The New York Times reports on the controversial welcome letter from Dean of Students Jay Ellison to the University of Chicago’s incoming freshmen.
In the letter, the Dean reminds freshmen that the university is committed to free speech and that as such, it does not support “trigger warnings,” the cancellation of invited speakers discussing controversial topics, and the creation of safe spaces where “individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” (See text of letter here).
At a time when campus protests are thought to have led to decreased giving from alums, some voices have ventured that the University of Chicago wrote the letter in order to keep older, more conservative donors happy.
Over the past couple of years, as campus protests have been spreading, the University of Chicago has been building up a long list of public letters and statements affirming its commitment to free speech.
Among these is a Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression released in early 2015. The Committee was appointed in 2014 “in light of recent events nationwide that have tested institutional commitments to free and open discourse.” Among its conclusions, it states that “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome.”
The University of Chicago’s public record on free speech has caused Jonathan Haidt, who claims that “most people are horrified by what’s going on in the universities,” to say that “Chicago is my main hope. The University of Chicago might be able to devote itself to truth.”
Peter Wood is not as optimistic. He argues that the University of Chicago’s statement on free speech is at best “half a loaf,” since the University exalts freedom of speech while leaving out other key values such as the pursuit of truth. He adds that the University, by treating freedom of expression as an end in itself, has opened the way for some of the forces responsible for the situation on many campuses today.
Dean Ellison’s welcome letter to freshmen certainly follows the University’s tradition of jealously defending free speech. It remains to be seen how the University of Chicago will influence broader conversations in the American academy.