UoC President Bob Zimmer talks about free speech on campus

February 22, 2018 • 11:00 am

The Wall Street Journal has a week-old interview with University of Chicago President Bob Zimmer (a mathematician); the topic is free speech and Steve Bannon. The piece below (click on the link) is paywalled but judicious inquiry might yield a copy—if you really want it.As I’ve noted before, Luigi Zingales, a professor at the Business School, invited Bannon here for a debate, and Bannon accepted. (Note: the WSJ says that Bannon is scheduled to speak “early next month,” but I don’t think that’s true, as I haven’t heard anything about that.) Students objected (not all of them), to their eternal shame, 100 faculty signed a petition asking for Bannon’s invitation to be rescinded, and (to more shame) a large number of alumni did likewise (see my coverage here).

Calls to de-platform Bannon run contrary to the University’s speech code—probably the most liberal in the U.S. Any professor or group who invites someone to speak, and that person accepts, has a right to have the person speak on campus, and a right that the speaker be neither de-platformed by others nor disrupted.  Last year the faculty voted to impose sanctions on those students who try to disrupt speakers or keep them from talking.

Zimmer is a model of calm rationality, and I’ll just give a few statements he made in the interview with Tunku Varadarajan. At many universities, someone like Zingales would be called into the President’s or Provost’s office for a “chat.” Not here!

Mr. Bannon was invited to the university by Luigi Zingales, a finance professor. Would Mr. Zimmer ever contemplate having a quiet word with the prof and asking him to withdraw his invitation to Mr. Bannon? “I wouldn’t even think of it,” Mr. Zimmer answers, in a mildly but unmistakably indignant tone. And no, he won’t be attending the Bannon event. “We have many, many talks,” he says. “I’m really pretty busy.”

Mr. Zingales’s attitude is consistent with the norm Mr. Zimmer seeks to uphold. When I asked the professor by email why he extended the invitation, he replied that Mr. Bannon “was able to interpret a broad dissatisfaction in the electorate that most academics had missed. Remember the shock on November 9, 2016? Regardless of what you think about his political positions, there is something faculty and students can learn from a discussion with him.” Mr. Zingales, too, welcomed peaceable protests as a healthy exercise of free speech. “I admire the way our students have conducted their protests,” he wrote. “It speaks very well to the values that our university shares.”

Our antecedents:

In recent years, as colleges across America have censored unfashionable views, Chicago has also come to be known for setting the gold standard for free expression on campus. Mr. Zimmer, who became president in 2006, deserves much credit. He has been outspoken in defense of free speech and in 2014 even set up a committee—under the constitutional law scholar Geoffrey Stone —that produced the Chicago Principles, the clearest statement by any American university in defense of uninhibited debate.

Mr. Zimmer, a mathematician, says Chicago’s intellectual and moral strengths are “totally tied together.” He’s also quick to point out that its commitment to free debate precedes him, naming virtually every one of his predecessors as a guardian of openness. Mr. Zimmer created the Stone committee, he says, after watching free-speech struggles at other schools: “People were starting to be disinvited from campuses—speakers of some stature, in fact. You started to see this pattern.”

I don’t know much about our President (I met him once), but suspect that he’s a liberal (the odds favor this even if you know nothing about him); he makes a strong statement about not impeding immigration because it attracts talented people who improve the U.S. The WSJ being a conservative paper, the interviewer tries to get Zimmer to talk about identity politics. That’s a bit of a hot-button issue for a college president (but not for an emeritus professor!), so he handily deflects the question:

One could argue, perhaps paradoxically, that today’s campus activists are much more atomized as well. Identity groups push for their own particular agendas, often in absolutist terms: It matters to me more than anything else in the world that you call me “they,” not “she.” That’s not exactly a broad-based concern.

When I put this argument to Mr. Zimmer, he gently deflects: “Again, I’d go to the point that the main issue is—whether everybody is focused on one thing, or whether there are multiple groups focused on multiple things—that you get the same . . . kind of fervor, which says certain ideas should not be discussed and thought about. And that’s what the problem is.”

