Faculty Senate to weigh future of new Friedman Institute

Zimmer proposed the meeting after several faculty members circulated a petition protesting the soon-to-be launched Institute, taking issue with a perceived conservative agenda and disciplinary narrowness.

By Michael Lipkin

President Robert Zimmer has set plans in motion to convene a meeting of the entire faculty this fall in order to discuss the future of the recently established Milton Friedman Institute.

Despite a statute that mandates a yearly meeting, the last meeting of the faculty Senate, which comprises all 1,200 members of the faculty, was called in 1998. The Council of the Faculty Senate, a representative body, meets every month to debate and vote on campus issues and is where the proposal for the Institute was originally introduced.

The Institute, announced in June, is slated to conduct economic and public policy research across several disciplines. Set to open in time for the fall quarter, the Institute was created at the request of members of the economics department and the Graduate School of Business.

Its namesake, Milton Friedman, was a longtime member of the University community. Friedman, who died in 2006, was a professor for more than 30 years in the economics department and is credited for his role in creating the Chicago school of economics. He was one of last century’s greatest champions of free markets.

Zimmer’s proposed meeting comes after several faculty members circulated a petition protesting the soon-to-be launched Institute, taking issue with a perceived conservative agenda and disciplinary narrowness.

“This endeavor could reinforce among the public a perception that the University’s faculty lacks intellectual and ideological diversity,” the dissenting faculty members wrote in a letter to Zimmer in July, calling for a full-faculty meeting.

After Zimmer met with Bruce Lincoln and Robert Kendrick, two leaders of the dissenting faculty, he and Provost Thomas Rosenbaum announced plans to hold a full Senate forum in an August 7 letter to the professors.

“It is our intent to discuss the matter with the Spokesman of the Council, with a view toward reinstituting this annual meeting beginning this fall,” they wrote. “That would provide a good venue for the sort of broad-based discussion on this topic that you have suggested as well as other topics important to the University.”

Lincoln said that he has already started planning for the meeting.

“We intend to introduce resolutions that would at a minimum call for substantive changes to the Institute and ask for a vote,” he said.

In an interview, Rosenbaum said that while the issues raised against the Friedman Institute are on the tentative agenda, the Institute will still open on schedule and will not deviate from its mission statement.

“The MFI is launched, it’s started, so that’s not up for discussion,” he said. “We’re looking for feedback on the entire intellectual portfolio of the University and to contextualize the initiative with the ambitious agenda that we have. [That feedback] can shape the Institute going forward, however.”

Zimmer approached the Executive Council of the Senate—which is a body of eight Council members—in August to discuss calling the meeting. A meeting of the full Senate can be called by the President, the Executive Council, or by a petition signed by 10 percent of the faculty.

So far, the Executive Council has not reached a decision on whether to call the meeting.

“I was skeptical something useful would happen with a group this large, but we haven’t had one in 10 years, so why not give it a try,” biology professor and leader of the Executive Council Michael LaBarbera said. “But with the full faculty, there’s too many people and too many ideas. That’s why there is the representative Council to govern on a regular basis.”

The tradition of the faculty meeting fell out of favor in the 1990s when they had become little more than a State of the University address delivered by the President, LaBarbera said, admitting that he never attended the meetings. Attendance for those meetings—and for any potential future meetings—was voluntary.

“They never sounded very interesting and weren’t serving much of a purpose. People viewed them as a meeting where a bunch of people would talk, opposed to real governance,” he said. “But this is the University of Chicago. We try experiments, so let’s give it a shot.”

Lincoln agreed that the size of the meeting may prove cumbersome but was committed to presenting his views before the full faculty.

“There will be practical difficulties, I’m sure. But I’m a believer in democracy, even when it’s inconvenient,” he said.

“I’m confidant we’ll prevail.”