The University Of Chicago Has Defended Higher Education

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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In 1939 the president of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, pulled the university out of the Big 10 Conference and terminated the school’s football program in the conviction that commercialized sports are incompatible with the academic and intellectual missions of the university.  Few schools followed his lead, but Chicago has ever since adhered to Hutchins’ view of the appropriate role for athletics in the university (now including football which was restored in 1969 but with no aspirations for past glories like its 1905 national championship victory over Michigan.)

Nearly 8 decades later, another Chicago president, Robert Zimmer, has broken from the academic pack in declaring in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that “[f]ree speech is at risk at the very institution where it should be assured: the university.”  For the sake of American higher education, we should hope that Zimmer attracts more followers than did his predecessor Hutchins.

Among the threats to free speech, in Zimmer’s view, are the disinvited and shouted-down speakers deemed by some to be offensive, the elimination of readings said to make some students uncomfortable, and the forced apologies for expression of disfavored views.  Students entering the university this fall have been notified in a letter from the dean of students, John Ellison, that the university’s “commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

The New York Times reports that Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, called Ellison’s letter a publicity stunt intended to mollify unhappy donors.  No doubt the leaders of other universities subjected, like Wesleyan, to public criticism for suppressing speech will have similar, self-serving reactions.  But it is difficult to comprehend how any university president or professor could disagree with Zimmer’s call for free expression in the academy.  Those who do are engaged in pursuits other than education and the search for truth.

All too often the defenders of trigger warnings, safe spaces, and censorship are engaged in advocacy and indoctrination, not education.  They take truth as a given to be conveyed and reinforced in students who will become advocates for whatever cause has dictated the presumed truth.  Questioning the accepted truth risks undermining students’ commitment to the cause.  It is education as politics, not education as pursuit of truth.

Although President Hutchins stood on principle and the University of Chicago has flourished as a result, higher education in general has survived with commercialized sports.  Indeed there is a reasonable argument that many of the nation’s best universities have prospered because of the perceived link between alumni financial support and success in sports.  And while sports may dominate the lives of so-called student athletes, it does not necessarily undercut the core mission of the university so long as educational resources remain available.

But no amount of financial resources, physical facilities and alumni support can overcome an institutional abandonment of the pursuit of truth.  That is the core mission of every university and college worthy of being called an institution of higher learning.

The University of Chicago’s president has written the truth about the pursuit of truth. Never have I been prouder of my alma mater.