Spring Quarter begins today at the University of Chicago, and it’s a unique time: the University is largely closed, including most academic buildings, most research labs, all administrative offices, and all dorms except those housing students who have no place to go. As with most colleges and universities, all classes will be taught remotely. Even the libraries—the heartbeat of the University—are closed for “the indefinite future.” This has never happened since the University was founded in 1890.
Yesterday we all received an email from President Robert Zimmer—yes, the man who let me tend the ducks—and I found it heartening because of its emphasis on free expression and open discourse, even in these parlous times. I don’t think I’m doing a Wikileaks thing by reproducing Zimmer’s email below. Emphases are mine.
To: Members of the University Community
From: Robert J. Zimmer
Subject: Spring Quarter
Date: April 5, 2020
This week our University of Chicago community will fully embark on a Spring Quarter without precedent – the first in which all classes will be taught remotely, with students and instructors dispersed throughout the world. While many scholarly activities are continuing, most in-person laboratory work on campus has been curtailed, as have workshops, conferences, and other academic gatherings.
This is therefore a moment of enormous challenge, not only for critical global public health concerns and other important and related forms of well-being for our neighboring communities, not only for individual faculty and students in this new mode of instruction, not only for the many in our community who have had to react to a rapidly changing situation sometimes with considerable personal sacrifice, but for maintaining the key values, meaning, and features of our distinctive University of Chicago academic community. It is critical that while we operate in a different mode, we maintain those features that undergird our distinctive education and research environment: ongoing rigorous intellectual challenge and argument, freedom to explore and question, robust efforts to recognize and challenge assumptions whether our own or those of others, the deep engagement of multiple perspectives and modes of inquiry, the lack of deference to ideas because of authority or popularity, recognition of the importance of culture, history, and context, and the seriousness of intellectual purpose.
The distinctive nature of our academic community and our approach to education and research did not happen by accident, and they have not endured by accident. Since its inception, the academic values and the distinctive meaning of the University of Chicago have been created and then recreated every day by the faculty, students, and staff on campus, and by the support of our alumni and friends. Since the University’s inception in 1890, there have been many challenges the University, and its faculty, students, staff, and trustees have faced in their time to preserve, enhance, and recreate a university with an enduring commitment to intellectual challenge, rigor, and freedom and all that these entail. We all share the opportunity and responsibility to benefit from and contribute to this institution and its meaning, building upon the work of those who have come before us.
We have arrived at a moment in which we as a community are called upon to meet the challenge of remote learning and academic engagement and to preserve our enduring values, approach, and meaning. Each one of us must do our part. We will surely learn from this experience and learn from each other. As in all experiments, not everything will go perfectly. But with commitment, energy, and resourcefulness, I am confident that we will not only preserve what is so distinctive about the University of Chicago, but also find new ways in which our enduring values and meaning can be realized. This is our challenge as a community, a challenge of our time. We must undertake it together and do so recognizing the importance of the task. Together we will succeed.
I wish each of you success in your hard and challenging work in the coming quarter, and thank you for your commitment to the nature of education and research that the University of Chicago has always represented and must continue to represent.
Now maybe this letter is not unusual for Presidents trying to buck up members of the University and buttress the institution’s foundations, but I suspect that the reiteration of what makes us unusual—the emphasis on free speech and untrammeled inquiry—isn’t common in such emails.