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University of Chicago President: ‘Questioning and Challenge Must Flourish’

University of Chicago sign in front of a building

Jannis Tobias Werner /

The University of Chicago (UChicago) generated national headlines this week after sending incoming students a letter promising “the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas” and criticizing trigger warnings, disinvitations, and “intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Authored by Dean of Students Jay Ellison, the letter has reawakened an ongoing debate about the locus of threats to free expression in higher education. Critics like the New Republic’s Jeet Heer charge that by articulating an institutional opposition to the use of trigger warnings, the letter “constitutes a chilling effect and breach of academic freedom.” Elsewhere, New York magazine’s Jesse Singal praises the university, with some qualification, for “making such an affirmative case for a liberal conception of campus free speech,” and concludes that the letter may serve as “a useful nudge to help get other, more timorous university administrators to stand up and do their jobs.”

After confirming via her own reporting that the letter does not prohibit faculty from using trigger warnings, my colleague Alex Morey hails UChicago as “a leader among colleges and universities in its approach to freedom of speech,” noting that the institution earned a green-light rating from FIRE this past April. Alex also points out that last year, a University of Chicago faculty committee led by Professor Geoffrey Stone authored the influential “Chicago Statement” on campus that has since been endorsed by FIRE and adopted by other institutions and faculty governing bodies nationwide.

Today, University of Chicago president Robert J. Zimmer weighs in via a powerful Wall Street Journal op-ed. Identifying the importance of free speech to a liberal education, Zimmer writes:

Essential to this process is an environment that promotes free expression and the open exchange of ideas, ensuring that difficult questions are asked and that diverse and challenging perspectives are considered. This underscores the importance of diversity among students, faculty and visitors—diversity of background, belief and experience. Without this, students’ experience becomes a weak imitation of a true education, and the value of that education is seriously diminished.

Zimmer also notes that respecting free speech can be difficult for both individuals and institutions, noting that “[f]ree expression and the unfettered exchange of ideas do not always come naturally”:

Over the years, universities have come under attack from a range of groups, both external and internal, that demand the silencing of speakers, faculty, students and visitors. The attack is sometimes driven by a desire of an individual or group not to have its authority questioned. Other times it derives from a group’s moral certainty that its particular values, beliefs or approaches are the only correct ones and that others should adhere to the group’s views. Some assert that universities should be refuges from intellectual discomfort and that their own discomfort with conflicting and challenging views should override the value of free and open discourse.

We have seen efforts to suppress discussion of Charles Darwin’s work, to insist upon particular political perspectives during the McCarthy era, to impose exclusionary acts of racial and religious discrimination, and to demand compliance with various forms of “moral” behavior. The silencing being advocated today is equally as problematic. Every attempt to legitimize silencing creates justification for others to restrain speech that they do not like in the future.

Underscoring the importance of this week’s letter, Zimmer concludes that universities “should be clear about their core educational mission—to provide students with the most enriching education possible.” To guarantee the attainment of that result, “questioning and challenge must flourish.” FIRE fully agrees.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board praises the University of Chicago’s effort in a separate editorial, also published today.

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