University of Chicago Debates Milton Friedman Institute Today, No Pre-Distribution of Materials Allowed

By on October 15, 2008

The academic freedom of the University of Chicago’s new $200-million Milton Friedman Institute has been under attack for a few months by some faculty members who object to its existence, its namesake, its possible influence on policy, its influence on undergraduates, or all of the above and more. In addition to these recent posts of mine, a couple of the websites of record are here (in favor of the MFI) and here (against), and on the topic of guilt-by-association with reference to Milton Friedman, here.

The critics have their own right to criticize the Institute. But after their arguments were roundly criticized by persons on and off campus, some critics directly threatened the Institute’s academic freedom, not only by threatening its existence but also by calling for restrictions on its activities and communications. If these calls actually come to fruition, it will be a sad day for academic freedom at the university.

The critics have sounded the alarm, first, because the Institute is going to do research on policywhich is a very common thing for professors to do.

Second, the critics have argued that it would be improper for the Institute to reach undergraduates with its messagewhich is what practically every department does, outside the professional schools. The critics warn that "[a]mong the more worrisome details embedded in the proposal is [that] the MFI will also use its assets to recruit and mentor undergraduates"!

Third, the critics warn that donors are going to be allowed to visit with faculty and talk with them about their research. Any such restriction against this access would be a clear violation of freedom of expression.

Plus, there is guilt by association, as the critics keep suggesting, threatening the Institute’s very name: what Milton Friedman did for the nation of Chile, they say, makes it impossible for many to respect an institute named after him.

To make matters worse, on October 1, Naomi Klein came to campus on a book tour for her new book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. The essence of her critique of the Institute was that the economists who are going to work there are one-track ideologues who are responding to the current economic crisis by ignoring reality and rereading books like Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. She completely ignored Friedman’s maxim that in the "Chicago School" of economics, theory needs facts and facts need theory to be worth something. It was a pretty shameful misrepresentation of what University of Chicago economists do, as Professor John Cochrane points out in an editorial in today’s Chicago Maroon:

The petition charges that there will be "donor/corporate control" over the MFI. Nowhere in this University do donors ever control the nature of research and certainly not its outcome. Every part of the University publicizes its research to the outside world and to donors, without violating this rule. This is a completely unfounded insult to the professional ethics of the faculty and administration involved with the Institute.

Cochrane also writes about the double standard for academic freedom that the critics seem to suggest:

One charge is absolutely correct: "…[T]he MFI will engage issues of policy and not limit itself to matters of academic theory." Should we not ask what economic analysisdriven by experience, made coherent by theory, and confirmed in datacan do to improve policies? Does the committee really believe that institutes, centers, and departments should, in writing, be limited to "academic theory" and be prohibited from addressing "issues of policy?" Or does it propose a special limitation for this institute, and, if so, why?

This is a significant challenge to the critics. Are the critics really suggesting that no academic unit at the University of Chicago should reach undergraduates with a controversial argument, that no academic unit should address policy issues, or that no academic unit should make its own choices regarding which persons to communicate with?

Today, the Faculty Senate at the University of Chicago will meet for the first time since 1998 (the actual decision-making bodies for the faculty are these) to discuss the Institute and to hear some other addresses. The first hour will involve the addresses from the university’s president and provost, and most of the second hour will involve discussion of the Institute.

According to an article in yesterday’s Maroon, the rules ban "any resolutions from coming to a vote and pre-distribution of materials." Unfortunately, such a ban restricts freedom of expression. Even though this is a private meeting with a specific agenda where those in charge get to run the meeting, a ban on "pre-distribution of materials" is obviously censorship. Since the apparent leader of the opposition to the Institute, Professor Bruce Lincoln, has gone on record saying, "They’re doing everything they can to make it appear like a democratic process while simultaneously working as hard as possible against it," this ban only adds fuel to his fire. FIRE’s position is neither for nor against the Institute itself, although the attacks look like direct affronts to its academic freedom. Instead, FIRE hopes that the faculty at Chicago will do what they do when they’re at their best and engage in full, open, honest debate about the real issues.

Schools: University of Chicago