Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Free-Speech University

Steve Bannon is giving a talk at Chicago. Its president is confident he won’t be shouted down.

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.

“It’s been quite interesting to watch this because, as you can imagine, there are many people who are opposed to Steve Bannon and wish that he hadn’t been invited,” Mr. Zimmer says. Nonetheless, “the students have been remarkable. The student government had a ‘town hall’ with the faculty member who invited Bannon.” The students ran the event, “and they were very clear that there was to be no disruption, that they wanted to have a conversation.”

But at American universities, it isn’t just the students you need to worry about. More than 100 Chicago professors have signed an open letter to Mr. Zimmer objecting to Mr. Bannon’s invitation: “The university should model inclusion for a country that is reeling from the consequences of racism, xenophobia, and hate.” They propose to “model inclusion” by excluding viewpoints they find objectionable: “We believe that Bannon should not be afforded the platform and opportunity to air his hate speech on this campus.”

Mr. Zimmer says most Chicago faculty support free speech, and the letter’s signers are exceptions. “What we see among our faculty is that only a few of those who dislike what they view Bannon as representing have asked that he be disinvited.” Most of their colleagues have instead “talked about counterprogramming, and have talked about protests—nondisruptive protests—which, of course, is totally fine.” He sums up their strategy: “It’s ‘How are we going to effectively argue with this guy?’, not ‘How are we going to prevent him from coming to campus?’ ”

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.” Mr. Zingales, too, welcomed peaceable protests as a healthy exercise of free speech. “I admire the way our students have conducted their protests,” he wrote. “It speaks very well to the values that our university shares.”

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.



Bird of Paradise said...

All capuses that restrict Free Speech needs to be taken to court and lets see their liberal administrators eat crow

Dean said...

Bravo for a university president, teaching staff and student body that are unafraid of opinions with which they may disagree. They are modeling what a university or college should be for all the rest to see.

And boo to the minority who requested Bannon be disinvited.