October 17, 2008

Faculty Senate meets to discuss Friedman Institute

[img id="76874" align="alignleft"] The Faculty Senate convened Wednesday for the first time in 10 years to discuss the Milton Friedman Institute, which has stirred significant opposition in the five months since it was announced by the University administration. It was the first time since 1984, when the Senate met to discuss divestment from South Africa based on apartheid, that the body considered an issue of campus import.

The meeting, which lasted roughly two hours, was only open to members of the Senate, which includes some administrators and all professors who have served for more than one year. The Senate has no formal power, although President Robert Zimmer’s decision to call the meeting came after some faculty members wrote a letter expressing concerns about the implications that the Institute could have on the University’s academic reputation.

The Committee for Open Research on Economy & Society (CORES), an ad-hoc group of faculty members across several departments who have organized in opposition to the Institute, has argued that naming the Institute after Friedman would convey an academic bias in favor of the economist’s views, which advocated market alternatives to public policy.

Although the meeting was closed to outside observers, participants said that the predominant issue discussed was whether the Institute, whose establishment administrators have said will not be reconsidered, should continue to carry the name of one of the most famous and controversial economists of the 21st century whose legacy has been deeply divisive because of his staunch support of free markets.

At a student-organized faculty roundtable Tuesday night, Institute committee member James Heckman expressed willingness to consider an alternative name for the Institute, although he qualified his statement with concerns that such a move could potentially cost the Institute the financial support of donors. It was the first time a faculty committee member has publicly wavered in his determination to uphold the University’s decision. Since then, that possibility has emerged as opponents’ most likely approach to gaining a concession on the issue.

“I thought Heckman’s signal of willingness to contemplate change is what triggered it.... I thought Jim’s openness was extraordinary, and that might signal that we might be able to resolve this and come to closure,” said CORES co-chair Bruce Lincoln, a professor at the Divinity School.

“The question of the name and the appropriateness of the name, that’s not the extent of people’s concern, but thats an important aspect of it,” Lincoln said.

“If they had an institute for economics that did what they want to do but didn’t call it the Milton Friedman Institute, I think a lot of people would be happy about that,” Lincoln said. “We’ve tried very hard to make it very clear that it’s not a partisan issue.”

Despite plans not to feature preliminary presentations by proponents of the Institute and CORES representatives, both groups were allowed to speak before the general discussion, according to participants. After an overview of campus initiatives and budgetary mechanisms by Zimmer and Provost Thomas Rosenbaum, which lasted an hour, economics professor and chair of the governing committee of the Institute Lars Peter Hansen gave a 10-minute speech on the mission of the Institute. He was followed by Dean of the Social Sciences Division Mark Hansen, and then by Lincoln. The floor was then opened for faculty members to give statements lasting up to three minutes.

But several professors were disappointed by the limited time allocated to discussion about the Institute.

“It really contradicted the sort of spirit of open debate that the University prides itself on because there was no time or an adequate format in which people could get their differences going. A lot of people wanted to speak and didn’t get a chance to do so,” said one professor who asked not to be identified because administrators asked that all meeting proceedings be kept confidential. He noted that there were many professors who sought to comment but who were never recognized by Rosenbaum because of the time constraints. Only 12 to 15 professors of the more than 200 in attendance were allowed to comment on the issue, he said.

“They cut the Friedman discussion short with lots of people raising their hands...and that was a complete flop....People wanted to talk about Friedman,” he said, adding that “under the guise of [calling the meeting to discuss the Institute], they filled the agenda with other things to dilute the Friedman Institute” discussion. The last portion of the Senate meeting was devoted to other business, during which comments related to the Institute were disallowed.

But according to Mark Hansen, the meeting presented a valuable opportunity to discuss the Institute in a formal setting.

“It provided a forum where we were addressing people as colleagues in a face-to-face way, [as] opposed to dealing with each other through statements or in forums that were called by one side or another,” he said. “There’s a wondrous phenomenon in any faculty gathering: you appreciate how smart your colleagues are. I think that I, through some of the comments, came to understand a little bit better the reaction some people have to Milton Friedman and his ideas, and the symbolic meaning he has to certain people.”

That meaning became the predominant topic of discussion in calling for the adoption or rejection of a name change, despite CORES having raised many other issues since the Institute’s announcement, including the claim that financial donors would have undue influence over avenues of research.

“As I understand it, all the side issues have evaporated—will it please donors, etc.,” said GSB professor John Cochrane, a member of the Institute’s governing committee. “The broad sense of just about everybody discussing wasn’t about how this institute will be run or the ethics of people involved, but the main concern is the naming. I think there were a lot of talks before the meeting and that Mark Hansen and Lars Hansen’s statements did a great deal to calm everybody. People thought hard and listened carefully and realized that it wasn’t going to be a problem.”

CORES co-chair Yali Amit took exception to that characterization of his group’s supporters, though he agreed that the vast majority of comments were directed at Milton Friedman’s legacy and whether that legacy would be endorsed by naming the Institute after him.

“Before hearing his quote right now, I wouldn’t have felt that way,” Amit said in a phone interview Thursday. “We just think there are some issues in the [founding documents of the Institute] that are ambiguous. I didn’t feel any clear conclusion from the meeting. Maybe he wants to think that way, but I don’t think so.”

After the meeting, CORES circulated a petition calling for a second meeting devoted exclusively to discussion of the Friedman Institute.

About 70 student protestors opposed to the Friedman Institute gathered on the main quad before the meeting and marched to Ida Noyes Hall, where they lined the sidewalk to greet arriving faculty members.

They applauded, gagged themselves, sucked on candy pacifiers, and presented roses to faculty as they entered the hall.

The protestors were joined by a smaller number of Institute supporters.