Another violation of academic freedom at The University of Chicago

March 8, 2021 • 12:30 pm

As I’ve written here before, the University of Chicago has several “foundational principles”. These include the famous Chicago Principles of Free Expression, promoting complete freedom of speech, which have been adopted by over sixty universities. They also include the Kalven Report, which prohibits the University, with a few rare exceptions, of taking official political, moral, or ideological stands. Both of these principles are designed to foster the widest possible discussion of issues and to avoid “chilling speech”, that is, to avoid creating a climate in which people feel intimidated from speaking their minds. The latter point is especially salient in these times of ideological conformity, especially in colleges (and that means, in general, conformity to the Progressive Left).

I recently found the following statement on the University webpage of the Master of Arts Program in Humanities, described as “a rigorous, one-year graduate program that allows students to focus within a specific academic discipline—such as Art History or English—or to explore their interdisciplinary interests.”

Although it is signed by some faculty, as opposed to the numerous other unsigned statements that appear as official blanket endorsements of ideologies on department or program webpages (e.g., here), it still appears as an official statement by an organization, and is therefore liable to chill speech. I see this as an egregious violation of the Kalven Report.

Note that it not only describes the death of George Floyd as a “police murder”, which is surely a debatable issue rather than a settled matter (can we please wait for the trial and verdict?), but, more important, pushes adherence to a certain point of view as well as calling for action (following the program of Black Lives Matter, defunding the campus police, and supporting current protests). This is a political and ideological statement from an organized unit of the University. It therefore does not belong on an official University webpage. Although I adhere to parts of the statement, even if I adhered to all of it I would still consider it a violation of the University of Chicago’s principles.

As the Kalven Report notes, and I agree, the faculty are welcome to write whatever they want as individuals or groups, but not when appearing to speak for the University or one of its units:

In October of last year, President Robert Zimmer reaffirmed that these principles and clarified that they don’t just apply to the University administration, but to units of the University as well:

The principles of the Kalven Report apply not only to the University as a whole, but to the departments, schools, centers, and divisions as well, and for exactly the same reasons, i.e., these essential components of the University should not take institutional positions on public issues that are not directly related to the core functioning of the University.  Of course, faculty, students, and staff, either individually or in groups, are free to take positions as individuals or as collections of individuals, but this expression must be distinct from expression advanced by official units of the University. This distinction must be maintained, because the process of assessing complex issues must always allow for the broadest diversity of views to be heard and held, and the diversity of views that lies at the heart of a great university must never be chilled by formal institutional positions on such issues.

I love that paragraph, as well as the one above it. “It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.”

Some departments, faculty, and students apparently don’t realize that by pushing their political points of view as statements of departments, committees, and other official units of the University, they are chilling the speech of those who might disagree with them. By all means, write on your own time; write a letter to the Chicago Maroon newspaper; write an op-ed for the Chronicle of Higher Education giving your personal take on politics. But don’t try to make your views into official University statements, thereby inhibiting free discussion.

14 thoughts on “Another violation of academic freedom at The University of Chicago

  1. Some departments, faculty, and students apparently don’t realize that by pushing their political points of view as statements of departments, committees, and other official units of the University, they are chilling the speech of those who might disagree with them.

    Or perhaps they do realise that, and indeed that is why they are doing it?

  2. The flaw in the logic of cancel culture is that by silencing the speech of those they disagree with, the objectionable ideas and those that express them get cleansed from society. The actual effect is that it hardens opposition while making those that were canceled seem oppressed and sympathetic, and the ideas still circulate through different avenues.

    The whole point of academia is to examine all ideas and dispel those lacking merit. The cancelers want to shortcut the process, which doesn’t work.

    1. Enforcing orthodoxy does work. Otherwise, I would care little about cancel culture.

      Steve Sailer summarized the problem well: “What goes unsaid eventually goes unthought”.

  3. Your new president… how is he likely to view this sort of thing? It might be worth calling his attention to it, as a clear, gross, flagrant violation of Kalven. Could be useful as a probe of his future intentions to see what his reaction to this latest disgraceful performance is.

  4. Slowly they crowd out the purpose, the mission. Many do not recognize a lobby organization when the see one one. Most all veterans organizations are lobbies, that why I never joined. What is the one that wants everyone over 50 or 55 to join? AARP. It is a huge lobby. They also do insurance and other ways of getting your money but one big lobby.

  5. Although it is signed by some faculty, as opposed to the numerous other unsigned statements that appear as official blanket endorsements of ideologies on department or program webpages (e.g., here), it still appears as an official statement by an organization, and is therefore liable to chill speech.

    The faculty members on the MAPH staff have an absolute right to make such a statement as individuals. I think that includes the right to identify themselves as members of the MAPH staff in doing so. And if the entire MAPH staff agrees with the statement, I think they have the right to say that, too.

    Where the statement runs afoul of academic freedom — and the only way it runs afoul of academic freedom as far as I can see — is in its being posted on the department webpage, thereby suggesting it has the university’s imprimatur.

    We can debate the merits and accuracy of their statement (and the wisdom of their having made it) until we’re blue in the face, of course, but that has naught to do with their free-speech right to make the statement.

    1. Pretty much every academic who has ever given a talk at a professional meeting knows the old ‘I speak for myself, not my institution’ caveat. Academics use that as part of their preface in practically every talk they ever give (as they should). Leaving it out in this case indicates, at least to me, that they intend to represent this as an official departmental position.

      It’s difficult for me to buy the alternative explanation, i.e. that an entire department full of professiors with the knowledge and regular experience of distinguishing between their own viewpoints from that of their institution, would forget to do it this time.

    2. Yes, but you’ve just repeated what I said. I don’t care where they make their statements, but they can’t be construed as official statements of the university or of its departments or constituent units.

      1. Yes, but you’ve just repeated what I said.

        Maybe so, though I thought I was putting a bit of a gloss on it that was more sympathetic to the free-speech rights of the faculty, less concerned with the purity of the university. (And I like to think the gloss would be the same whether the views expressed by the faculty members were consonant with the John Birch Society or the Democratic Socialists of America.)

        I try not merely to repeat what another has said, be it the host or a fellow commenter.

    3. Clearly individuals or a group of individuals are free to proclaim any opinions whatsoever. But a department’s or program’s web pages are a place for departmental matters and for defining the nature and purpose of the department’s or program’s academic function–not for expounding the incidental private opinions of the department’s or program’s members, be those opinions individual or collective. Had a collection of preceptors and professors issued this proclamation in the campus newspaper or in The New York Times, then the proclamation would be merely a collective expression of private opinion. But by publishing it on its web pages and by reserving for it a permanent and prominent position there, the MAPH is clearly giving the proclamation its imprimatur. Again, the program does not make its web pages available as an open forum to any and every faculty member for the airing of any and every personal opinion. (A faculty member believes trash in her town should be collected thrice weekly; she’s perfectly entitled to send a letter to her local newspaper, or to petition her city government; obviously, however, the MAPH would not make its web pages available to her to publish said letter or petition). So why is this particular statement published on the program’s web pages? Such publication plainly connotes endorsement.

Leave a Reply