Educational freedom in Chicagoland
The University of Chicago and Northwestern University are among the top ten national colleges by US News and World Report. Their locations are in the same state, less than 25 miles apart. However, they are at the opposite polarity of the great problem universities face today: whether they remain academies devoted to open exchange of ideas, or whether they prioritize a new secular sacred – the ideology of diversity – that suppresses and uncomfortable debates maintain a left orthodoxy.
Two incidents last year illustrate the educational distance between them. In the first case, a professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago criticized certain programs on YouTube that promote “diversity and inclusion”, including some in his own department. The students then requested that he be removed from various official duties in the department. The University of Chicago refused and refused to criticize his views. Instead, it defended its academic freedom, including the freedom to criticize the practices of its own university.
Last month at Northwestern, the university I teach at, the story was very different. There Joseph Epstein, professor emeritus at the university, wrote a comment in the Wall Street Journal and criticized the practice of using honorary doctorates from non-medical doctors. Appendix A to this review was Jill Biden, who apparently insists on Dr. To be called Biden, although Biden, as my PhD in economics says of herself, is not a “doctor who helps people”, but is an English teacher at a community college. Epstein also suggested that honorary degrees are often not earned and are regularly selected to reflect race and gender balance rather than merit.
The reaction from the northwest was exaggerated. The English department said Epstein’s essay raises an “undeserved discussion” of Biden’s doctoral cards and expertise. Providing a helpful context for his attack on Epstein, the chairman said that Epstein had “angry” people for a long time with his writing. At the risk of more people in the English department getting angry, I want to point out that it is noticeable that the English department cannot write a short statement without pleonasm. Aspersion is defined by Webster as a “false or misleading accusation”. Aspersions cannot be earned.
The university itself weighed and stated, “Northwestern is a firm believer in equity, diversity and inclusion and disagrees with Mr. Epstein’s misogynistic views.” The university’s statement also contained a boilerplate that “firmly supported” academic freedom. At the same time, the University of Epstein has removed Epstein as a retired professor from its website, although this honorary title is awarded by the Board of Trustees according to Northwestern’s own faculty manual and others with the same title emeritus are listed on the university’s website. Professors who wrote the Provost to complain about this violation of academic freedom did not even receive the courtesy of a response.
These different responses to challenges to an element of academic orthodoxy show the difference between a university devoted to epistemic liberalism and a university devoted to defending a political orthodoxy. The University of Chicago action fosters intellectual debate, even on subjects that many professors consider sacred. Northwestern’s reaction is daunting. Indeed, Epstein’s airbrushing of his website in response to his views has a familial resemblance to totalitarian societies where people become non-people when they express criticism of the wrong kind. That the university did so while proclaiming its commitment to academic freedom has a particularly Orwellian note.
With the advent of the secular sacred values of inclusion and diversity that dominate the campus, a university’s commitment to epistemic liberalism must be made clear in order for it to prevail.
Unfortunately, official actions to punish unorthodox and discourage others are far too common in universities these days. There are strong forces at work to subordinate free expression and the open investigation of the values considered more sacred, especially those known as “diversity and inclusion” that have now been updated to include “anti-racism” “To include art that is far from a commitment to non-discrimination.
Three pressures are particularly strong. One of them is the illiberal ability. While university professors have been largely left-wing for decades, they have nonetheless been heavily involved in the libertarianism of free speech. This was often part of the left-wing liberalism of their youth. But today many younger faculty members see the whole world through the prism of race or gender, often using methods that oppose the liberalism of the Enlightenment.
Second, and most importantly, university bureaucrats largely run the modern university. Often their mission does not include protection of freedom of expression or investigation. Indeed, the numerous bureaucrats who enforce “diversity and inclusion” are often all too fortunate to maximize the goals of this ideology at the expense of academic freedom. Northwestern is without a doubt a typical university. Here faculty members are admonished to follow community standards for diversity and inclusion without, as my colleagues note, mentioning freedom of expression or academic engagement.
Third, universities often target students as consumers. Most students do not want to suppress free speech, but the vocal activists do, and they are conveniently treated as student representatives by university bureaucrats. Administrators can then justify illiberal acts as a preventive measure against student unrest.
The University of Chicago is better able to withstand this pressure because it has formally adopted a commitment to academic freedom and free inquiry – the Chicago Principles – that are worth reading in full. These principles state in part:
Of course, the ideas of different members of the university community will often and naturally conflict. However, it is not the university’s proper job to protect individuals from ideas and opinions that they find undesirable, uncomfortable, or even deeply offensive. Although the university values courtesy and all members of the university community share the responsibility of maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about politeness and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing the discussion of ideas as offensive or offensive, these ideas may be uncomfortable for some members of our community.
One of the basic principles is the requirement that the university defend the right to freedom of expression even when it is unpopular. The University of Chicago responded to this commitment and defended the professor in its department of geophysics. Northwestern has no such obligation, and that absence made it easier for the university to treat Epstein the way it did.
You might think that statements like the Chicago Principles are unnecessary because a university can only be really great if it creates an atmosphere of openness to ideas and tolerance of dissent. Indeed, at one point in history, such epistemic liberalism was the norm for our elite universities. But with the advent of the secular sacred values of inclusion and diversity that dominate campus, that commitment needs to be made explicit in order for it to prevail. Such a declaration encourages the heterodox and ties the hands of administrators who can tell activists who want to cancel others that they are very sorry but there is nothing they can do.
The best way for universities to preserve epistemic liberalism is to adopt the Chicago Principles. Some of my colleagues in the Northwest are considering bringing our university to it. I will join the effort, but I am not entirely optimistic. Many universities, including my own, may consciously choose a course of product differentiation and take on their roles as institutions that subordinate truth-finding to these new values. In doing so, they can be encouraged by our companies that increasingly want graduates who are not only smart but fall into the political line that companies better take to stay one step ahead of vigilance. Not for the first time could educational institutions be exposed to tension between two of the central legacies of Enlightenment liberalism – the free market and freedom of expression.