U of C President Robert Zimmer issues statement supporting faculty’s freedom of speech

November 30, 2020 • 9:00 am

Yesterday I reported on a fracas going on in my university’s Department of Geophysical Science. An associate professor, Dorian Abbot, put up four YouTube videos (now removed) questioning the department’s procedures for diversity and inclusion, as well as the need for affirmative action as opposed to pure meritocracy. A group of students and alums reacted with outrage, demanding in a letter to the Geophys Sci faculty that Abbot be punished and the department undergo all sorts of procedures to ensure that this “bigotry” never happen again—or at least without sanctions on the perp.

In response, a change.org petition addressed to President Robert Zimmer went up, and as of this morning had been signed by 7,123 people (click on screenshot), including Steve Pinker, who tweeted about it (click on screenshot below to see the petition):

As Reader Coel noted in his comment yesterday, Zimmer didn’t lose any time defusing this controversy, for yesterday he issued this statement (click on screenshot), which I reproduce below in its entirety. It doesn’t pull any punches, and renders the petition moot.

Though Zimmer’s statement was clearly prompted by l’affair Abbot, it properly doesn’t mention his name, but simply upholds the principle that faculty members can say anything they want without fear of retribution, unless the statement violates the law or University policy. Abbot’s statements, whatever you think of them, don’t constitute such violations. (Bolding in the statement below is mine.)

To:        Members of the University Community
From:    Robert J. Zimmer, President
Re:        Statement on Faculty, Free Expression, and Diversity
Date:     November 29, 2020

From time to time, faculty members at the University share opinions and scholarship that provoke spirited debate and disagreement, and in some cases offend members of the University community.

As articulated in the Chicago Principles, the University of Chicago is deeply committed to the values of academic freedom and the free expression of ideas, and these values have been consistent throughout our history. We believe universities have an important role as places where novel and even controversial ideas can be proposed, tested and debated. For this reason, the University does not limit the comments of faculty members, mandate apologies, or impose other disciplinary consequences for such comments, unless there has been a violation of University policy or the law.  Faculty are free to agree or disagree with any policy or approach of the University, its departments, schools or divisions without being subject to discipline, reprimand or other form of punishment.

That said, no individual member of the faculty speaks for the University as a whole on any subject, including on issues of diversity. In turn, the University will continue to defend vigorously any faculty member’s right to publish and discuss his or her ideas.

The University is committed to creating an inclusive environment where diversity is not only represented but individuals are empowered to fully participate in the exchange of ideas and perspectives. As University leaders we recognize that there is more work to be done and are strengthening initiatives to attract faculty, students and staff of diverse backgrounds.

Zimmer could not have been clearer or more articulate about defending the freedom of speech of our faculty, which also holds for students and staff.  Note that he defends the right of the faculty to speak about “issues of diversity,” as did Abbot, but also defends the inclusivity of the University.

Although the letter to the faculty from Abbot’s critics doesn’t demand an apology from him, it does mandate a number of actions that clearly represent “discipline, reprimand, and punishment.” Those can no longer be imposed on Abbot, though of course faculty and students remain free to criticize him and to snub him, though they can’t create a workplace for Abbot that is seen as harassment.

What I like about the letter is not only what it says, but that, while responding to a controversy, does not name names, which would represent an unwarranted singling-out of Abbot. If only other university presidents could show this moxie!

28 thoughts on “U of C President Robert Zimmer issues statement supporting faculty’s freedom of speech

    1. Yes indeed. And the chicago principles continue to be such a clear, succinct and consistent reference point for president zimmer.

    2. I, uh, third that emotion! I can’t think of any other university president who has stood up to students like this. He is one brave man in a sea of cowards.

    3. Not sure how much moxie is involved here. If Zimmer had not done this, the alumni would have been pissed. Notice he did not wait until Monday – the statement was put out on a Sunday. I am an alumnus. Know many others. They wholeheartedly support the University’s position. They will be very unhappy if UofC ever even hints at caving.

  1. anticipating “baked into the system”, “systemic”, and “things are either racist or anti-racist” as rebuttal (not here, but in general) in 3… 2….1….

    1. Two Tweets from Dorian Abbott himself on 16th November say:

      “In response to the videos I published over the weekend, the University’s Title IX office is investigating the practices I objected to. I proved my point about free speech, and we will have a department reading group on tolerance and academic freedom this winter.” And:

      “From my point of view the effort was a success, so I deleted the videos because at this point they are no longer productive.”

      1. This is an excellent result to get into some formal conversation about the issue within the university. The principles have held.

        1. It remains to be seen what the usual suspects will do about the “reading group on tolerance and academic freedom”. If they try to shut it down (and I think they will try), what will the university’s response be?

      2. “… so I deleted the videos because at this point they are no longer productive.”

        I’m a bit disappointed. Given the ensuing affray, he should’ve had the strength of his convictions to leave them up for anyone interested to see. His attitude shouda been, screw ’em; Abbot contra mundum, if need be.

        1. “I’m a bit disappointed.”

          Indeed. One wonders if the decision was “encouraged” by another party.

          Now the discussion or “readings” (sounds like church) will apparently be private.

          1. Still, it seems a bit coy to me. If, as he says, Abbot’s only goal was to prompt an internal Title IX investigation into the university’s diversity and inclusion policies, he hardly needed to post a series of YouTube videos to do it. You post a series of YouTube videos because you want to prompt a public reaction. Once he prompted such a reaction, I think Abbot should have left the YouTube videos up so the public could see what the fracas was about.

  2. Bravo for President Zimmer and the traditions of the Univ. of Chicago, which has been an academic
    icon since the days of Robert Hutchins. Let’s hope its example has national influence. A sign of a trend
    in that direction might be some resignations (for “health” reasons) in the administrations of places like Oberlin, not to mention the academic clown-car where Weinstein and Heyring used to teach.

    1. UofC has been an academic icon since its founding in 1890 – although I prefer the date 1892 when classes were first held. It would be correct to say – since the days of William Rainey Harper. Harper got ten university and college presidents to quit their jobs to join the first faculty at UofC.

  3. I worry with President Zimmer leaving in June (he will become the Chancellor) that his successor will not have the same commitment to academic and speech freedom. I hope that the values that President Zimmer has so nobly championed are institutionally entrenched at good old UC.

      1. I would go further and say that the Chicago principles will not be an issue for the next president. It will a given that he/she will strongly support the Chicago principles. Probably the most important item will be the quantum economy. There are five centers for this in the US – two of them at national laboratories (Fermilab and Argonne) managed by UofC.
        https://news.uchicago.edu/story/chicago-quantum-summit-foster-national-collaborations-build-quantum-economy

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