March 7, 2014

Tourre’s switch demands explanation

University has a responsibility to defend its students’ right to free inquiry

On Monday evening, the University announced that Fabrice Tourre, a Ph.D. student and former Goldman Sachs trader found liable of securities fraud, would no longer teach an undergraduate honors economics course next quarter. Instead, he will instruct graduate students in order to fulfill the teaching requirement of the Ph.D. program. The announcement came after more than a week of silence from the University as national media focused their attention on the decision to let Tourre teach undergraduates. While it is unclear whether Tourre was asked to forfeit his undergraduate teaching position or chose to do so of his own volition, the University’s silence over this move has only allowed controversy to grow. Instead, the University should have framed the discussion by publicly explaining the institutional values that deem Tourre an equal member of our community.

Tourre, who deliberately defrauded investors of $1 billion, committed actions in the private sector that were reprehensible and deserve punishment. Those actions have already been judged and punished by the justice system and rightly so. In accepting Tourre as a student in the economics department, the University has made the decision that his past actions do not affect his ability to make honest and valuable contributions to the University community—a decision that it could defend with an explanation of the assessment made of an applicant’s ideas and academic history (and Tourre has a strong one).

Now that Tourre is here, the University has a responsibility to defend his place as a legitimate member of our academic discussion. This would be a defense not of character, but of the right to exchange ideas—a value which makes the University an exceptional institution. As attention focused on Tourre, the University could have taken a courageous stand by publicly stating that we are a community that considers the value of people’s ideas, apart from their background. We recognize that allowing Tourre to teach an undergraduate class gives him authority to influence students’ thinking. But a fundamental value of this University and its students is that teaching should not be accepted as gospel, but constantly challenged. The right to express oneself, which applies to teaching, is certainly limited in cases where exercising it would harm others, but the condition for that restriction was not met in Tourre’s case.

A community unequivocally committed to freedom of inquiry is one that must accept individuals and ideas that are disliked and heavily criticized. But the strongest of these communities not only tolerates these members and ideas, but robustly defends their right to be a part of discussion. By simply announcing that Tourre will no longer teach undergraduates without any further explanation, it seems as if the University has neglected its core values. In not leading the discussion and challenging critics, the University failed to uphold the fundamental values that make it exceptional.

Kristin Lin recused herself from the writing of this editorial.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief, Editors-in-Chief-Elect, and the Viewpoints Editors.