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October 31, 2008

Econ institute retains augmented Friedman moniker

The Milton Friedman Institute’s name has been reconfigured as the Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics, according to Provost Thomas Rosenbaum, due in part to faculty opposition to the legacy of the Institute’s namesake at this month’s Faculty Senate meeting.

“Several faculty members who spoke indicated that it was difficult for them or for others to separate the accomplishments of Milton Friedman as a scholar from the role he played as a public intellectual and commentator on and influencer of public policy,” Rosenbaum wrote in an e-mail to faculty on Monday. “[F]aculty have suggested augmenting the Institute’s name to make clear that it is solely an economics research institute.”

The Senate meeting was the first substantive meeting of the faculty in over 20 years.

The name change comes after months of faculty protest over the Institute, particularly over a potentially improper relationship with its donors and alleged support of Friedman’s ideology. Much of the Senate meeting was devoted to discussing changing the Institute’s name, according to several professors who attended.

Committee on Open Research on Economy and Society (CORES) co-chair and divinity school professor Bruce Lincoln applauded the change for limiting the scope of the University’s endorsement of Friedman’s policies.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Lincoln said. “Taking our views into account established them as caring administrators, seeing as their previous postures were ill-conceived. It restores my faith in them.”

This is a marked shift in position from Lincoln’s previous statements.

“[The administration is] doing everything they can to make it appear like a democratic process while simultaneously working as hard as possible against it. It’s clear they’re afraid critics will get too much time, and they didn’t like what [the critics] had to say. They had to clamp down,” he said earlier this month when asked about the then-approaching Senate meeting.

According to Rosenbaum’s letter, the new name was suggested by the faculty committee, which originally proposed the Institute last February and was then approved by Rosenbaum and President Robert Zimmer.

Economics professor and Institute committee chairman Lars Peter Hansen said the name change was a minor concern for the committee members.

“It’s not a very serious issue for us,” he said. “We would have been happy to get [opposition] reaction in February. This name change was something to us that was completely innocuous. We were more than happy to provide it.”

He added that while the suggestions made at the meeting influenced the committee’s decision, the idea had been brought up internally before.

Economics professor and committee member James Heckman was the first committee member to state publicly that he would personally consider changing the Institute’s name.

“I think it’s a good idea. We could change the name,” he said at a round table discussion days before the meeting.

Statistics and computer science professor and CORES co-chair, Yali Amit said he was satisfied with the decision but wished that the administration had included outside voices in making it.

“I don’t want his name anywhere, but I think this is a reasonable compromise because it presents the Institute as an initiative of the economics department,” he said. “But it’s not the result of dialogue.”

The Institute’s website is also being redesigned “to ensure that the objectives of the Institute...are clearly stated,” Rosenbaum said. The previous website has been taken down, leaving only an FAQ page that was posted about a month ago.

Both Lincoln and Amit said they were pleased with perceived substantive changes to the FAQ.

“They’ve prominently updated the FAQ to address our petition,” Lincoln said. “Mention of the Milton Friedman Society [a group for high-level donors] has disappeared, and they explicitly reject the notion that they are a think tank.”

Amit agreed.

“They say very clearly that it will stay independent and it won’t have a political agenda,” he said. “And there’s nothing there about the donors.”

University News Director Steve Kloehn said that the page has stated that the Institute will not be a “think tank” since it was originally posted—before the name change—and while there was never any mention on the FAQ of the donor group, the group is unchanged in concept since it was announced in May.

The administration now views the Institute’s name as finalized, Zimmer said.

“That doesn’t mean that there still aren’t things to talk about,” he said. “But the name is what the name is. It’s a settled issue.”