Chicago Dean Defends Free Speech

The University of Chicago ranks as one of the world’s finest universities.  It has produced more Nobel Prize winners than any other university, Milton Friedman in economics and Saul Bellow in literature, for example.  The university has also led the way in breaking barriers.  In 1942, for example, Chicago anthropologist Allison Davis became one of the first African-Americans to obtain tenure at an elite U.S. university. In 2016, the Chicago has risen to the fore again, this time to defend the most sacred principles of higher education.

As the class of 2020 arrived on the Chicago campus, students found awaiting them a letter from Dean of Students John Ellison. “You will find,” he wrote, “that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may even challenge you and cause discomfort.”  Chicago’s “commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Ellison and other members of the administration were well aware that “recent events nationwide have tested institutional commitments to free and open discourse.” Disturbing protests that convulsed Yale, the University of Missouri, and many other campuses the previous academic year had received national media attention. 

Chicago has a long tradition of championing academic freedom. Its first president, William Harper, declared: “the principle of complete freedom of speech on all subjects has from the beginning been regarded as fundamental in the University of Chicago,” and insisted that “this principle can neither now nor at any future time be called into question.”  No better starting point for research into the history and meaning of academic freedom exists than the work of University of Chicago sociologist Edward Shils.  Thus, perhaps it is no surprise that this university would once again rise to the fore to defend freedom of inquiry and of expression against their assailants.

But not all—nor even most—of this country’s academic leaders joined the chorus.  Many remained silent; some openly attacked the University of Chicago, denying that it had acted on principle. Thus Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth, whose own school has had issues concerning campus censorship, described it as a way of “coddling donors.” One article from The Daily Beast claimed that the policy is about “keeping right-wing donors happy.” 

Perhaps the initiative’s popularity will entice some donors. Still, that does not make the result an explanation for the cause.  

Despite such criticism, University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer did not back down. Defending Ellison’s letter in the Wall Street Journal, Zimmer wrote: “Universities cannot be viewed as a sanctuary for comfort but rather as a crucible for confronting ideas and thereby learning to make informed judgments in complex environments.”

He’s right.

That college administrators need to make such statements is a revealing commentary on the current state of higher education. 

Colleges should facilitate critical thought and robust debate, both of which are necessary for a free society.  They should not consistently reward or indulge those students who are the noisiest or most threatening.   When presented with a statement one finds offensive, it is best to dispute it, civilly to be sure, by considering its merits. “I’m offended” is not an argument. “I feel,” in and of itself, is not persuasive evidence.  The best antidote to offensive speech is more speech, not less, especially speech that has been elevated by the kind of education the finest liberal arts colleges should provide.

Subsidized safe spaces don’t mirror the real world. Chic Silicon Valley startups do not offer them. Neither do medical establishments, law firms, or investment banks. One does not see anything of the sort in Chinese or Japanese universities.

With regard to cancelled speakers, consider the evidence provided by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education(FIRE) on speaker disinvitations on college campuses. In 2016 alone, of 25 attempts to thwart campus speakers, 14 speakers were successfully disinvited, in each case as a result of forces on the left.

Ellison’s position is hardly conservative. Take it from Michael Bloomberg, the well respected and moderate former mayor of New York City, or the left-of-center Boston Globe.  Writing last spring along with Charles Koch in the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg warned schools: “Stop stifling free speech and coddling intolerance for controversial ideas, which are crucial to a college education—as well as to human happiness and progress.”

Will more colleges and universities heed Bloomberg’s advice? Don’t hold your breath.