The University of Chicago professes free expression as a “core value”, and a call by one of our faculty to “end the rot”

July 25, 2020 • 12:00 pm

“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.

25 thoughts on “The University of Chicago professes free expression as a “core value”, and a call by one of our faculty to “end the rot”

  1. The University of Chicago School of Economics is one of the last ones untouched by a desire for central planning and irresponsible spending. I hope to get in there.

    1. “The University of Chicago School of Economics is one of the last ones untouched by a desire for central planning and irresponsible spending.”

      That sounds good.

      Are they equally untouched by a desire to view flesh-and-blood human beings merely and solely as human “resources” and “capital”?

  2. A well-regarded department at the University of Washington SOM has established a Diversity/Equity/Inclusion committee and website. The latter includes a mechanism for keeping every conceivable or imaginable slight, neglect, or “microaggression” under constant surveillance, a system like that enjoyed previously in the German Democratic Republic of fond memory. Here it is, copied direct from the department’s DEI website. I have replaced department or personal names by [ ], and boldface is added by me.

    ” Reporting tools

    [ ] Anonymous Incident Report ([ ] AIR)

    This is an anonymous reporting tool for the Department of [ ] at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine. [ ] AIR is for use by all members of [ ]: faculty, staff, students, postdocs, and volunteers. You may report any incidents related to race, color, religion, sex, gender identity, gender expression, national origin, age, genetic information, protected veteran or disabled status. You may also report any category of discrimination, bias, microaggressions, macroaggressions, unfairness, bullying, harm, neglect, crime, harassment, etc. No incident is too big or too small.

    This anonymous reporting tool is for non-emergencies only. If this is an emergency, please dial 911. To report criminal activity to the UW Police, there are two numbers: Non-Emergency – 206-685-UWPD (8973) and Anonymous Tips at 206-685-TIPS (8477)

    The goal of this anonymous reporting tool is to better address and respond to non-emergency incidents in-house, soon after they occur. Anything submitted through this tool will go to our HR Manager, [ ], for review and follow-up.”

    The phrase bolded above, “no incident is too big or too small” is an open invitation to what will inevitably follow. It is good to be retired from Academia, these days.

    1. The cool thing about an anonymous reporting system is that it is not very difficult to flood it with absurd reports.
      It is especially useful to learn their internal policies, so that the reports made will use the maximum amount of time and resources for investigation.

  3. I fear that the rot has extended beyond the university and into professional organizations. The historical profession has not been hit. There is a professional historical organization called The Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (“SHEAR”). It focuses on American History from the Revolution to the Civil War. It publishes a quarterly journal. About a week ago, it hosted a zoom panel discussion on Andrew Jackson. The main speaker was Daniel Feller of the University of Tennessee. He is a renowned Jackson scholar and editor of the Andrew Jackson papers. His talk dealt with whether Trump can be compared to Jackson. His answer was no because such analogies are essentially ridiculous. Part of his talk was a discussion of how some pundits misunderstood what Jackson and his presidency was like. Within a day of the talk the mob was in full attack mob. What were his sins? First, he criticized some female historians for poor scholarship. Second, he didn’t emphasize enough that Jackson was a racist slaveholder (this wasn’t the topic of the talk). Third, he refused to characterize Jackson’s policies toward Native Americans as genocidal (although he hardly praised them} and fourth, he referred to Native Americans as “redskins,” although it was clear from the talk that Feller was referring to how Native Americans were called in the distant past. The panel itself was blasted because it wasn’t diverse enough, consisting of old white people. The bottom line is that the critics blamed Feller for not condemning Jackson as the worst person to ever walk on the face of the earth.

    As a result, the easily offended induced the president of the organization to resign. The SHEAR advisory Council issued an apology for this session that reads as if the signers have just returned from a Maoist re-education camp. Amusingly, one of the signers of the apology was Jessica Lepler, who chaired the session. I watched the video of the session and nowhere in it did Lepler express any discontent with the discussion.

    My main concern is that the fallout from this incident is that professional historians in their writings, speeches, and classroom lectures will be forced to self-censor themselves. Vigorous debates by reputable historians (not extremist crackpots) on historical topics will be stifled. I am very depressed.

    The NYT has a fairly objective article on the furor.

    The video of the panel discussion can be found here:

    1. “Third, he refused to characterize Jackson’s policies toward Native Americans as genocidal (although he hardly praised them} . . . .”

      As I am able I will read and listen to Professor Feller (of my alma mater, late 70’s). As he ” . . . refused [when pressed by attendees?] to characterize Jackson’s policies toward Native Americans as genocidal . . . .”, I hope to read where he states for the record what in his view qualifies as “genocidal” (if not Jackson’s, then the sum total of U.S., policies and actions?).

      1. Andrew Jackson was in many ways a reprehensible man. Fine. Apparently, we must declare at every opportunity this and shame citizens into hanging their heads in shame at every opportunity too. But why pick on the US in this? I could go through the past 5,000 years of recorded history and I could pretty easily list out the foibles of numerous countries, civilizations, and peoples.

