Will The University Of Chicago Letter Have An Effect?

September 2016

In observing the free speech and academic freedom battles over the past year, it’s hard to judge where the momentum is. On the home front the news is not hopeful. At my own institution, administration-supported efforts to promote safe spaces continue. My own plan to ask students whether they think we live in a rape culture was obstructed by both the research and ethics committees. It appears that, twenty-five years into the game, I suddenly lost the ability to design a questionnaire and failed to appreciate just how injurious my inquiries, about matters appearing daily in the popular media, would be to the undergraduates I was proposing to survey. The much more likely reason for these unreasonable reactions was, of course, that I had the audacity to question academe’s conventional wisdom on the meaning and pervasiveness of rape culture and that this is simply not allowed; to borrow from Janice Fiamengo’s experience, it was necessary to pull the fire alarm on me.

It is frustrating to many of us that the argument whether the university should return to—rather than more completely abandon—its most central mission continues to split, with notable exceptions, across left-right lines. Consider, for example, the likely persuasiveness of provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who makes particularly strong and loud arguments for free speech. His mostly well-informed views and considerable intellect are often lost in the noise of his attention seeking, his over-the-top assertions, and his Alt.Con designation. It’s hard to think that anyone who refers to Donald Trump as “Daddy” is going to have much effect beyond his own choir.

I think the public case for free speech and academic freedom is better made by calmer, though still unafraid, voices—like those of Christina Hoff-Sommers, at least in instances when dissenters are not disinvited or silenced by the heckler’s veto. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) continues to do important work, and the emergence of The Heterodox Academy, with persuasive voices like Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker, is heartening. The problem is that there are not enough of these rational, well-informed, and politically moderate voices engaged in the debate.

What is even scarcer than scholars sticking up for the university? University administrators doing so, of course! It is especially encouraging, then, that the University of Chicago, via Dean of Students John (Jay) Ellison, has taken a decisive step in bucking the trend of censorship. In a letter mailed to the incoming class, Ellison makes it clear that the culture they should expect includes rigorous and civil debate on controversial issues; according to the dean, dis-invitations and the heckler’s veto are just not on. Perhaps most surprising is the clear shot taken against safe spaces and trigger warnings. Initial critical response to the letter focused on how not “condoning” or “supporting” these illiberal phenomena is, in itself, a challenge to academic freedom. Not so, apparently; the university provides assurance that the letter was meant to be tone setting and that there was no intent, for example, to prohibit individual faculty members from using trigger warnings, if they choose to do so. This is a good thing. I see no need for being callous in such matters and from time-to-time I give students a heads up when I am going to address what is, in my judgment, particularly difficult content.

Thus far, the broader fall-out from the letter has again predictably split on political lines, at least from those media sources with pronounced right-left positions. For example, VOX.COM published a blog from Grand View University’s Kevin Gannon, the self-described “Tattooed Professor,” wherein Gannon argues that the letter manifests elitism and serves to unjustly perpetuate power for the traditionally privileged. Not surprisingly, he makes his argument with sarcasm, the requisite dose of buzzwords and hyperbole, and an absence of logic. So, for example, from the Dean’s letter he translates “we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial” as meaning “don’t get any crazy ideas about protesting invited speakers.”

Looking beyond the usual suspects to the mainstream media, my impression is that Dean Ellison’s initiative is a welcome one. Nonetheless, the success of the initiative needs to be qualified. First, the University of Chicago cannot be seen as coming to its senses and as a new convert to the growing wave against campus censorship; instead, it is a rather bold move by a university that was already anomalous in its defense of free speech and academic freedom. Second, the Dean is naïve if he believes that he is significantly affecting the mindset of the incoming class, the majority of which is unlikely to pay much attention one way or the other to any letter they find in their welcome packs. Much more likely is that students will be shaped by professors like Kevin Gannon, who can, at least in the absence of counterargument, justify their censorship in the guise of pursuing social justice.

This does not mean that the Dean’s letter was sent in vain but rather that its effect on students might be indirect. It is more likely that the enlightened position advanced by the administration will serve to embolden those University of Chicago faculty members who might easily argue why the censors are anathema to what a university is but who have hitherto been cowed into self-censorship. More generally, the stance taken by this sole administration is likely to have a liberating effect on real scholars all over the US and Canada. Perhaps this was part of Dean Ellison’s strategy all along.