The Not-Quite-Free University

By November 3, 2009

As President Zimmer explains it, the university seldom takes "positions" on "issues" but strives to remain neutral institutionally so that professors and students may fully exercise their individual academic freedom, and so that knowledge may increase and human life thus be enriched. But does the University of Chicago really remain neutral on issues where it has a choice? Not at all.

For instance: "The University of Chicago is committed to fostering an environment free from racism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism, homophobia, ableism, xenophobia. The University has a number of policies and statements that reinforce the campus community’s commitment to diversity, civility, and equity. In addition to the University policies, other areas of campus (e.g., ORCSA, libraries, Housing) also have specific policies."

Not only does the university declare that "every member" of the university "makes a commitment" to the vaguely defined values of "diversity, civility, and equity," but the university further chills individual academic freedom by promising that moral failures in such vaguely defined areas as "treat[ing] others with dignity and respect" and "act[ing] as a responsible citizen" may be punished.

It is quite easy for administrators to abuse their discretion in enforcing values like "civility." Last year, for instance, a University of Chicago student was required to take down innocent photographs and censor the title of his Facebook photo album because a dean of students declared his album "disrespectful."

The university also maintains speech codes that would be unconstitutional at a public university. Indeed a court, recognizing that the university’s advertised commitments to free expression are contractually binding, may well find a contract violation in these codes.

Perhaps worst of all is the university’s "Bias Response Team," which springs into action 24/7 when, for instance, someone reports language subjectively "perceived as derogatory." In addition, posters may be removed if they are "deemed to be offensive to a particular group or individual."

Zimmer’s speech sets up the university with its Kalven Report as an admirable example of institutional neutrality, but in practice the university accepts so many exceptions that they swallow the rule. I do not even include here the variety of politicized academic programs which include a center whose mission in part is to "help build a feminist public sphere." I have written before on the university’s selective enforcement of the Kalven Report.

The Kalven Report is invoked most often to tell students that the university won’t do what they want. It rarely or never is invoked to say that the administration may not proceed with its own politicized initiatives. Among the most notable of these is the university’s commitment to sustainability, which "encompasses projects in a wide range of areas"—including academic programs and research. Where is academic freedom here? Where is the Kalven Report when the university even has an institutional "commitment to sustainable dining" but won’t divest from Sudan?