        There is a lot of genocide to discuss. Yes, we slaughtered native Americans. And they slaughtered each other. Some tribes helped us slaughter their rivals. Rome slaughtered the Carthaginians and salted their fields. The Midianites didn’t fare too well. Mohammed didn’t spread his religion by winning debate contests. It’s what we humans do. We should get better at treating each other. We should discuss what they did and try to understand the context of it.

    2. … whether Trump can be compared to Jackson.

      For one thing, Trump lacks the brass cajones to fight a duel, especially over an insult directed at his wife. Hell, Trump has said much worse of his own wives on Page Six of The NY Post than anything Charles Dickson ever let slip about Jackson’s wife, Rachel. 🙂

    3. “…our resolve to foreground diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism…”

      I’m pretty sure this is the first instance I have seen of the use of “foreground” as a verb. All things are possible, I suppose.

      Can you create a new historical society, for those who are not so busy foregrounding equity?

  4. I don’t feel as hopeless as a lot of people about wokeness, cancel culture, and ideological purity.

    Right now, all this stuff is fashionable. My take on why that is has to do with leadership. Even though Trump and the right-wingers have many critics (deservedly), their rigid, no-compromise style has been copied by nearly everyone.

    I think a change of leadership might mitigate that. We are in the middle of multiple serious crises. Suppose new leadership rallies people toward real solutions and away from the “us vs. them” way of seeing everything. If we begin to focus on actual solutions instead of enmity and victimhood, we might see a return to more nuanced thinking.

    If life actually gets better due to our diligence and creativity, that will go a long way toward more acceptance of multiple viewpoints.

    Also, many people have a lot of time on their hands right now. Philosophical rigidity is a hobby we won’t be able to afford if we can get things moving again.


    1. I would like to believe that a change of leadership will help dilute the tidal wave of wokeness. But wokeness & cancel culture were already a problem during Obama’s second term, despite Obama’s public disapproval.

      At the moment colleges are being run as businesses with students as consumers whose emotional needs have to be catered to. Universities need to find a way to stand up for themselves and tell students to piss off. A better economy, with more money going to the public rather than corporations and Wall Street, might give universities some financial backbone to care less about offending students.

      There also need to be changes in K-12 education and to America’s therapy culture and identity-based culture, which increases a sense of victimization and balkanization. There needs to be a return to the communal spirit of “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” More national and community service programs for students would be a good idea.

      1. I don’t disagree with your analysis of the current situation.

        What I’m saying is that fashions come and go.

        We’re living in the Dark Ages. Something started the Renaissance. What, exactly, I don’t know, but I think that realistically, the virus will only be defeated by a concerted effort on the part of most of us together. To me, that’s a good start for the Renaissance.


        1. This is not the dark ages. If past incidents are any guide, we can expect the social and economic upheaval from an actual event to set us back decades or centuries.

          The woke people seem to just be poking everyone with a stick, hoping we will start fighting each other, which will give them the opportunity to step in and impose utopia on us.
          My suggestion is that people of all races and creeds join together and, in a spirit of cooperation and brotherhood, drive the woke into the sea.

        2. There is an argument (referenced on this site a few days ago) that the bubonic plague directly contributed (at last in some parts of Europe) to the Renaissance via high mortality, a shortage of labor, higher wages, incentive to innovate, urbanization, and greater wealth. It is a kind of grim Malthusian connection, not one we would want to repeat via coronavirus.

  5. “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.”

    I think these points should be plainly stated on the institution’s application for admission form. Surely that would save the institution and student some heartburn later on. (Unless the student applies anyway out of spite so as to later be positioned to be an obstreperously woke burr under the institution’s saddle.)

  6. I’m suspect that the vast majority of your readers think of you as a frustrated or exasperated faculty member rather than a petulant one. Please keep up the fight.

  7. Well-written piece by Prof. Lipson. Bonus points in my book for any essay can broach allusions to both the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge AND Get Smart.

  8. I have a question to put out there regarding universities and university departments on this issue. Isn’t it unconstitutional for a state-run university or university department to put out statements that are clearly meant to be chilling to free speech? I realize this does not apply so much to private institutions.

  9. I do think people are starting to become angry with Cancel Culture, and some real pushback is now occurring. Hopefully things will rebalance a bit before the University of Chicago gets too deeply mired in it. I also think that fairly seismic changes will happen in higher education within a generation, between fewer college age students, the diminishing value of a liberal arts degree, and increased online learning. What that will result in is anyone’s guess, but I do think it’s a fairly safe bet that things won’t simply continue on the current path – for better or for worse, I think they’re likely to change a great deal.

  10. Critical theory essentially means to destroy it you must critique it to death. (ie: it’s not enough to talk about it, you must change it by any means necessary, or it’s just talk). It means that the critical theorist that you give your children to when they go off to college sees your children as vessels that must first be emptied of everything you may have taught them and then those vessels are to be filled with the proper thoughts of the critical theorist instructors. And then they are to go off into the world to fulfill the critical theorists mission.

    It is why the far right wants to have far right colleges that grant teacher certificates and lawyer degrees. To fight the good cultural fight for the right agenda. The authoritarian left went one further, take over all of social sciences and humanities studies in the employ of the authoritarian left.

    The education system as it stands, cannot stand.

Leave a Reply