Orthodox Academy

President Zimmer accepted an award from an academic consortium sensitive to conservative students’ interests, calling into question the University’s supposed devotion to free speech.

By Miles Burton, Co-Editor-in-Chief ('20-'21)

President Robert J. Zimmer recently accepted Heterodox Academy’s Open Mind Award for Institutional Excellence, which the organization bestows on “the college or university that has done the most to advance or sustain viewpoint diversity either on its own campus or nationally.” This should come as no shock to University of Chicago students, as President Zimmer frequently touts the University’s nominal commitment to free expression. His acceptance of this award however is complicated by Heterodox Academy’s rhetoric about free expression, which runs counter to the University’s espoused ideals.

Many University students are familiar with the now-infamous letter sent by Dean of Students Jay Ellison to incoming freshmen in the autumn of 2016. That letter is part of a collection of documents that together articulate the Chicago Principles, and it specifically lays out that the University does not “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

In its methodology, Heterodox Academy explains the use of the Chicago Principles as the first criterion of its Guide to Colleges, which ranks institutions of higher education on their appeal to “students seeking exposure to diverse perspectives.” The University of Chicago is ranked first on the list by seven points. If Heterodox Academy uses the Chicago Principles to measure a school’s acceptance of free expression, then the denunciation of safe spaces must follow from that.

It is strange then that a later section of the same methodology reveals Heterodox Academy advocates the creation of intellectual safe spaces for conservative and libertarian students.

Essentially, the third factor Heterodox Academy uses in making its determination about a school’s commitment to viewpoint diversity is the school’s rating in the Intercollegiate Studies Institute guide, Choosing the Right College, described as “a guide for conservative and libertarian students.” Heterodox Academy claims that conservative students report feeling like they are “walking on eggshells” on campus and that they cannot express themselves for fear of pushback from their liberal peers. Heterodox Academy concludes that a school with greater commitment to viewpoint diversity will be more welcoming to conservative students. This is borne out in their ratings: The factor accounts for a quarter of a school’s score.

Heterodox Academy’s concern over the discomfort conservative students feel on campus reveals its opposition to the Chicago Principles of free inquiry. Some degree of intellectual humiliation—the feeling of having your assumptions challenged and realizing the flaws of your logic—is intrinsic to a University of Chicago education. Heterodox Academy argues that conservative students should not be subjected to that same scrutiny, and that their assumptions should go uncontested. After all, conservative students would not report a “walking on eggshells” feeling if nobody were challenging their ideas.

This can only be described as advocating for the creation of safe spaces for conservative and libertarian students. It is not the fault of liberal students if their conservative counterparts lack the conviction to defend their ideas. If Heterodox Academy’s contention is that conservative students should have free license to say whatever they please without experiencing pushback, how can they claim to advocate for viewpoint diversity and freedom of expression? Moreover, how can President Zimmer justify accepting an award recognizing free expression—an ideal the University holds in the highest esteem—from an organization whose mission is in complete opposition to that ideal?

Miles Burton is a rising second-year in the College majoring in anthropology.