Don’t Shoot the Messenger

The University should be celebrating student activists, not disciplining them.

By Matthew Andersson

While most casual observers would agree with UChicago’s longstanding support of free speech and inclusivity, the actual impact of these institutional beliefs is much more complicated. In particular, the University’s commitment to open discourse has led it to unjustifiably punish those who interfere with the implementation of free speech policies. 

UChicago has utilized various gradations of punishment for violating its particular judgments of acceptable behavior and reserves the latitude to invent new forms of responses at its discretion. But punishment needlessly intimidates students, potentially impeding their academic journeys at the University. It also threatens legal interference with students’ future employment and educational relationships, such as by putting disciplinary letters in their permanent files, revoking financial aid, ordering probation, and even expelling them. Such harsh responses are not only morally questionable, but legally dubious. For those reasons among others, the institution’s speech conduct codes and contracts, actual or implied, should be rejected. 

While recent coverage of campus protests and administrative responses portrays this as a First Amendment issue, it is really more of a liability issue for the administration, revealing much about the nature of the modern university. The university is not a medieval monastery of learned monks clutching copies of Plato’s Republic, but rather a multibillion-dollar asset corporation of employees and executives identical in hierarchy, incentives, and risk aversion to a modern corporation. 

While many universities assert a focus on students and their education, as UChicago’s communications certainly do, colleges are also largely concerned with their own economic well-being. Universities are in the business of education, but they are also in the business of their own business, and in that regard, times are good: UChicago senior professors are currently among the highest paid in the country, along with those from Harvard and Stanford, and the president of the University recently purchased a $3.25 million residence. I do not mean to criticize those achievements, but merely to underscore what motivations are in play when student protesting and campus unrest are seen as a growing threat and disruption to the administration’s corporate regularity. This is especially important when such protests threaten to stem the flow of corporate dollars to the University.  

So, while protests might be potentially destabilizing to the University’s priorities, historically, real risks were taken by student protesters, and real change resulted from their efforts. Where would we be today without protests of the Civil Rights Movement, the Solidarity protests in Poland, protests against the Vietnam War, numerous environmental protests, those at the Berlin Wall, and currently, the Black Lives Matter movement?   

In business, we say there is no such thing as a free lunch. In civic leadership, there’s no such thing as free speech: Students have to decide what is worth fighting for and be willing to pay for it. Free speech isn’t a privilege that is granted, but a right that is asserted, even if that right results in repercussions. The famous legal cases of Dickey v. Alabama and Dixon v. Alabama brought on by students in the 1960s ratified Constitutional rights on America’s public campuses. 

The late Robert Hunter, journalist and founder of Greenpeace, gives students the most effective advice: “Put your body where your mouth is.” His advice serves as a reminder of what lies at stake over freedom, speech, and social change, as well as the seeds of civic courage that reside in student protest. Student activists aren’t malicious figures deserving of punishment, but rather models for potentially transformative leadership.

Matthew Andersson is an alumnus of the Booth School (M.B.A. ’96).