Defending Free Speech as “Our Salvation From Intellectual Mediocrity and Social Ossification”

(p. B11) Robert J. Zimmer, a mathematician who as president of the University of Chicago championed diversity not only quantitatively, in the recruitment of students and faculty, but also by protecting free expression on campus with a protocol that was later embraced by dozens of colleges across the country, died on Tuesday [May 23, 2023] at his home in Chicago.

. . .

Mr. Zimmer, who presided over the university from 2006 to 2021, was instrumental in shepherding what became known as the Chicago Principles, a set of guidelines recommended by the Committee on Free Expression, a faculty group he appointed in 2014.

Those guidelines have become a bulwark against what critics perceive as the stifling of academic freedom by colleges where students are able to insulate themselves against discomforting viewpoints — practices that are often lumped together as “cancel culture.”

“Concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community,” the faculty committee concluded.

In August 2016, during Mr. Zimmer’s presidency, the university informed incoming freshmen: “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.”

. . .

As a private institution, the University of Chicago was under no obligation to abide by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. But, Bret Stephens wrote in a New York Times opinion essay in 2017, the real crux of Mr. Zimmer’s case for free speech, offensive or not, was that it was “our salvation from intellectual mediocrity and social ossification.”

According to Mr. Stephens, Mr. Zimmer balked at the notion that unfettered free speech would jeopardize the cause of inclusion because it might upset, among others, some of the people who were seeking to be included.

“Inclusion into what?” Mr. Zimmer had wondered in a speech that year. “An inferior and less challenging education? One that fails to prepare students for the challenge of different ideas and the evaluation of their own assumptions? A world in which their feelings take precedence over other matters that need to be confronted?”

For Mr. Zimmer, the mathematician, that kind of education wouldn’t count.

For the full obituary, see:

Sam Roberts. “Robert J. Zimmer, 75, Who Protected Free Speech on Campus, Dies.” The New York Times (Saturday, May 27, 2023): B11.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date May 24, 2023, and has the title “Robert J. Zimmer, Who Promoted Free Speech on Campus, Dies at 75.”)

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