Academic Freedom in Chicagoland

The University of Chicago and Northwestern University are both ranked among the top ten national colleges by U.S. News and World Report. Their campuses are in the same state, less than 25 miles apart. But they are at the opposite polarities of the great issue that confronts institutions of higher education today: whether they will remain academies committed to the open exchange of ideas or whether they will prioritize a new secular sacred—the diversity ideology—that will suppress inconvenient debates and sustain a leftist orthodoxy.

Two incidents last year illustrate the educational distance between them. In the first, a University of Chicago professor in Geophysics went on YouTube to criticize certain programs that promote “diversity and inclusion,” including some in his own Department. Students then demanded that he be removed from various official responsibilities at the Department. The University of Chicago refused to do so and declined to criticize his views. Instead, it defended his academic freedom, including the freedom to criticize the practices of his own university.

Last month at Northwestern, the university at which I teach, the story was very different. There Joseph Epstein, an emeritus lecturer at the university, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, criticizing the practice of using the honorific doctor by non-medical doctors. Exhibit A of this criticism was Jill Biden who apparently insists on being called Dr. Biden, although, as my PhD economist wife says of herself, Biden is not a “doctor who helps people,” but instead is an English teacher at a community college. Epstein also suggested that honorary doctorates were often not deserved and were regularly chosen to reflect racial and gender balance rather than merit.

The reaction from Northwestern was over the top. The English Department said that Epstein’s essay cast an “unmerited aspersion” on Biden’s doctoral credentials and expertise. The Chair helpfully provided context for its attack on Epstein, saying that Epstein had made people “livid” for a long time with his writing. At the risk of making more people in the English Department livid, I would note that it is striking that the English Department cannot write a short statement without pleonasm. Aspersion is defined by Webster “as a false or misleading charge.” Aspersions cannot be merited.

The University itself weighed in, stating, that “Northwestern is firmly committed to equity, diversity and inclusion, and strongly disagrees with Mr. Epstein’s misogynistic views.” The statement from the university also contained boilerplate, saying it “firmly supported” academic freedom. But at the same time, the English Department dropped Epstein from its website as an emeritus lecturer although this honorary title is, according to Northwestern’s own faculty handbook, granted by the Board of Trustees. Professors who wrote the Provost to complain of this violation of academic freedom have not even received the courtesy of a reply.

These disparate reactions to challenges to some element of academic orthodoxy show the difference between a university committed to epistemic liberalism and one that is committed to defending a political orthodoxy. The University of Chicago’s action encourages intellectual debate, even about issues that many professors hold sacred. Northwestern’s reaction has a chilling effect. Indeed, the English Department’s airbrushing of Epstein from its website in reaction to his views has a family resemblance to totalitarian societies where people become non-persons if they voice critiques of the wrong kind. That the university did so while proclaiming its commitment to academic freedom has a peculiarly Orwellian touch.

With the rise of the secular sacred values of inclusion and diversity that dominate campuses, a university’s commitment to epistemic liberalism needs to be made explicit so that it will take precedence.

Unfortunately, official actions that punish the unorthodox and chill others are far too common at universities today. There are strong forces at work to subordinate free expression and open inquiry to the values that are held to be more sacred, principally those that go by the name “diversity and inclusion” and that now have been updated to include “antiracism”— a term of art that is far from a commitment to nondiscrimination.

Three pressures are particularly powerful. One is illiberal faculty. While university professors have been mostly left-wing for decades, they nevertheless had a strong commitment to free speech libertarianism. That was frequently part of the left-liberalism of their youth. But today many younger faculty members see the whole world through the prism of race or gender, often with methodologies that reject enlightenment liberalism.

Second and more importantly, university bureaucrats largely run the modern university. Their mission often does not include protecting free expression or inquiry. Indeed, the scores of bureaucrats that enforce “diversity and inclusion” are often all too happy to maximize the objectives of this ideology at the expense of academic freedom. Northwestern is no doubt a typical university. Here faculty members receive admonitions to follow community standards on diversity and inclusion without, as my colleagues note, any mention of free expression or academic engagement.

Third, universities frequently cater to students as consumers. Most students do not want to suppress free speech, but the most vocal activists do, and they are conveniently treated by university bureaucrats as representatives of the students. Administrators can then justify illiberal actions as preemptive of student unrest.

The University of Chicago can better withstand these pressures because it formally adopted a precommitment to academic freedom and free inquiry—the Chicago Principles—which are well worth reading in full. These principles state in part:

Of course, the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.

The principles include a requirement that the university defend the right of free expression even when unpopular. The University of Chicago acted on this commitment in defending the professor in its Geophysics Department. Northwestern has no such commitment and that absence made it easier for the university to treat Epstein the way it did. 

It might be thought that statements like the Chicago principles are unnecessary because a university can be truly great only if it creates an atmosphere of openness to ideas and tolerance for dissent. And, indeed, at some period of history, such epistemic liberalism was the norm for our elite universities. But with the rise of the secular sacred values of inclusion and diversity that dominate campuses, this commitment needs to be made explicit so that it will take precedence. Such a statement emboldens the heterodox and ties the hands of administrators who can tell activists who want to cancel others that they are very sorry, but they cannot do anything.

