May 17, 2018

Zimmer in the Wild: President Talks Free Speech on Nat Geo

A not-so-rare sighting of Zimmer discussing free expression on college campuses.

Courtesy of National Geographic

University President Robert J. Zimmer discussed free speech in an episode of Katie Couric’s new National Geographic TV series that aired Wednesday night.

The episode, titled “The Age of Outrage,” is part of Couric’s new documentary series, America Inside Out. The series is marketed as addressing issues of “political correctness” that divide Americans. It defines terms like “microaggression” and “safe space.”

In an early shot, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni explains the buzzword “snowflake.”

“You wonder whether we’re raising kids that, any time they hear a question or they encounter a viewpoint that doesn’t dovetail perfectly with what they want the world to be…that just sends them into a fetal position,” Bruni said.

Couric also spoke to Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University, about his encouragement of “safe spaces” at Northwestern.

“It’s when you feel safe that you have some of the most important transformative discussions—at least, I do, when I’m in my safe spaces,” Schapiro said.

When she sat down with Zimmer, Couric pointed out the sharp divergence in free speech philosophies at UChicago and Northwestern, whose campuses sit only a few miles apart.

“Morty Schapiro would probably say to you, ‘You have to be comfortable to engage in uncomfortable learning,’” Couric said.

Zimmer said that the job of educators—to teach students how to think and deal with challenge—inevitably makes students uncomfortable.

“What’s actually happening on the ground?” Zimmer asked. “Do students feel free to have unpopular positions? Do they feel free to argue with the faculty? Do the faculty feel free to challenge the students? Taking that [freedom] away erodes the quality of education and erodes the quality of our national discourse.”

Fourth-year Matthew Foldi, president of College Republicans, was also interviewed for the episode.

Foldi defended Zimmer’s views on free speech. “If you spend four years in a college just hearing things that you agree with, what have you actually gotten out of the experience?” Foldi asked.