“The point of education is not to make you comfortable; it’s to make you think.”
—Hanna Gray (former President, University of Chicago, speaking in video below)
I greatly fear that one of my roles over the next few years, should this website continue, will be to chronicle the downfall of the University of Chicago as it abandons several of its foundational principles: freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and the refusal of the University to take political or ideological stands. The last foundational principle has two exceptions, the most important being this one (from our “foundational” Kalven Report of 1967):
From time to time instances will arise in which the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry. In such a crisis, it becomes the obligation of the university as an institution to oppose such measures and actively to defend its interests and its values.
We are now in the process of abrogating the Kalven Report big time, as several departments have made or are in the process of making official departmental statements that don’t just espouse racial and gender equality in hiring and treatment (that would indeed be part of our mission), but adhere to aspects of Critical Race Theory and express political support for controversial tenets in society at large (see two examples here and here, which I wrote about a few days ago). As departments are the core units of the University, and the statements are presented as official positions, not a collation of the views of some individual faculty, this is a serious dismantling of our university’s official political, ideological, and moral neutrality—a stand designed to buttress our mission of free expression.
Below is an official University video, put up last fall, that affirms our principles. Among the affirmers are President Zimmer, former President Hanna Gray, and Vice Provost Gilliam.
Note that diversity (characterized as “of perspective and backgrounds”, as well as “people of different generations and from different countries”), is seen as essential to an open and liberal education. I agree, but an open and liberal education, in which you’re free to express and explore all ideas, is what is slowly being strangled by social-justice statements issuing from various departments.
This video was clearly created to sell the unique mission of the University of Chicago to prospective students (two are interviewed in the video, touting the benefits of free expression), and it does a very good job. I’m proud of the guiding principles limned by the three administrators.
The problem is that the unique atmosphere is disappearing, and so far only one petulant faculty member (yours truly) is trying to be the canary in the coal mine. Will we remain unique in this way in the future? Not the way things are going. I urge the administration to nip in the bud the encroaching wokeness of our school, which sweeps freedom of thought under the rug. It’s not just a matter of selling our school accurately, but a matter of remaining the only elite university with such a strong commitment to freedom of speech and thought, and also a matter of attracting those students who find that agenda irresistible. (Also see this video, which I’ve highlighted before.)
Although Charles Lipson, a well known professor of political science here, hasn’t specifically criticized our school (at least not that I know of), he has written a good article in RealClear Politics (click on screenshot below) proposing ways to stop the “rot” that’s eating through college campuses, with his diagnosis of the “rot” being a “rigid groupthink” that apparently cannot be resisted:
It’s not just that a careless word can cost your job, it’s that people tremble in fear that they might say the wrong word. Today, as in the past, the loudest, most extreme voices claim the right to control speech and judge whether it is worthy of being heard at all. The giants of technology and media have either bowed to these demands or embraced them enthusiastically. The result, as in the early 1950s, is a shriveled, impoverished public square. Genuine debate is suppressed, even in classrooms, which should nurture informed discussion with multiple viewpoints. All too often they have become pipelines for indoctrination.
What’s wrong with this rigid groupthink? First, it takes real problems, such as police misconduct or Confederate statues, and inflates them for political purposes. It vastly exaggerates their extent and gravity, mistakenly generalizes them (Ulysses Grant is not Stonewall Jackson), ignores significant progress in correcting old errors, calls any disagreement “racist,” and relies on intimidation and sometimes violence, not democratic procedures, to get their way. The loudest voices say America and its history are fundamentally evil, that its institutions need to be smashed so they can be reestablished on “socially just” foundations. The mob and their fellow travelers will determine what is just. Who gives them that right? This arrogation of power and attack on public order will not end well.
The second problem is that America’s major institutions have been overwhelmed by these demands and have bowed down to them. Public trust has eroded in all America’s major institutions since the late 1960s. We now see the supine results. Instead of standing up to this swelling irrationalism and intimidation, they have appeased it—and sometimes embraced it. Predictably, appeasement has only fueled more extreme demands.
Here, in Lipson’s words (indented) and mine (flush left) are his three solutions:
1.) Universities must reiterate and then reinforce the principles of free speech.
In the midst of this full-scale assault on free speech, have universities issued full-throated defenses of open inquiry as the foundation of education? No. Hillsdale College in rural Michigan has done so, and perhaps a handful of “Bible schools,” but they are rarer than Republican professors of English literature. What almost all universities have issued are vapid letters, reaffirming their commitment to “diversity and inclusion.” Many have said they will pump more money into those projects, which they have already sustained for decades. They say nothing about intellectual diversity, which they don’t consider diversity at all.
Stating principles of free speech and free inquiry is essential, but it is not enough. Sound principles must be reiterated, and they must be reinforced with best practices. Students, faculty and staff need to know the university’s commitment is more than an empty gesture. Before freshmen arrive on campus, they need to be told their university supports free speech and free inquiry and will not tolerate their suppression. These crucial points should be emphasized during Orientation Week. . .
Lipson adds that while boards of trustees should not interfere in the day-to day-workings of the university, they too can emphasize and enforce the principles of free speech.
2.) Principles of free speech and free inquiry should be upheld in class discussions and debates.
. . . individual teachers should be told they will be protected if they encourage debate and free inquiry in class. They need a “safe harbor,” even if some students don’t like what they hear, see, or read. University administrators need to give them that protection. You and I might be offended by D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” or Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” but they are important movies and perfectly appropriate to screen in some classes. Of course, students should be prepared for them and told why they matter. If some students would be traumatized, teachers should try to find ways to accommodate them. But it is no better to exclude important films for fear of political objections than to exclude Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs for fear of religious ones.
As an alternative to the malleable and weaponized “trigger warnings,” faculty could add to their self-protection (and students’ education) by including a statement of principle to their reading lists. They ought to say—and mean—that they never intend to hurt, insult, or denigrate any student or belittle any group. Rather, they intend to use their scholarly skills to illuminate these issues as best they can.
3.) State legislatures should ensure that public universities adhere to the Constitutions’s First Amendment rights.
. . . state legislatures should insist that public universities adhere to the First Amendment’s protections for free speech and peaceful assembly, with the normal restrictions that apply to those freedoms. (No bullhorns in the dorms at 2 a.m., and no shouting down of invited speakers at any hour.) Like boards of trustees, they should not intervene in day-to-day university activities; that, too, would threaten academic freedom. But they should insist that university presidents and deans of students reiterate the importance of freedom of speech, explain its role in higher education, and avoid watering it down with qualifying statements implying “social justice” can override free speech. Social justice, like other important concepts, must be debated, not used as a “cone of silence” for discordant views. Legislatures, governors, and state boards of higher education have every right to demand clear principles of free speech and effective procedures to punish violations.
I’m a bit more worried about this since legislatures can, and have, used “free speech” bills to push particular political viewpoints on their state’s colleges, but I suppose there’s nothing wrong with a legislature affirming that all public universities in a state (which are, after all, organs of government) adhere to the First Amendment. Lipson is more wary of the federal government doing such a thing, but thinks it’s worth discussing. Not on Trump’s watch, methinks!
At any rate, Lipson thinks the problem is exigent, and I hope he realizes that it’s knocking at his own door:
Whatever role Washington plays, universities need to act now, on their own, to reassert the core value of free speech in education. Free inquiry depends on free speech. These values are the bedrock of liberal education in democratic societies. Right now, that bedrock is being washed away in a tidal wave of irrational outrage.