How Woke Illiberalism Is Killing the Academy

The University of Chicago was always a bastion of free speech. But even there, freedom is now under threat.

From its founding in 1890, the University of Chicago has occupied a singular place among American universities. Lacking the ancient lineages and social cachet of the Ivy League schools (Chicago welcomed women and Jews at a time when Harvard, et al, excluded the former and imposed strict quotas on the latter), Chicago, which is consistently ranked among the world’s top 10 universities, has always been known for its fierce intellectualism. ‘I think the one place where I have been that is most like ancient Athens’, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once declared, ‘is the University of Chicago’. Indeed, whereas the Ivy League universities, Stanford and their ilk, admitted – and continue to admit – their undergraduates based on such qualities as athletic ability, family connections, and that vague attribute known as ‘leadership’, students came to Chicago because they prized what it still venerates as ‘the life of the mind’. (Chicago’s students score on average higher on the SAT – a national standardised test that assesses academic aptitude – than do those at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford).

Given its devotion to rigorous inquiry – to the belief that ‘education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think’, as its former president Hanna Holborn Gray declared – Chicago has been from its inception the most stalwart bastion of free expression in American higher education. Refusing to bow to political and popular pressure, Chicago’s trustees and administration have insisted, from the ‘Red Scare’ of the 1920s, through the McCarthy era and the politically tumultuous 1960s, that its faculty be unfettered to explore the most heterodox ideas and that its students be free to debate any topic and to invite the most unpopular speakers – including, in 1932, William Z Foster, the presidential candidate and future general secretary of the Communist Party USA, and, in 1963, George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder and leader of the American Nazi Party. In 2015, discerning that free speech was under assault in American universities, Chicago reaffirmed its ‘commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the university’s community’. The subsequent statement of policy – the so-called Chicago Principles – is at once stirring and precise; it has been rightly praised as a full-throated (and much needed) defence of campus free expression. In addition to publishing the Chicago Principles, the University has repeatedly and unequivocally promulgated its commitment to free speech on its website and in statements by its president, provost, and deans. Against the Left: A Ro... Rockwell Jr, Llewellyn H Best Price: $2.84 Buy New $8.00 (as of 05:22 UTC - Details)

Alas, however, although the University of Chicago is a unique institution of higher education, it nonetheless inhabits the ecosystem of higher education. So while its administration and most of its faculty and students remain devoted to what is characterised in the Chicago Principles as ‘the spirit and promise of the University of Chicago’, a woke illiberalism is subverting that spirit and promise from within. In January 2018, Steve Bannon, the former director of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the former chief strategist in Trump’s White House, accepted the invitation of Luigi Zingales, a University of Chicago professor, to debate at the university. In explaining why he invited Bannon, Zingales quite sensibly explained, ‘Whether you like his [Bannon’s] views or not, he seems to have understood something about America that I’m curious to learn more about’. But – surprisingly, given their university’s long-held commitment to free expression; unsurprisingly, given the climate within academe – a minority of Chicago students and faculty members mounted a vociferous campaign demanding that the invitation to Bannon be rescinded. Opposing their university’s policies and principles on free expression and displaying an ignorance of its history of upholding them, a group of professors issued a statement, which took the form of a demand letter to Chicago’s president and provost, calling for Bannon to be de-platformed. The professors proclaimed that ‘the defence of freedom of expression cannot be taken to mean’ that views that the professors deem abhorrent ‘must be afforded the rights [sic] and opportunity to be aired on a university campus’. Although Chicago didn’t heed the protesters’ demands, two years later Bannon has yet to speak at the university for reasons that cannot be discerned – so it’s unclear what part, if any, the student and faculty appeals to withdraw Bannon’s invitation have played in his non-appearance.

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