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Rifts develop within MFI committee

In a move that surprised Institute advocates, economics professor James Heckman, a member of the Institutes’s faculty committee, said during a public panel Tuesday that he was open to the possibility of changing the Institutes’s name, a proposal that several colleagues firmly rejected.

Photo: Chris Salata/The Chicago Maroon
Professors Lars Hansen and James Heckman,both of the economics department, look on as a audience member asks a question during a roundtable discussion of the Milton Friedman Institute.
Photo: Chris Salata/The Chicago Maroon
Professors Marshall Sahlins (left), Lars Hansen (center) and James Heckman (right) speak after a roundtable event on the Milton Freidman Institute.
Photo: Chris Salata/The Chicago Maroon
Professor James Heckman laughs during a roundtable event on the Milton Friedman Institute.

Disagreements have developed among members of the Milton Friedman Institute faculty committee, who for months presented a unified public voice against objections to the project, including against concerns it will have an academic bias favoring the views of its controversial namesake.

In a move that surprised Institute advocates, economics professor James Heckman, a member of the Institutes’s faculty committee, said during a public panel Tuesday that he was open to the possibility of changing the Institutes’s name, a proposal that several colleagues firmly rejected.

“I think it’s a good idea. We could change the name,” said Heckman, a Nobel Laureate who worked with late economist Milton Friedman at the U of C.

In a subsequent e-mail interview, Heckman emphasized that he was not speaking on behalf of the committee.

“This is what I should have said: I personally would not object [to renaming it]. However, it would probably cost the initiative a lot of support,” he said. “Short answer: I am open to any idea, but we should look at the costs.”

Since Heckman made the comment, the merits of a name change have become a focal point of debate over the Institute.

Heckman again broke with some Institute advocates in statements addressing academic bias. He affirmed the plausibility of the notion that seeking donors with particular opinions and naming the Institute for a figure who espoused those opinions could give the appearance that particular views will influence the Institute’s research.

“Yes, it raises that risk,” he said.

Asked whether it seemed plausible that the relationship could, in practice, affect research at the Institute, he said, “Yes again.”

Heckman added that all institutes are affected by bias, citing hiring decisions as a source of bias throughout the University.

“I doubt there is a truly unbiased academic. Besides, most biased people don’t see themselves as biased. If you think the GSB is an unbiased environment, think again. They are recruited for their views. I wonder also how many free marketers would get jobs in anthropology or sociology,” he said.

“It’s true for any institute. You state a mission, attract funders. They expect the mission to be fulfilled. Very rarely do people fund pure knowledge,” he said.

Some of Heckman’s comments set off alarm bells for his fellow Institute committee member, GSB professor John Cochrane, who has long argued that the Insistute will maintain academic integrity.

In an e-mail to Heckman, Cochrane wrote, “My strong, personal suggestion is that you are digging yourself deeper and deeper into public statements that you will regret. Now, not only is Friedman’s name expendable, the GSB political, but President [Robert] Zimmer ‘rushed this through.’ He’ll be delighted to see that in print. You may have long, convoluted explanations, but that won’t do much good when this sort of thing gets out.”

Cochrane was in part referring to comments Heckman made explaining the positions of Institute opponents. Heckman had said that some of their objections stem from their belief that Zimmer rushed plans for the Institute.

According to Cochrane, Heckman’s comments about academic bias and renaming the Institute were not on behalf of the Institute’s faculty committee.

“I don’t know what Jim is talking about lately,” he said, adding that changing the name of the Institute could be a “disaster” for the University. Opponents of a name change have argued that it could alienate donors.

Heckman e-mailed Cochrane a terse response to his concerns: “Screw off, John,” he said.

The internal debate over the extent that committee members should yield to opposing arguments is notable because Institute opponents have expressed aggravation over what they see as advocates’ unrelentingly united front. On the heels of this disagreement and Wednesday’s faculty meeting on the Institute, opponents of the project have issued a petition for an additional meeting to continue the debate.

16 comments on “Rifts develop within MFI committee

  1. reply

    Why not call it the Chicago School of Economics, and make the building after Milton Friedman? He was certainly a pioneer–but the institute will be bigger than any one man.

