well as someone who you don’t. Therefore to protect the nation from the erstwhile thoughts of someone put there by birth and not merit, the constitutional framers forbade interference.

      Now, of course, one possible solution is to abolish the monarchy. I am not against that. But that is for the British people to decide. As long as the monarchy exists as a non-political figure head, it should be exercised in that fashion.

      Thanks for your thoughts,


  7. Hi Peggy, thank you for your thoughtful reply, you are quite right, a monarch of any description would not necessarily subscribe to the same views as myself, and given total power ( as proven by history) could be a complete disaster. But, taking a general view, there is really no point in having a monarchy at all, ( and I don’t think that there IS) if they cannot express themselves .


  8. Thanks for sharing! I hope every university digs out and dusts off its Kalven Report! With the guidance of Kalven principles, university research can become richer and more germane to audiences. Echo chambers can be a limitation in higher education.


  9. Peggy,
    This is such a wonderful and insightful commentary and I wholeheartedly agree with you in all ways. I admire your courage to write this as many might not agree. I, too, admired how the Queen conducted her life. Thank you for your clear perspective.


      • No backhanded slight from me. I have the utmost respect for Peggy. Many do not agree with keeping political discussions separate for the sake of other issues. I stand by my statement about courage however I can also agree with you that it also takes honesty, historical insight, and common sense.


      • I certainly did not take your comment as a slight, Jodi. Actually much the opposite. And as loathe as i am to this I will accept the compliment and also add context to it. I did think about whether to share my thoughts about the queen, cognizant that many would disagree and could do so “warmly.” That said there are other opinions that I have that I’ve chosen not to share. At least yet. Call it self-censure, lack of courage or discipline. All arguable descriptions.


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