University of Chicago Defends Free Speech and Tough Intellectual Inquiry

(p. A15) Chicago
Snow carpets the ground at the University of Chicago, and footfalls everywhere are soft, giving the place a hushed serenity. Serene, too, is Robert Zimmer, the university’s 70-year-old president, as he talks about a speaking invitation that could turn his campus turbulent.
Steve Bannon is scheduled to talk at the school early next month–there’s no confirmed date–and Mr. Zimmer is taking criticism for the imminent appearance of Donald Trump’s former right-hand man, a paladin of alt-robust conservatives. Mr. Bannon is precisely the sort of figure who is anathema on American campuses, yet Mr. Zimmer is unfazed by the prospect of his visit, confident that it will pass with no great fuss.
. . .
Mr. Bannon was invited to the university by Luigi Zingales, a finance professor. Would Mr. Zimmer ever contemplate having a quiet word with the prof and asking him to withdraw his invitation to Mr. Bannon? “I wouldn’t even think of it,” Mr. Zimmer answers, in a mildly but unmistakably indignant tone. And no, he won’t be attending the Bannon event. “We have many, many talks,” he says. “I’m really pretty busy.”
Mr. Zingales’s attitude is consistent with the norm Mr. Zimmer seeks to uphold. When I asked the professor by email why he extended the invitation, he replied that Mr. 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.”
. . .
The University of Chicago has long enjoyed a reputation for tough, even remorseless, intellectual inquiry. Its world-famous economics faculty, for instance, is not a place where faint-hearted academics go to road-test their research. In recent years, as colleges across America have censored unfashionable views, Chicago has also come to be known for setting the gold standard for free expression on campus. Mr. Zimmer, who became president in 2006, deserves much credit. He has been outspoken in defense of free speech and in 2014 even set up a committee–under the constitutional law scholar Geoffrey Stone –that produced the Chicago Principles, the clearest statement by any American university in defense of uninhibited debate.

For the full interview, see:

Tunku Varadarajan, interviewer. “THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW; The Free-Speech University; Steve Bannon is giving a talk at Chicago. Its president is confident he won’t be shouted down.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018): A15.

(Note: ellipses added; italics in original.)
(Note: the online version of the interview has the date Feb. 16, 2018.)

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