Snow carpets the ground at the University of Chicago, and footfalls everywhere are soft, giving the place a hushed serenity. Serene, too, is
the university’s 70-year-old president, as he talks about a speaking invitation that could turn his campus turbulent.
is scheduled to talk at the school early next month—there’s no confirmed date—and
is taking criticism for the imminent appearance of
former right-hand man, a paladin of alt-robust conservatives. Mr.
is precisely the sort of figure who is anathema on American campuses, yet Mr. Zimmer is unfazed by the prospect of his visit, confident that it will pass with no great fuss.
“It’s been quite interesting to watch this because, as you can imagine, there are many people who are opposed to Steve Bannon and wish that he hadn’t been invited,” Mr. Zimmer says. Nonetheless, “the students have been remarkable. The student government had a ‘town hall’ with the faculty member who invited Bannon.” The students ran the event, “and they were very clear that there was to be no disruption, that they wanted to have a conversation.”
But at American universities, it isn’t just the students you need to worry about. More than 100 Chicago professors have signed an open letter to Mr. Zimmer objecting to
invitation: “The university should model inclusion for a country that is reeling from the consequences of racism, xenophobia, and hate.” They propose to “model inclusion” by excluding viewpoints they find objectionable: “We believe that Bannon should not be afforded the platform and opportunity to air his hate speech on this campus.”
Mr. Zimmer says most Chicago faculty support free speech, and the letter’s signers are exceptions. “What we see among our faculty is that only a few of those who dislike what they view Bannon as representing have asked that he be disinvited.” Most of their colleagues have instead “talked about counterprogramming, and have talked about protests—nondisruptive protests—which, of course, is totally fine.” He sums up their strategy: “It’s ‘How are we going to effectively argue with this guy?’, not ‘How are we going to prevent him from coming to campus?’ ”
Mr. Bannon was invited to the university by
a finance professor. Would Mr. Zimmer ever contemplate having a quiet word with the prof and asking him to withdraw his invitation to Mr. Bannon? “I wouldn’t even think of it,” Mr. Zimmer answers, in a mildly but unmistakably indignant tone. And no, he won’t be attending the Bannon event. “We have many, many talks,” he says. “I’m really pretty busy.”
attitude is consistent with the norm Mr. Zimmer seeks to uphold. When I asked the professor by email why he extended the invitation, he replied that Mr. Bannon “was able to interpret a broad dissatisfaction in the electorate that most academics had missed. Remember the shock on November 9, 2016? Regardless of what you think about his political positions, there is something faculty and students can learn from a discussion with him.” Mr. Zingales, too, welcomed peaceable protests as a healthy exercise of free speech. “I admire the way our students have conducted their protests,” he wrote. “It speaks very well to the values that our university shares.”
The University of Chicago has long enjoyed a reputation for tough, even remorseless, intellectual inquiry. Its world-famous economics faculty, for instance, is not a place where faint-hearted academics go to road-test their research. In recent years, as colleges across America have censored unfashionable views, Chicago has also come to be known for setting the gold standard for free expression on campus. Mr. Zimmer, who became president in 2006, deserves much credit. He has been outspoken in defense of free speech and in 2014 even set up a committee—under the constitutional law scholar
—that produced the Chicago Principles, the clearest statement by any American university in defense of uninhibited debate.
Mr. Zimmer, a mathematician, says Chicago’s intellectual and moral strengths are “totally tied together.” He’s also quick to point out that its commitment to free debate precedes him, naming virtually every one of his predecessors as a guardian of openness. Mr. Zimmer created the Stone committee, he says, after watching free-speech struggles at other schools: “People were starting to be disinvited from campuses—speakers of some stature, in fact. You started to see this pattern.”
A nadir came in 2013. That year the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) counted 34 “disinvitation attempts”—a record. The University of Pennsylvania canceled a keynote from the future prime minister of India,
for fear of “potential polarizing reactions.” At Brown, New York’s then police commissioner,
was shouted down by students holding signs like “Ray(cist) Kelly.” FIRE reports that the 2013 record was exceeded three years later, when the group counted 42 incidents.
Mr. Zimmer attributes this campus intolerance to “the national mood,” as well as a change in “the ambient environment” in which universities exist. He describes a sort of national attention-deficit disorder: “How much is the national environment amenable to long-term thinking and investment, versus just responding to particular issues, particular needs?” The importance of education and research, he says, “has certainly come under question” in recent years, in part because “the entire tone of the country has shifted toward people being more focused on the immediate and the short-term.”
