Last week the University of Chicago announced the Milton Friedman Institute, a new think tank, dedicated to promoting the Chicago school of economics, that will launch next fall. To be housed in the Chicago Theological Seminary, the Friedman Institute will seek to improve academic dialogue and cross-disciplinary research. The move has tremendous potential to advance the U of C’s role in the study of economics, but to be successful, the Institute must first make a firm and public commitment to academic independence and objective study.
The advantages of the Friedman Institute are many: First, it will promote interaction between the Economics Department, the GSB, the Law School, and visiting scholars. More broadly, the Institute will improve communication between the various subfields of economics, which can only strengthen the quality and relevance of current research. The University as a whole will also benefit from increased visibility and prestige, making the U of C an even more attractive destination for the nation’s top researchers and students.
And yet, for this to happen, the Friedman Institute will have to perform a difficult balancing act. The Institute’s namesake was one of the U of C’s most distinguished economists but also one of its most divisive academics, potentially making his inherently loaded name a poor choice for an institute dedicated to academic cooperation. Furthermore, while the University claims the Institute will produce objective research, the report preceding its creation declared that “[t]he intellectual focus of the Institute would reflect the traditions of the Chicago school” such as issues ranging from “advocacy for market alternatives to ill conceived policy initiatives.”
If the Friedman Institute truly promotes cross-disciplinary dialogue and objectivity, it will be a boon to the University, but any attempt to advance a single ideology will have a deleterious effect on the U of C as a whole. Even if the Institute is not unduly affected by predetermined bias, it will have to fight the misperceptions its name and founding report might create. The University would be wise to learn from the pitfalls of the Hoover Institution, a think tank located at Stanford. While an explicitly conservative organization, Hoover is more than capable of producing credible research and employing respected academics. But its work is often tainted by its association with right-wing ideologues such as Dinesh D’Souza, who published a book in 2007 arguing that the “cultural left” was largely responsible for the attacks on 9/11, and the decidedly unacademic Donald Rumsfeld, who began a term there as a one-year visiting fellow in September.
It is fine to pay homage to Milton Friedman, but the institute that bears his name should keep in mind the truth that allowed Friedman to win a Nobel Prize: True academics must be willing to question all assumptions.
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