One person’s hero is another person’s villain.
This is particularly evident in the controversy over the University’s proposed Milton Friedman Institute, named after the at once heralded and reviled economist. The movement to scrap the plan, spearheaded by the Committee for Open Research on Economy and Society (CORES), has gained surprising traction: The group’s anti-Institute petition now numbers 131 faculty and 995 student signatories.
But while those who oppose Friedman’s political positions might feel tempted to similarly oppose awarding him the naming rights to this ambitious academic endeavor, CORE’s reasoning is not compelling enough to warrant stripping his name from the institution.
Any concern that an institute named for a decidedly free-market advocate would drown out opposing views should be assuaged by examples from across the country, where universities have shown that their institutes are not necessarily bound to the ideologies of their namesakes. Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government may be the most prominent example, having churned out its share of conservative scholars despite taking the name of a liberal icon.
It could be that a scholar’s views are so repugnant or controversial as to disqualify him for the naming of such an important institute. But in Friedman’s case, that sentiment seems far-fetched. Even most of his liberal opponents would agree that Friedman has made significant contributions to the field of economics and public discourse.
Perhaps the most significant concern regarding the Institute is whether its name will reinforce the U of C’s perception as home to a conservative economic department. This was a question raised in this space last spring, after the Friedman Institute was announced.
Perception is important. The University’s economics department has had a conservative reputation ever since Friedman, yet it has also retained a reputation for academic excellence. Similarly, most of the elite universities in the country, including the U of C, are thought to be bastions of liberalism.
But what’s more important than perception—especially one that already exists—is reality. Perceived ideological slant does not necessarily imply lack of intellectual rigor. The relevant question should be: Will the Institute be conservative, to the extent of putting ideology before the facts borne out of research?
When the University first announced the Friedman Institute, some of the language implied that it might be a free-market think-tank, dedicated solely to research that would advance its namesake’s conservative politics. On this count, the Maroon and CORES are in agreement: It would be a disaster if the Institute became a puppet for right-wing orthodoxy. This possibility, however, seems unlikely; even in the long academic shadow left by Friedman, the University has fostered an ideologically diverse and outstanding faculty at the Business School. In fact, in combining the GS Band representatives from the relatively liberal Social Sciences Division, with the economics department—which retains a conservative slant—the Institute will likely serve to enhance political balance.
The issue at hand, then, is whether or not Milton Friedman can be the namesake for a nonpartisan institute. Considering his profound impact on the U of C, the answer should be clear. Many who think otherwise appear to be blinded by the same type of partisanship they purport to eschew.
The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Managing Editor, Viewpoints Editors, and an additional Editorial Board member.