Mr. Zimmer shames this age of ours by pointing to the Morrill Act of 1862, one of his favorite examples of investing in the long term: “In the middle of the greatest single crisis in the history of the country—the Civil War—the Congress passed, and President Lincoln signed, this act which essentially established the land-grant university system.” The foresight was there then, he says. It isn’t now.
Two examples: budget cuts that are starving state universities of the money they need to grow, and “the nature of our immigration policies.” Mr. Zimmer takes a particular interest in the latter: “Even just in the last two decades, if you look at Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans in the sciences, something like 40% are immigrants. And this doesn’t include those whose parents may have migrated to the United States.” Mr. Zimmer laments that Americans no longer seem to recognize fully “the unbelievable power that being attractive to the most talented people in the world has brought to the capacity of this country.” Trying to imagine the scientific and technological output of the U.S. over the past century without immigration, he says, is “simply inconceivable.”
But America, Mr. Zimmer believes, is “getting less attractive than other places,” so much so that it is in peril of “discarding this huge comparative advantage.” The problem, he says, precedes Donald
presidency: “It’s been exacerbated, but it’s not a new problem. Trump has obviously taken a position more pronounced than others, but it’s been a problem for some time.” Specifically, foreign students who come to the U.S. and earn doctorates face a lot of obstacles “to be able to work here, to have a spouse who can work here.” Ultimately, he says, people are going to look for other places to go—to America’s detriment.
Although conflict on campuses “is not a new thing,” Mr. Zimmer does think that “right now, we’re in a particular period of moral fervor,” with people believing that there’s “a sense of urgency about the rightness of what they’re doing.” Mr. Zimmer was an undergraduate in the 1960s, so he’s no stranger to political ferment. The activists then, however, were motivated by two issues, civil rights and the Vietnam War: “There was a huge amount of focus on what the laws were, and what rights people had under them. And the Vietnam War was very much a matter of government policy.”
The 1960s protests “may have had cultural roots,” Mr. Zimmer says, “but there was a lot of focus on what actions the government should be taking.” Today’s campus indignation is “a bit more broad-based. Yes, what should the government be doing—but it’s also focused on corporations and NGOs, and what communities and universities should be doing.”
One could argue, perhaps paradoxically, that today’s campus activists are much more atomized as well. Identity groups push for their own particular agendas, often in absolutist terms: It matters to me more than anything else in the world that you call me “they,” not “she.” That’s not exactly a broad-based concern.
When I put this argument to Mr. Zimmer, he gently deflects: “Again, I’d go to the point that the main issue is—whether everybody is focused on one thing, or whether there are multiple groups focused on multiple things—that you get the same . . . kind of fervor, which says certain ideas should not be discussed and thought about. And that’s what the problem is.”
Mr. Zimmer has his eye on the future of free speech in another, innovative way. As president of a university, he sees himself as a stakeholder in America’s high schools. “High schools prepare students to take more advanced mathematics, and they prepare them to write history papers, and so on,” he says. But “how are high schools doing in preparing students to be students in a college of open discourse and free argumentation? I’ve started thinking about this.”
The free-speech president, as some of his colleagues call him, is going on a free-speech roadshow. Mr. Zimmer invited six high-school principals—including from his alma mater, Lower Manhattan’s
High—to dinner in New York City to talk about this question last month. He plans two similar dinners in Chicago, followed by more in other cities. The initiative is still embryonic, and although Mr. Zimmer insists he’s “not going to pretend to tell high schools how to prepare people,” he does consider it “an important question for high schools to confront.”
Mr. Zimmer says, optimistically, that even universities that “may not have been talking about issues of free expression two years ago” are at least “trying to confront them, at least recognizing that maybe there’s a problem.” In the same vein, it would be very healthy, he thinks, for high-school teachers “to actually be thinking about this in a kind of systematic way.” He’s observed that “a lot of students are not prepared for this environment.” Some of that is inevitable, Mr. Zimmer believes, because “free expression doesn’t come naturally for most people. It’s not an instinctive response.” Young people need “to be taught it”—and it’s better if universities don’t have to start from scratch.
is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Appeared in the February 17, 2018, print edition.