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The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

Professors Discuss Free Speech at “On University Values” Event

Professors Lisa Wedeen, Cathy Cohen, Anton Ford, Gabriel Lear, and Gina Miranda Samuels discussed the role and implementation of the Chicago Principles.
Seraphina Halpern
From left to right: Professors Cathy Cohen, Gabriel Lear, Anton Ford, and Gina Miranda Samuels.

Editor’s note: this article was written prior to the end of the pro-Palestine encampment on the quad.

The Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory (3CT), a collective of social sciences and humanities faculty, hosted a discussion on April 30 about the theoretical goals, potential harms, and practical realities of the University’s stance on free expression. The event, titled “On University Values,” is part of a continuing 3CT event series titled “The Corporate University.”

Moderated by 3CT Faculty Director Lisa Wedeen and Chair for the Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity Cathy Cohen, the panel featured professors Anton Ford, Gabriel Lear, and Gina Miranda Samuels.

The professors disagreed with each other about the extent to which UChicago is, or should be, democratically influenced by faculty, staff, and students.

Wedeen began by referencing the recent congressional testimony of Columbia University President Minouche Shafik and the arrests of student protestors at Columbia, which have become flashpoints for national debates about free speech and protest rights. She summarized a recent 3CT event, “The Kalven Report and Freedom of Expression,” which concluded that “commitments to speech and to institutional neutrality are not sufficient to maintain a space in which all students and faculty enjoy a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation.”

Lear, a philosophy professor, framed the question of University values through her academic research on Socrates. She underlined the importance of free inquiry, diversity of background and belief, and intellectual community.

Lear focused on the role of interpersonal debate in the search for truth in universities, saying, “We don’t want to just appeal to authority or to try to bully people into thoughts that agree with ours, but we want to call them to witness [our perspective.] Another beautiful phrase Socrates has is [that] the truth is my possession, and you cannot try to exile me from that possession.”

In response, Ford, also a philosophy professor, argued that the University’s policy on free expression protects actionless “discussion” but not change-oriented “deliberation” or “protest.” While “discussion is aimed at the discovery of truth,” Ford said, “public deliberation is a decision-making process.… When we are denied a meaningful role in public deliberation, protests are our only means of shaping the community to which we belong. Protest is essentially disruptive. If it’s not disruptive, it’s not a protest. It’s a conversation.”

“Our president was not hauled in front of Congress like presidents of our peer institutions about being in trouble for having lax speech codes. When we’re famous for loosening the speech code, why are we not in trouble?… Why is our university the darling institution of right-wing ideologues, and of governors and senators on McCarthyite crusades against higher education?” Ford said.

He also argued that the “community of scholars” at UChicago is “fundamentally undemocratic,” since faculty and students have little power to influence school policy and leadership.

His argument focused particularly on the “sham” faculty-run Council of the University Senate, which he said has no real power within the University.

Miranda Samuels, a professor at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, pointed out the irony that the University website’s “Who We Are” page was not written by faculty and students.

She said, “These values are completely empty, and only for show, especially the first one, [“Diverse and inclusive,”] if they’re not accompanied by other values which are fundamental and foundational to how we work [and] how we engage one another.” Miranda Samuels advocated for including integrity and social justice as University values.

Cohen then asked the panelists how the University should respond to the ongoing pro-Palestine protests on campus if it were to adopt the panelists’ proposed values.

Lear answered first. “I disagree with Anton [Ford]… because I do see our central activity here as… knowledge seeking,” she said. “I don’t myself see the University as having a duty to facilitate a kind of protest that they think might be harmful to a community of knowledge.”

Ford responded by saying that institutional neutrality does not preclude the University from recognizing the results of student organizing. For example, Ford said, the University recently recognized the Graduate Student Union through a voting process.

He argued that the school should “commit to administering a fair democratic process by which we decide whether to open and consider our investments and commit in advance to abiding by the results of that fair democratic process.”

Lear responded by saying that, in order to protect dissenters, democratic processes should only control certain aspects of the University’s function.

“Is there going to be a majority rule on every single issue? Like, are we going to have a majority rule about what kinds of protests to allow?” Lear said.

Lear said that the faculty does have some decision-making power, such as the right to make recommendations about the appointment of new Deans to the University. Ford, Miranda Samuels, and Cohen disagreed, pointing out that the administration can reject faculty recommendations.

Wedeen then invited audience questions. One audience member asked whether the University, in holding with its principles of free speech, has an obligation to publicly defend and promote the right to open discourse at other universities, particularly in light of recent events at Columbia University.

Lear said that the University does have an obligation. Ford agreed, and he suggested that the University had been self-servingly quiet on the issue to avoid controversy.

On the other hand, Miranda Samuels said that UChicago is not ready to “proselytize” about free speech when it is itself so imperfect.

In response to another audience question, Miranda Samuels said that the University valued “our comfort, our image, our safety” above the truth, as evidenced by the renaming of the accountability-focused “Truth Commission” to the “Council on UChicago/Community Relations.”

At the conclusion of the event, Ford said that there is a “difference between the values of the institution, whether real or professed, and the values of the people who constitute [it].”

Cohen and Ford called for institutional change.

“What would it mean to truly build a democratic process, an inclusive process, where people could be heard in a way that we’re never heard?” Cohen said.

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