University of Chicago Faculty Members Threaten Academic Freedom of Milton Friedman Institute on Grounds of Academic Freedom

August 19, 2008

In June I pointed out that the University of Chicago’s recently announced Milton Friedman Institute is under attack by faculty members who dislike the Institute’s expected focus on free-market economics and its expected market approach to social policy. This attack has generally been treated as an attack on the Institute’s academic freedom insofar as such expectations might be true, even though the original faculty letter stated that "This is not a question of academic freedom, to be sure: we know that the work of scholars at the Milton Friedman Institute will not have a chilling effect on the development of other kinds of knowledge at the University."

But the dissenting faculty won a meeting with the university’s president as well as a promise that the Faculty Senate would get a second bite at the apple (having approved the Institute, in some form, at an earlier date) in a meeting of the full Faculty Senate.

And now the dissenters are going back to the academic freedom argument. One of the arguments now is that within the Institute, the academic freedom of researchers will be threatened, for the general research agendas of the Institute may not match the research agendas of scholars who might want to study at the Institute. Thus, the dissenting group is calling itself the "Committee for Open Research on Economy & Society" (CORES).

This group is floating a number of other arguments as well, such as the idea that rich outside donors will have special access to and influence on the research of the Institute, or that "the MFI will also use its assets to recruit and mentor undergraduates"! But these arguments are outside FIRE’s purview, so to get the documentation on the history of the controversy, the latest petition, and recent media coverage, be advised that the website of record appears to be this one.

Let me repeat part of what I wrote in June:

A witch-hunt for orthodoxy-like statements [in an academic unit’s mission] only leads to a lot of drownings of false witches…. It is true: unequal funding reflects institutional priorities. But that’s a far cry from establishing an institutional orthodoxy. Emphasizing studies in one perspective over another is an important way for graduate departments and entire graduate programs to compete with one another. The real problem is when students or scholars are required to, for instance, demonstrate personal commitment to a highly politicized agenda…

The CORES faculty should beware of trying to set a precedent whereby the academic freedom of their own favorite departments, committees, and institutes can be threatened. For example, I see no language in the Institute’s documents that is any stronger than what I read in the "mission and core principles" of the university’s Franke Institute for the Humanities:

At its founding, the Franke Institute addressed four major transformatory processes at work in humanistic research at that time, which articulated the basic agenda the Institute serves: paradigm change, interdisciplinarity, multi-culturalism, and public outreach. These four processes of transformation [are] some common themes that underlie the whole movement that has produced the proliferation of humanities centers and institutes nationwide.

Yes, I see: an agenda of multiculturalism and "paradigm change" counts as ok, but an agenda of free-market economics does not. I think CORES is going to lose on its academic freedom argument.