Well, to me this is politically astute, but a distinction without a difference. For it’s the very hierarchy of oppression associated with identity politics that makes those higher up on the ladder able to declare that some ideas (i.e., the ones they don’t like) shouldn’t be discussed or pondered.  But censorship is the crux of the problem of identity politics, so Zimmer got it right.

At the end of the piece, the President discusses a new initiative he has: having conversations with high-school teachers about how to prepare college-bound students for an atmosphere of free speech.

. . . it would be very healthy, [Zimmer] thinks, for high-school teachers “to actually be thinking about this in a kind of systematic way.” He’s observed that “a lot of students are not prepared for this environment.” Some of that is inevitable, Mr. Zimmer believes, because “free expression doesn’t come naturally for most people. It’s not an instinctive response.” Young people need “to be taught it”—and it’s better if universities don’t have to start from scratch.

15 thoughts on “UoC President Bob Zimmer talks about free speech on campus

  1. But censorship is the crux of the problem of identity politics, so Zimmer got it right.

    Censorship is the cudgel needed to make identity politics rule over everything else.

    Take that weapon away, and they’re just more boring groups of narcissists.

    Glen Davidson

    1. Bridges argued that the University of Chicago’s elite don’t need the kind of sheltering that Evergreen’s more vulnerable student population requires: “At The Evergreen State College, where I serve as president, 90 percent of our students belong to at least one group traditionally underserved by higher education: first-generation college students, low income, people of color, veterans, people with disabilities or students of nontraditional age.”

      Ahh, the bigotry of low expectations ubiquitous among SJWs, the thinly-veiled disdain for those they ostensibly champion.

  2. Bannon? We still talkin’ ’bout Bannon? Thought the GOP declared him a non-person, disappeared him down the memory hole.

    Though Bannon did spend 20 hours last week being debriefed by the special counsel’s office. Musta been a memorable experience for all concerned.

  3. Jerry (or anyone else) are there a lot of student political-party and such clubs at UoC? I remember that free speech and such was done pretty well at CMU but the students were very apolitical so it didn’t make much difference on the current topics. Invite a *computing* controversial figure, then you’d get debate. 😉

  4. When we talk about “de-platforming,” Jerry, I take it we’re drawing a distinction in cases where the group or person who extended the invitation is the one to withdraw it — as a result, say, of some outré act of the speaker’s discovered after the invitation was extended?

    I’m wondering because I see that, yesterday, the right-wing CPAC withdrew its speaking invitation to D. D’Souza because of his asinine remarks regarding the Parkland school-shooting survivors — and as, IIRC, it similarly did last year with Milo Y, after it was revealed he’d joked on some obscure radio program about being a pedo.

    1. I don’t think that’s the sole distinction. If a group were unduly pressured to withdraw an invitation that would still be different than them deciding their interests and the speaker’s no longer align.

      1. Where do you draw that line? Groups may well decide that its interests and a speaker’s no longer align due to pressure from (or simply because of information bought to their attention by) outsiders or constituent members.

        1. That CPAC is one low bar. I cannot tell it from the floor. Very inspirational line of garbage from Wayne LaPierre today. However, I would not advise listening anytime close after eating. Such a waste of space on the planet I have not seen.

        2. I don’t know where to draw a line or if it could be firmly drawn.

          I can kind of handwaive the CPAC situation because I already expect bad behavior from them so if what they did happened to go against my principles it wouldn’t lower my opinion of them, because it’s already at rock bottom. I’m more distraught when organizations for which I might have a sliver of respect misbehave. If it were a liberal convention that for some reason had invited Dinesh to speak, I’d be pushing to keep him on the slate while also giving him a very thorough dressing down over his comments.

  5. [Zimmer] makes a strong statement about not impeding immigration because it attracts talented people who improve the U.S.

    But to attract talented people, instead of flooding the job market with unskilled labor, immigration must be strictly limited.

    Even then, the H1-B visa program, originally intended to secure foreign talent not available domestically, has been grossly abused by Silicon Valley to pressure or replace eminently talented American professionals — who exist in abundance — with often less-skilled foreign workers, who however are willing to work more hours for lower salaries.

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