The Forum | Freedom of Expression

Q&A with the President of the University of Chicago: Safeguarding Free Expression

June 5, 2017 by Michael B. Poliakoff

As freedom of expression faces increasingly difficult challenges on college campuses, the University of Chicago has emerged as the leading voice in defense of free expression, intellectual diversity, and academic freedom. The Chicago Principles offer a landmark model—which nearly 20 colleges and universities have already adopted—for how to foster a culture centered on free speech and viewpoint diversity.

This May, ACTA announced University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer as the 2017 recipient of the Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education. President Zimmer has been instrumental in the University of Chicago’s leadership on the all-important issue of campus free expression, setting an example for college and university administrators nationwide.

Shortly after his selection as the 2017 Merrill winner, President Zimmer joined ACTA’s blog, The Forum, to reflect on the Merrill Award and the centrality of free expression to academe. What follows is a condensed transcript of the interview, which has been edited for clarity:

The Forum: Thank you so much for joining us. Let’s jump in. It would be no exaggeration to say that you’ve taken a position of national leadership to protect freedom of thought and expression. What is there about the present time that has made your leadership so uniquely important?

President Zimmer: My own view is that the general environment in higher education with respect to free expression is severely challenged. Free expression is not being maintained as a high value, which comes at great costs to students and faculty. And we’re seeing this play out over and over, at one university after another.

Some of these larger events—disinvitations and the like—are dramatic symptoms of a much deeper problem. There is increasingly a culture of self-censorship on campus, in which students feel unwilling and unable actually to speak and engage freely.

So this is why I felt it was particularly important to be very clear about the University of Chicago’s position on the primacy of free expression, and hopefully to stimulate much more reflection on the part of colleges and universities across the country about how they might get back to reclaiming this fundamental value.

The Forum: The University of Chicago of course has a long, wonderful heritage of protecting free expression. Could you talk about this legacy?

President Zimmer: Yes. Fascinatingly, you can go back to statements made by William Rainey Harper, the University of Chicago’s first president, and the statements that appeared in minutes of faculty meetings in the 1890s, and see that the value of free expression is an intrinsic part of what the University is, embedded in the nature of how the University was founded. The University was founded as a research institution from the beginning, attracting faculty for whom an environment of open discourse and intense research was very important.

Since then, our commitment to free expression fortunately was supported by many faculty and leaders over the years in difficult times—people like Robert Maynard Hutchins, Edward Levi, and Hanna Gray. It’s important that universities have strong leaders, who will reaffirm these values over and over again.

However, the willingness of presidents to speak out is necessary, but not sufficient. It’s important to recognize that the University’s support for academic freedom is deeply driven by the faculty culture. Commitment to free expression needs to be embraced by most of the faculty to sustain a culture that supports it. You’re never going to have a big faculty agree 100% on anything, but the bulk of our faculty views free expression as absolutely essential to the education we offer and the research environment we want to inculcate. That recognition has been deeply embedded and is critical to the way the University of Chicago has responded over the years.

The Forum: What events in the nation—or at the University of Chicago in particular—inspired the creation of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, which later produced the Chicago Principles?

President Zimmer: Even three years ago, when the Committee was formed, concerns about an erosion of free expression nationwide were mounting. There were a number of prominent instances of speakers being disinvited from engagements to give addresses, because some segment of the population didn’t like what they had to say. Alarmingly, since then, the depths of the problem on campuses have continued to deepen.

This trend stands totally counter to the way that the University of Chicago has always thought and continues to think about the problem of disinviting people. So, I believed it was important that the University have a clear statement of our view as an institution, and very important to appoint a faculty committee from across the University to craft such a statement, after it first talked to lots of faculty and identified the consensus. It’s not my statement; it’s a statement of the University of Chicago. And I’m very glad that the committee did such an excellent job in capturing so beautifully the meaning of the University of Chicago’s approach.

The Forum: To follow up on that, Dean John Ellison’s letter to incoming students, in which he declared that the University of Chicago does not condone trigger warnings, speaker disinvitations, or intellectual safe spaces, really reverberated in the world of higher education. Could you talk a little bit about the genesis of this very important letter?

President Zimmer: This was very much driven by the dean of the college and the dean of students in the college. That was not my letter. But I think the genesis of that letter, of the committee that led to the Chicago Principles, and of my own statements in editorials and speeches all stem from the same underlying culture at the University of Chicago, in our commitment to unfettered freedom of expression.

The Forum: We’ve been tracking with excitement the growing number of schools—nearly 20, at last count—that have adopted the Chicago Principles of free expression, in some cases verbatim. Are you hopeful that we’re on a wave that’s building, with more institutions following the University of Chicago’s lead?

President Zimmer: I’m cautiously hopeful. I’m very gratified that there has been a trailblazing group of institutions that have stepped up to this issue in such a strong way. But it’s still a very small number of institutions. Moreover, as schools consider statements on free expression, it’s important that they recognize that free expression is not merely one value among many, but that it is the central value of higher education.

However, unless you have a faculty that’s going to demonstrate a commitment to open discourse on a day-to-day basis, that is going to understand that you actually need to help students recognize the real value to their education of free expression, open discourse, challenge, and argument—and encourage students to challenge their own assumptions—then any progress is going to be very difficult. Deans, provosts, and presidents need to create an environment in which faculty can themselves feel free to become models of critical discourse and demonstrate the value of free expression in challenging students and thereby ultimately enriching students’ education. You can’t expect students just to know that and understand it. It needs to be worked through and demonstrated and talked about.

The Forum: One of the University of Chicago’s other major contributions to academic freedom lies in the Kalven Committee report, a ground-breaking report on the importance of institutional neutrality. A half century on, how does the University of Chicago continue to live by that report’s recommendations?

President Zimmer: We do continue to live by the Kalven report, and it comes up often. For example, there are constantly calls for divestment with respect to one political issue or another, when groups want the university to adopt their political position. At the University of Chicago, we take principled stands on these matters. We don’t dodge them. We continue to say: The Kalven principles have served the university very well for half a century, and we continue to abide by them. We are fully committed to remaining politically neutral.

So, it’s been a very important statement for the University. In fact, it was having such a clear statement of principles in the Kalven report that inspired the creation of the Committee on Freedom of Expression and the Chicago Principles. Our commitment to institutional neutrality had long been understood and shared by the University community, but simply having the Kalven report as a clearly articulated statement has been very valuable, and I felt we needed a corresponding statement about free expression.

The Forum: That’s a lovely image: The twin pillars of freedom of thought and freedom of expression, exemplified in these two committee reports. Unfortunately, the University of Chicago is one of these wonderful exceptions, in contrast to other schools, where we’ve seen disruptions and calls for disinvitations and no-platforming. What advice would you have for universities, moving forward?

President Zimmer: I think there’s no question that institutions need to be more assertive. There are too many examples of colleges considering it okay to disrupt or disinvite speakers. The idea that colleges and universities tolerate—and, in some cases, are complicit in—this type of illiberalism is, to me, very disturbing. The more one can be clear and the more one can try to evolve an appropriate culture, the better. When you really think about it, preventing someone from speaking is essentially saying, “I have a right, and I’m taking away your right.” It’s a very powerful act, and not at all a good one.


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