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U of C President: “An Environment of Free Expression and Open exchange of ideas is critical”

Robert Zimmer President University of Chicago

By Bill Korach

Last month University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer addressed Colgate University about the importance of free speech to a complete education. According  The 2014 report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) found 59 percent of higher education institutions have policies that the group believes infringe on First Amendment rights.

The report reviewed policies regarding speech in student codes of conduct at 427 colleges and universities around the country. In addition to the 59 percent identified as restricting free speech, FIRE issued a “yellow light” rating to another 35.6 percent of schools because they have “policies that overregulate speech on campus.”

President Zimmer, almost alone among his peers, deplores the decline of freedom of expression on America’s college campuses:

“What I did not anticipate then was that the tone in American institutions of higher education would dramatically change for the worse over the next decade. During this period, academic institutions experienced proliferating demands for decreased freedom of expression, demands coming from within the institutions themselves. Invited speakers have been disinvited because a vocal segment of a university community found their views unsatisfactory; faculty have been pressured to make public apologies for their statements that some deemed offensive; and an entire culture has emerged in which free and open discourse, while still being formally embraced, is explicitly or implicitly being relegated to a lower priority than other concerns. Among a small sample of the disinvited are Laura Bush, Henry Kissinger, Christine Lagarde, Condoleezza Rice, and Larry Summers. While these are highly visible public figures, the list of the disinvited includes individuals from a wide range of fields and disciplines. Such episodes are now so commonplace that in some circles they are viewed as almost normal. The incident at Middlebury earlier this month was a deeply troubling escalation of the suppression of open discourse, with curtailment of speech accompanied by a disturbing level of violence. Thus, while the Chinese academy aims to inject more argumentation and challenge into their education, many American higher educational institutions are moving in the opposite direction, sacrificing a commitment to challenge and questioning. In doing so, they avoid the difficulties of opposing the chilling effects of an emerging discourse of political correctness.”

President Zimmer believes that freedom of expression is crucial to higher learning:

“Rather, what is pertinent are the very purpose and mission of universities. That mission can be summarized in three words: education, research, and impact. Every question about universities’ actions and policies needs to be evaluated in light of these core missions. It is here that the roles of free expression and academic freedom—and their companions, free listening and open questioning—are essential.

Every student at a university deserves an education that deeply enriches their capabilities. This necessitates acquiring knowledge, but more importantly acquiring general skills and habits of mind that will enhance their approach to future challenges. They must learn to recognize and evaluate evidence of various sorts, challenge their own and others’ assumptions, effectively argue their position, grasp both power and limitations in arguments, confront complexity and uncertainty, synthesize different perspectives, understand that context matters, think through unintended consequences, and take account of change, trade-offs, and uncertainties. If the education we provide does not give students the opportunity to acquire these abilities, we are simply shortchanging them. They will be under-prepared to make informed decisions in a complex and uncertain environment, which is inevitably the world they will confront upon entering the workplace, independent of the particular path they choose.”

President Zimmer goes on to state the Principles of the University of Chicago regarding freedom of expression:

Now let me turn to the second topic, namely the Chicago Principles, which are a forceful statement of one university’s commitment to free expression. Unlike all the universities in the United States that preceded it, save Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago was established as a research university from its inception. From its early days, the leadership and faculty of the University articulated the importance of free expression to its missions of rigorous inquiry and providing an education embedded in intellectual challenge. Throughout its history, the University has stood against suppression of speech, with its faculty and many of its presidents—William Rainey Harper, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Edward Levi, and Hanna Gray as key examples—playing visible leadership roles.

It was in this historical context and against the backdrop of the shifts in the American academy over the past decade, that in July 2014, I appointed and charged a faculty committee chaired by UChicago Law School professor Geoffrey Stone. The committee was charged with “articulating the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.  In other words, the committee was asked to provide a concrete statement that encapsulated the underlying and broadly understood culture and views on free expression of the University of Chicago, a culture that had been present at the University since its founding. In response, the Stone Committee put forth a thoughtful, powerful, and clear articulation of the University’s stance, laying out a set of principles now becoming known as the Chicago Principles. I will summarize three such principles from the report.

The first principle is a statement of an unwavering commitment to free expression: “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.”

In the same vein, relevant to current considerations, it states:

it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”

The second principle is that the University recognizes, indeed embraces, non-disruptive protest as a legitimate means of free expression, and as such supports the rights of all members of the University community to engage in such protest.

The third principle the report articulates is that disruptive protest or other means of limiting the rights of others to engage in free expression, work, and open discourse is not acceptable, and is in fact a violation of the University’s commitment to free expression. The distinction between non-disruptive and disruptive protest is essential. Preventing others from speaking and listening is arrogating to oneself the right of free expression, but denying it to others.

The Chicago Principles are a powerful statement. But we all know that stating principles is not the same as implementing them. At UChicago, we recognize that implementation requires constant work. We have the benefit of an institutional culture with a long history of support for free expression, a willingness to express views contrary to popular trends, wide support of the faculty and deans on one hand and the board on the other, and a student body and faculty that, in most cases, are at UChicago because of a commitment to an environment of rigorous inquiry and open discourse. Nevertheless, we have thousands of new students coming to campus every year, and it is essential for us to be articulating, explaining, demonstrating, and engaging in discourse about these principles and how to implement them.

Let me turn now to my third question—what drivers have enabled the current movement against free expression within higher education? I will address four such drivers.

First, free speech is not a natural state of human affairs. Most people actually don’t like it. They like the speech of those they agree with, which they will defend at great length—but there are fewer who are so enthusiastic about the free speech of those they disagree with. As a result, people are often inclined to silence, or at least condone silencing, those who disagree with them. They justify this in a variety of ways—morality, politics, acceptable behavior, preservation of authority, challenge to authority, opposing change, demanding change, and more. Such individuals rarely imagine that in preventing others from expressing views that they are sowing the wind—and ultimately may reap the whirlwind of someone suppressing their own speech.”

We should all salute the courage of President Robert Zimmer who has stood against the trendy tide of speech repression and states with clarity the purpose of a great university. His statement makes me proud to call myself an alumnus of the University of Chicago.






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