Academic Freedom Absolutism at the University of Chicago

Spencer Kashmanian

The University of Chicago has welcomed its students with a warning: no coddling here. The Dean of Students, John Ellison, alerted incoming freshmen in a now-viral letter that the school does not support safe spaces and trigger warnings:

Our commitment to academic freedom means 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.

Dean Ellison’s letter quickly earned the approval of free speech champions. But some find his stance hypocritical. In a blog post for Inside Higher Ed, College of Charleston adjunct professor John Warner observes that not all speech is welcome at U Chicago: safe spaces and trigger warnings aren’t included in the “wide range of ideas” that students have “the freedom to espouse and explore.” Warner sees in Chicago’s hard line towards safe spaces and trigger warnings an attempt by privileged elites to shield themselves from uncomfortable ideas and perspectives. Chicago is now a safe space for administrators. If the University of Chicago was truly committed to the free exchange of ideas, Warner claims, then it would recognize the free expression of those who support safe spaces, trigger warnings, dis-invitations, and disruptive protests. These are just the “inevitable conflicts and clashes” that arise in a community of learning.

Warner forgets that safe spaces, trigger warnings, and dis-invitations prevent the free exchange of ideas. One cannot have a meaningful conversation with someone who plugs his ears and shouts over another. Even if he is shouting about his right to be heard, he is short-circuiting the conversation. Such a person is not exercising his right to debate but insisting on the right to stymie debate. Just so with safe spaces and trigger warnings. The principles of academic freedom safeguard the conditions necessary for free inquiry and civil discourse: civility, intellectual tenacity, and respect for evidence, among others. To suggest that academic freedom protects actions which undermine these conditions and render them impossible is absurd.

Nevertheless, Warner’s criticism points at a real flaw in the University of Chicago’s conception of free speech. Both Warner and Chicago’s Dean Ellison assume an absolutist version of academic freedom in which the free exchange of ideas is an end in itself. Under this definition, members of the university have the right to speak and an equal right to silence those they don’t want to hear. Freedom of expression stands, but so does freedom of suppression. How to mediate between the two is unclear. Thus, Jeet Heer at New Republic calls the letter a breach of academic freedom, while the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education declares it to be a “win for campus speech.”  Both appeal to academic freedom yet come to radically different conclusions. 

Ellison’s letter was accompanied by a booklet on academic freedom written by historian and Dean of the College John Boyer, which offers a more robust defense of intellectual freedom than Ellison was able to condense to a page. But the letter recalls the surface-level defense of academic freedom laid out by the University of Chicago’s Committee on Free Expression report in January 2015. Chicago’s principles of free expression, since adopted by Princeton and Purdue, fail to explain what purpose speech serves, as NAS president Peter Wood observed last fall.

While free expression is an “antidote to intellectual complacency and the slumber of settled beliefs,” wrote Wood, this end only makes sense in light of the university’s primary mission to provide students a sound education. Ignore other principles that this mandate encompasses—such as the pursuit of truth—and free expression becomes an “unmoored freedom” that drifts away from its rationale.  

The University of Chicago erred in its 2015 statement and errs again in its new letter by dislodging academic freedom from its philosophical foundation and setting it up as the controlling principle in the university. Academic freedom is a limited and context-dependent idea rooted in the more fundamental concerns of higher education: the pursuit of truth, dissemination of knowledge, cultivation of character, and the promotion of a responsible citizenry. As Wood wrote, the aim of the university is not “formless exploration” but “purposeful inquiry.”

To avoid academic freedom absolutism, the University of Chicago—and higher education at large—must add more substance to style by restoring a contextualized understanding of the principles of academic freedom.

Spencer Kashmanian is a development associate at the National Association of Scholars.  

Image: "Main Quadrangle, University of Chicago" by Luiz Gadelha Jr. // CC BY 2.0

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