FIRE has a chat about free speech with the University of Chicago’s incoming President

May 21, 2021 • 11:15 am

As of September 1, our estimable leader, Bob Zimmer, is retiring as President of the University of Chicago and will become Chancellor, retaining his interest in the free-speech principles that he supported so strongly over the past 15 years (I hope he’ll also keep his interest in our ducks as well!). Our new President is Paul Alivisatos, a chemist who was executive vice Chancellor and Provost of the University of Caifornia, Berkeley.

Of course, those of us who are “diehard free-speechers” want to know whether Alivisatos will continue Zimmer’s principles of supporting our Foundational Principles, which include the Principles of Free Expression that have been adopted by more than 70 colleges in the U.S., as well as the Kalven Principles, which mandate that neither the University nor or any of its units, divisions, or departments, can make official public declarations about preferred ideologies, politics, and morals unless those principles bear narrowly on the educational mission of the University.

The Kalven Principles have been much discussed lately, and are important in ensuring that acadmic speech here is free and cannot be chilled by official statements of what is politically acceptable. I myself have fought long and hard to retain them, and they were affirmed by Zimmer last October. Nevertheless (see below), University units have repeatedly violated these principles by making official statements (see below), and this has been a point of great contention.

At any rate, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote statement directed to President Alivisatos, affirming its approbation of our free-speech principles and expressing hope that the new President will continue to support them. The statement is on the FIRE website, along with a letter to Alivisatos from FIRE’s President and CEO, Greg Lukianoff, expressing similar hopes and offering FIRE’s help to buttress our principles against erosion. Click on the screenshot to read both the statement and Lukianoff’s letter:

I won’t reprise any of this except to say that, among American colleges and universities, the University of Chicago has consistently ranked #1 in its “free-speech rating”. Lukianoff applauds this, as do all right-thinking people, but he also issues a caveat (my emphasis):

. . . while UChicago has been a national leader on free expression, its climate for free expression can still be improved. Even with UChicago finishing the highest of the 55 institutions whose students we surveyed last year, the institution’s score of 64.19 out of 100 shows that the institution, like its peers, nonetheless contends with significant challenges to its free expression culture. Even with UChicago doing as much as it does to foster a positive climate for self-expression, students routinely self-censor and worry that the frank and uninhibited discussion of certain topics, whether in classrooms, among friends, or ontheir social media accounts, remains off-limits.

In short, UChicago has made great gains in cultivating a culture of free expression in recent years, but the gains are incremental, and hard-won. What’s more, while those gains are the result of years of investment, they can be unmade with dizzying speed.

In fact, the gains are already being unmade with dizzying speed, at least with respect to the Kalven report. Department after department has posted official statements about politics, race, policing, and other political matters in the last year, and these statements are blatant violations of Kalven principles (see below). Why they remain up is a mystery to me, but I can see why the administration, while supporting Kalven, wouldn’t want to tell departments that they have to take political statements off their websites. I can also see how departments and chairs would regard that as intrusion into their bailiwicks.

So, here’s a list of violations of Kalven that remain online. While critics like me nevertheless agree with some of the political statements in the official issuances below, that is not the point. The point is that our principles state that the University must remain, in general, politically, ideologically, and morally neutral as the best way to avoid chilling free discussion (I would suggest you reading the brief rationale for this in the two-page Kalven Report.) The links include statements by the provost, by divisions and schools, and by departments, all of which are either official statements or have the patina of official statements. Such statements have never been made during political turmoil of the past, even while people were calling for The University of Chicago to oppose Communism, the Vietnam War, and various investments.

Kalven report

The Kalven report outlines a strong presumption against University officials and units of the University taking official positions on social and political issues, except in exceptional circumstances when the issue directly relates to University functioning. Since 2020, a number of statements have been made that appear to be inconsistent with the Kalven report.


Divisions and Schools


An example of a blatant violation, expressing a departmental view on a departmental website and making academically and empirically contestable statements, see the Department of Music’s statement, which even calls for defunding the police. Also see the Department of Human Genetics’ statement, which indicts our field for having a consistent history of supporting racism (yes, some human geneticists were racists, but many were not and many were anti-racist). At any rate, such statements are not part of a mission to teach human genetics; they belong in the history of science or philosophy department. Many of these statements represent attempts to limn an ideologically correct view of the world, made by departments, that will clearly quash dissent on the part of graduate students, untenured faculty, and others. Would a graduate student or untenured professor buck a department’s official political position? I think not.

It goes without saying that if a University principle is not enforced, the principle becomes toothless and then worthless. This seems to be what is happening to Kalven. It’s still touted to prospective students and their parents as one of the great foundational principles of the University of Chicago, and it is, but perhaps the prospectives don’t know that it’s adhered to more by lip service than in practice.

These statements, which some administrators have admitted do violate the Kalven principles, should be taken down. While, as I said, I and others agree with the principles in many of these statements, we disagree on many other claims; and prohibiting official statements about things that are politically and academically contestable is the precise purpose of the Kalven Report. A good University (and we are one of the few left in this respect) remains politically neutral, for our mission is not to alter society in preferred ways but to teach our fields as best we can and instill the principles of analysis and critical thinking in students.

If Kalven goes, the University of Chicago may as well go the way of Princeton, Smith, Middlebury College, and other schools whose purpose has moved from academic instruction to changing the world in certain preferred ways.

If you want to read a good book about this, I’ve just finished Stanley Fish’s short volume Save the World on Your Own TimeThe title tells it all; if academics want to promote social justice, political views, and so on, they should do it on their own time, not as part as their official mission as representatives of a university. Fish has had a fair amount of administrative experience, including serving as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

5 thoughts on “FIRE has a chat about free speech with the University of Chicago’s incoming President

  1. It’s ridiculous to indict the entire study of Genetics because it has been used by racists. Racists have used History, Art, Economics, and Literature, as well as Science. We might just as well condemn knowledge as being racist (that might be happening now, actually). It is a fact, though, that as racism is ignorance, knowledge is the primary weapon against it. Scholars would do better to defend their disciplines, just as they would do better to defend their schools, for the good they have done and can do. Of course, in today’s ideology, that would leave them open to being condemned as racist themselves, which is a fine example of ignorance.

  2. The U. Chicago Human Genetics statement claims that the history of Genetic terminology simply being used by racists has influenced the field’s “basic concepts like heredity, adaptation, genetic disorders, and genetic variation within and between populations.” Presumably, all these concepts must be redefined from the approved “anti-racist” perspective—a demand made almost explicit in Lea K. Davis’ recent screed in Scientific American. As Dr. Brydon pointed out, if racists used language, numbers, or their hands, then this presumably contaminates all use of language, numbers, and hands—things which must then be transformed into new, approved versions.

    All of which leads to the question: what real consequence will these ritual statements by academic Departments lead to? It is unlikely that the Chicago police department will be “divested” just because the Music Department favors it. However, these academic homilies will undoubtedly help administrations to add to their burgeoning DEI offices, as described at: . One sinister implication of the Human Genetics statement is that the Diversicrats might expect to supervise the redefinition of concepts like “heredity, adaptation, genetic disorders, and genetic variation within and between populations”, not to mention the use of language, numbers, and hands.

  3. While FOECommitteeReport is fine, I do have one quibble: it fails IMO to adequately support the rights of listeners to hear controversial views. Of protesters: “…they may not obstruct or
    otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even
    loathe. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a
    lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom
    when others attempt to restrict it.” Would that the right to hear were explicitly recognized.

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