There is so much going wrong on college campuses today, from shout downs to violent protests, from indulgent administrators to dogmatic students, from safe spaces to microaggressions, that we rarely take time to highlight the colleges who are bucking the trend and embracing free expression.
The University of Chicago has long been one of those institutions. In 1902, university President William Rainey Harper declared that “the principle of complete freedom of speech on all subjects has from the beginning been regarded as fundamental to the University of Chicago” and that “this principle can neither now nor at any future time be called into question.”
Times have tested those words, and at each instance, the University’s commitment to freedom has stood firm. For instance, in the 1930s when a student organization invited William Z. Foster, the Communist Party’s candidate for President, to lecture on campus, the administration didn’t respond with anger, but instead respected their students’ ability to hear, debate and decide for themselves how to respond to controversial ideas.
“As long as our students can be orderly about it they should have freedom to discuss any problem that presents itself and in which they are interested,” President Robert M. Hutchins responded. “I am convinced that [the] cure lies through open discussion rather than inhibition and taboo.”
Later, Hutchins added that “free inquiry is indispensable to the good life, that universities exist for the sake of such inquiry, [and] that without it they cease to be universities.”
In 2015, the University restated its principle via a report by the Committee on Freedom of Expression, convened “in light of recent events nationwide that have tested institutional commitments to free and open discourse.”
“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,” the Committee concluded. “Concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable.”
The University of Chicago is once again proving itself to be a university rather than a playpen. Recently, professor Luigi Zingales invited former White House official Steve Bannon to take part in a debate over globalization and immigration. When president Robert Zimmer asked him why, Zingales replied that Bannon “was able to interpret a broad dissatisfaction in the electorate that most academics had missed. Remember the shock on November 9, 2016? Regardless of what you think about his political positions, there is something faculty and students can learn from a discussion with him.”
And many supposed institutions of higher education could learn from the University of Chicago.
The value the school has placed on the freedom of expression influences the way that its students respond to controversy. Whereas other student bodies have used the heckler’s veto to silence contentious speakers or outright violence to stop a debate over contestable ideas, the University of Chicago has responded with respectful disagreement. Faculty have held a number of “teach ins” to rally against the Bannon invitation and protests are planned for the day Bannon speaks.
Mr. Zimmer sums up the strategy of counter programming and non disruptive protests as: “It’s ‘How are we going to effectively argue with this guy?’, not ‘How are we going to prevent him from coming to campus?’”
The sentiment seemed to echo that of President Barack Obama, who told the graduating class of Howard University: “As my grandmother used to tell me, every time a fool speaks, they are just advertising their own ignorance. Let them talk. Let them talk. … Listen. Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them.”
Of course, there is risk on heaping praise on a university and its students until the rubber meets the road and Mr. Bannon comes to campus. After all, there is still plenty of time and opportunity for this to turn into yet another troubling example of silencing those with whom we disagree. Yet, we hold out hope that University of Chicago students and faculty harken back to their legacy, one which believes that good ideas become stronger by testing them against the best ideas of opponents.