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University of Chicago President Decries “Efforts to Suppress Discussion of Charles Darwin’s Work”

Sarah Chaffee


Attempts to limit free speech on college campuses are many — for example, at Yale, students berated professor Nicholas Christakis after he suggested that the school shouldn’t regulate Halloween costumes that were not culturally sensitive.

Someone finally decided to stand up and defend freedom of speech as a defining principle of education. This summer, the University of Chicago’s Dean of Students, Jay Ellison, sent a letter to all incoming freshman, stating:

Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. This is captured in the University’s faculty report on freedom of expression. Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others. You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

Fostering the free exchange of ideas reinforces a related University priority — building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds. Diversity of opinion and background is a fundamental strength of our community. The members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.

(Note that the University has clarified that this does not ban the use of trigger warnings or setting up safe spaces.) The letter has received national attention and generated controversy. Professors from the school and from different schools across the country, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), among others, rightly commend the university on its stance. FIRE notes that it “hopes that students, faculty, and administrators nationwide take a cue from UC and recommit to freedom of speech on their own campuses.”

The letter follows a report generated by a specially-organized university group on freedom of expression.

Robert J. Zimmer, President of the University of Chicago, followed the letter with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “Free Speech Is the Basis of a True Education.” After discussing the intellectual skills students need for successful lives, including recognizing cultural differences, identifying complexity, and engaging in critical thinking about evidence, Zimmer states:

One word summarizes the process by which universities impart these skills: questioning. Productive and informed questioning involves challenging assumptions, arguments and conclusions. It calls for multiple and diverse perspectives and listening to the views of others. It requires understanding the power and limitations of arguments. More fundamentally, the process of questioning demands an ability to rethink one’s own assumptions, often the most difficult task of all.

Essential to this process is an environment that promotes free expression and the open exchange of ideas, ensuring that difficult questions are asked and that diverse and challenging perspectives are considered. This underscores the importance of diversity among students, faculty and visitors–diversity of background, belief and experience. Without this, students’ experience becomes a weak imitation of a true education, and the value of that education is seriously diminished.

One could not ask for a more thorough endorsement of free speech in universities. The concept of freedom of expression is crucial for many areas, not least in debate over Darwinism. Although he is almost certainly referencing it historically, note Zimmer’s mention of evolution:

… Some assert that universities should be refuges from intellectual discomfort and that their own discomfort with conflicting and challenging views should override the value of free and open discourse.

We have seen efforts to suppress discussion of Charles Darwin’s work, to insist upon particular political perspectives during the McCarthy era, to impose exclusionary acts of racial and religious discrimination, and to demand compliance with various forms of “moral” behavior.

The silencing being advocated today is equally problematic. Every attempt to legitimize silencing creates justification for others to restrain speech that they do not like in the future. [Emphasis added.]

Wow. Today the situation is reversed: those who question Darwin’s work face discrimination. But the University of Chicago’s position, at least in principle, would support free debate about neo-Darwinism and intelligent design, along with all other issues.

If only intelligent design proponents routinely faced this perspective. Perhaps Eric Hedin, physicist at Ball State University, would still be teaching his interdisciplinary honors course, “Boundaries of Science,” which included some material on intelligent design. Perhaps the Michael Polanyi Center at Baylor University would still exist, with Dembski at its head.

Zimmer proclaims that violations of liberty pave the way for future restrictions. And professor Geoffrey Stone, chair of UC’s Committee on Freedom of Expression, in an article quoted by FIRE, notes that academic freedom is key because first, “bitter experience has taught that even the ideas we hold to be most certain often turn out to be wrong,” second, silencing some speech leads to more silencing, and third:

[A] central precept of free expression is the possibility of a chilling effect…. The potential costs of speaking courageously, of taking controversial positions, of taking risks, is greater than ever. Indeed, according to a recent survey, about half of American college students now say that it is unsafe for them to express unpopular views. Many faculty members clearly share that sentiment.

Stone’s points hits home: intolerance of dissent from Darwinism has sparked all three of these issues.

Even though UC’s position does not address intelligent design specifically, any step towards academic freedom on campus is beneficial. Freedom of speech staves off a downward spiral of viewpoint discrimination, allowing new (and sometimes more accurate) ideas to come forward.

After all, as Zimmer noted:

Universities cannot be viewed as a sanctuary for comfort but rather as a crucible for confronting ideas and thereby learning to make informed judgments in complex environments. Having one’s assumptions challenged and experiencing the discomfort that sometimes accompanies this process are intrinsic parts of an excellent education. Only then will students develop the skills necessary to build their own futures and contribute to society.

It’s high time for universities to extend protections to those who question neo-Darwinism. Perhaps Chicago’s ringing endorsement of academic freedom will open more doors for evolution skeptics. We commend Robert Zimmer, Jay Ellison, and UC’s Committee on Freedom of Expression for their courage.

Image: Harper Library, University of Chicago, by Rick Seidel [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Sarah Chaffee

Now a teacher, Sarah Chaffee served as Program Officer in Education and Public Policy at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. She earned her B.A. in Government. During college she interned at Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler’s office and for Prison Fellowship Ministries. Before coming to Discovery, she worked for a private land trust with holdings in the Southwest.