  2. reply

    Thats absurd, The Milton Friedman Institute won’t be strictly about the study of conservative economics and Friedmans work, just like the Woodrow Wilson School isn’t strictly about World War 1, and the Viterbi school of engineering isnt strictly about cellphone connections. Liberals have to swallow this one cause there’s nothing wrong with naming an institution of higher learning after the fields greatest pioneer and a school-wide icon.

    get over it.

  3. reply
    An Interested Observer

    The greatest turnoff to prospective donors is not so much the possbility that it won’t be named for the man who arguably is the leading draw of donor attention at least as far as the Institute is concerned, but rather that UC is no different from other institutions which are ready to knuckle under at anything less than unanimty when it comes to matters which raise the ire of the left.

    The greatest quality of UC as far as I am concerned is its repuration, deserved, for clear thinking, a rarity in academe. Reversing course here will truly alienate supporters, financial or otherwise.

  4. reply

    Ryan, the Hoover institute at Stanford (Herbert, not J. Edgar), is still pretty much devoted to conservative and free-market political science, decades after it was founded. So it does seem possible that any Friedman Institute would be similarly focused.

  5. reply

    The Hoover Institute was named after an economic moron who raised tax rates during a depression, not to mention instigate a trade war at the same time.

    Does anyone seriously think that the faculty of the Hoover Institute advocates those economic policies of its namesake?

    The simple fact of the matter is that the economics department of the University of Chicago has a comparative advantage in fundraising in the form of a widely known and respected Nobel Prize winner who was/is its most famous product (at least amongst the general, well off, public looking to donate to a worthy cause).

    Since one is *supposed* to use ones comparative advantage to one’s benefit, it seems utterly ludicrous to oppose using his name. Especially at this late date which might/will engender regime uncertainty amongst investors (i.e donors), which was a large failing of Hoover’s successor.

    Finally, to those engaged in petty jealousy of the economics department getting a nice prize, I suggest looking up the definition of the word fungible, and then mentally apply the term to general university budget.

    In short, get over it.

  6. reply

    No problem. Just call it the Institute of Advanced and Original Economics; and when any one asks what that means refer them to the works of Milton Friedman.

    Friedman was a ferocious learner as well as an indomitable refuter of incoherence. If he had been writing today, he would be writing something different: and don’t we wish we could see what he would have written.

  7. reply
    Michael Doodikoff

    The question isn’t whether the mere act of lending Milton Friedman’s name to the institute will bias the research being conducted therein, so much as its potential ability to affect white girls with asian guys, man, White girls with Asian guys.

  8. reply

    Milton Friedman is an important economist of our generation, however to name an institution after an economist and his views and bias however popular the man was is no reason to brand an entire faculty under Milton’s views. The name Milton Friedman is a brand, and the products will, in the eyes of the consumer, reflect that brand.

  9. reply
    Journalistic Integrity

    A question for the Maroon: was the Editor really OK with Sara Jerome printing a <i>forwarded</i> private e-mail without asking the permission of the original author? Ms. Jerome never even contacted Cochrane to see if he had indeed sent that e-mail to Heckman — which seems to a necessary fact-checking step at the very least. And what about the ethics?

  10. reply

    I think we should move on. I suggest we focus on more important things like puttting Roger Clemens on trial in front of congress while the worlds financial system collapeses…

  11. reply

    i agree with steve that we should move on. opponents should suck it up and think about more important issues. there are other institutes on campus with ideological agendas (hello, social service administration) so, who cares. the opposing faculty can start their own anti-freedom – i mean, anti-friedman – institute.

  12. reply

    “Why has there never been a coup in the United States? Because there is no U.S. embassy in the United States.” – Michelle Bachelet President of Chile

    Have a look to what happens to Russia after pretty good economic adviser came to help Eltsine.

    Comparative advantage? In your small world, dudes…

    Screw off, John and greedy libertarian-conservatives.

    Open your minds:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorstein_Veblen

  13. reply

    As a supporter of the MFI,I can say that John Cochrane’s disproportionate behavior has been the primary problem from the beginning. Although I personally agree that the faculty in dissent of the MFI did not make a cogent (or particularly coherent) case, Cochrane’s personally belittling response backfired, and actually lent credibility to their viewpoint. A more measured effort to find the modicum of truth in their statement and address it would have left the humanities wing (hardly a diverse representation) with little recourse.

    At this point, John Cochrane should not be giving advice to anyone about their public statements. He has done significant harm to the University’s overall efforts with his thoughtless behavior and should be relieved of his responsibilities.

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