October 3, 2014

More values

University constantly invokes the value of open discourse, but fails to address the other facets of campus controversies.

What does The Hyde Park List—the now-closed Tumblr blog containing names of allegedly sexually violent individuals at the University of Chicago—have to do with the free and rigorous exchange of ideas?

Everything, according to a statement released on Monday by Campus and Student Life administrators Karen Warren Coleman and Michele Rasmussen. Explaining why the University took action against the List and similar posted flyers, Coleman and Rasmussen wrote, “We are concerned because the flyers and websites undermine—rather than advance—the free and rigorous exchange of ideas, which is a principle that lies at the core of who we are as an institution.” They also decried the lists as “inciting and defamatory” and counter to values necessitated by the University’s commitment to “open discourse.”

I will be as quick as anyone to defend the importance of free and open discourse. Recent events at the University of Illinois remind us that academic freedom represents a set of responsibilities and privileges that we must take neither lightly nor for granted. We are fortunate to live in a country and study within a university where, in general, we are free to engage in rigorous debate on any subject without fear of official reprisal.

These admittedly laudable values, however, should absolutely not occupy the forefront of a discussion about a response to sexual assault. Reasonable people can disagree about the relative importance of students’ right to be aware of potential rapists among us, of the right of the accused to defend themselves against allegations, of the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise, of the potential for libel, of the University’s terrible track record in dealing with instances of sexual violence at an institutional level, of the many other considerations that weigh on whether a document like The Hyde Park List should be published. But it is abundantly clear that, while all of these issues impinge on academic freedom in some way or another, there is much more at stake in The Hyde Park List controversy than open academic discourse.

This focus on the importance of free inquiry in the face of larger concerns is part of a pattern in written communications by University administrators over the past several years. Dean Elly Daugherty’s February 14 letter to The Maroon regarding the changes to Summer Links spent much time on the importance of dialogue in the controversy and little, if any, on the actual concerns set out in a petition delivered to the University. The University’s standard tagline for the RISE diversity initiative, created in response to an awful Facebook page whose harms were justified by but largely unrelated to freedom of speech, is that the program “represents our shared commitment to the values of respect and free expression as a University community.” During the heated controversies regarding trauma care on the South Side over the last few years, administrators have publicly wrung their hands over the role of protest in a free academic community but have been reluctant to address the issues raised in the protests themselves.

I reference these examples of the University’s tendency to invoke the value of academic freedom excessively not to discount the importance of this value, but rather to urge the University to articulate some more values. Academic freedom and excellence cannot be and most certainly are not the sole guides of the University as it navigates its many roles—as a temporary home for many of its undergraduates, as an employer of thousands of faculty and staff members, as a buyer and broker of huge amounts of real estate, as a major economic force in the city of Chicago, as a provider of medical care, as an investor in the stock market, as a judicial body in cases of misconduct within its community, and as a shaper of the lives of its students, who later go on to influence the world in myriad ways. Whether it likes it or not, our University’s impact extends far beyond the academic realm. Our leaders must not pretend that this impact can be ignored or reduced to considerations about the institution’s academic mission.

To our administrators: You run a huge and complex institution with potential and history of doing large amounts of both good and harm in a variety of arenas. It is your duty to defend our institution’s values of academic freedom, free expression, and open discourse. But it is also your duty to recognize that these values only go so far—that in many decisions the University must confront, there are far more relevant and important considerations at stake.

It’s time for the University of Chicago to broaden its rhetoric about what is valuable. Community? Money? Justice? Prestige? Hard work? Safety? Excellence? Perhaps if we can genuinely articulate the values that guide our institution, we will be able to look at serious issues facing the University, such as the ones that gave rise to the Hyde Park List, with a greater degree of honesty and good faith. And we might find our university better positioned to be part of these issues’ solutions.

Alexander Dunlap is a fourth-year in the College majoring in mathematics.