Thus, the best way for universities to preserve epistemic liberalism is to adopt the Chicago principles. Some colleagues of mine at Northwestern are considering trying to get our university to do so. I will join the effort but am not wholly optimistic. Many universities, including my own, may consciously decide on a course of product differentiation, embracing their role as institutions that subordinate truth-seeking to these new values. In this, they may be encouraged by our corporations that increasingly want graduates who not only are smart but will fall into whatever political line the companies take the better to keep a step ahead of wokeness. Not for the first time, educational institutions may face a tension between two of the core legacies of enlightenment liberalism—the free market and freedom of expression.

Editor’s Note: This essay has been updated to specify that it was the Northwestern English Department, rather than the University itself, that removed Joseph Epstein from its website.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on January 14, 2021 at 08:55:45 am

Isn't it ironic that the progressive professor Woodrow Wilson was a champion of academic freedom. Today's progressive is nothing like that at all, preferring academic freedom for their ideas only.

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Al Maurer
on January 14, 2021 at 09:04:20 am

And in other Chicago news, the Second City Cop website has disappeared.

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on January 14, 2021 at 11:21:33 am

I spent a year at John Evans' other university. DU faculty member, John Chivington led the firstmass shooting of unarmed people, although they happened to be Cheyenne rather than the enslaved folks Governor Evans was committed to emancipating in 1864 when the massacre at Sand Creek occurred. Also, Dr Evans, while a medical doctor--was not practicing medicine at the time.

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Earl Haehl
on January 14, 2021 at 13:40:28 pm

Where is the line for academic freedom? A faculty member speaking to the press or posting mysogonistic views on social media isn’t the same as an academic paper or teaching a class. How does that relate to his academic expertise?

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on January 14, 2021 at 14:13:10 pm

I assume you would also object to misandristic commentary from a faculty member as well - or is that permissible because of what? - the hegemony?

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on January 16, 2021 at 09:43:24 am

There is nothing Epstein said about Jill Biden that he could not have said about a male with an EdD degree who was insisting on being referred to as Dr. ... And if the male in question were to be a person of high stature in some sense, particularly prominent in the public eye, say the V.P., or the husband of a president, there's no reason to imagine Epstein would not have spoken out in precisely the same manner. Indeed, assuming otherwise as you implicitly seem to do, entails misandry. Hence, you need to be cancelled, Stephanie.

This is what happens when the woke/left succumbs to their ideologically induced solipsism and the moral antirealism that results from such views (and accompanying demands). And doesn't their solipsism often reflect an infantilism? And does not that infantilism in their thinking often manifest itself in their behavior? Jill Biden's insistence to be addressed as Dr., does that not reflect a petulant and puerile quality? All the more so when one takes note of the non-substantive quality of her EdD dissertation. It's little more than high-schoolish stuff.

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Michael Bond
on January 16, 2021 at 11:19:56 am

Btw, re David Goldman's reference to the Dem's paranormal economics, that's simply another term for infantile as well, or akin to it.

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Michael Bond
on January 14, 2021 at 14:54:16 pm

Credit where credit is due.

Professor McGinnis deserves appreciation for calling out the small-minded and illiberal attitudes displayed by Northwestern University in its treatment of Joseph Epstein. I will add my own opinion.

The University of Chicago is better than Northwestern University. Not better in some arbitrary measure of perception, or mixture of nostalgic academic reputation and modern devotion to intellectual fads, but better at being a university, of fulfilling the role that universities occupy in human flourishing. The University of Chicago is superior to Northwestern University because the former recognizes, at least somewhat, that "diversity and inclusion" are euphemisms used as excuses for destructive ideological indulgences in a setting that should be skeptical of them. Northwestern is inferior in that an objective observer, perhaps a prospective employer, or business contact, or correspondent, is left to wonder of its graduates "what was left out of your education because it ran contrary to ideological fashion? How has your intellectual flourishing been affected by yourprofessors and mentors deciding that some thoughts and knowledge are too dangerous for you?"

Northwestern is inferior because, as Professor McGinnis points out, its administrators are confused by the emotional appeal of words that they don't seem to understand, such as "aspersion." Likewise, they seem to believe that the word "misogynist" means "referring to a female." It appears that this assessment as applied to Mr. Epstein's opinion results solely from the fact that the object of that opinion is a woman. Unless Mr. Epstein was arguing that only women with EdD degrees should not be referred to as "Doctor," or that the use of the honorific should depend on the sex of the person using it, the opinion of the Northwestern administrators seems rather presumptuous, hyperbolic, and silly. Northwestern is inferior because it seems to accept that name-calling is an appropriate form of academic discourse. It is inferior because it seems to believe that its reputation in certain circles is more important than what its students learn. Maybe Northwestern is content to be a back-up college for people who can't get into the more academically principled institution down the road. Or maybe it was just having a bad day.

That's my opinion at the moment anyway.

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on January 14, 2021 at 16:18:19 pm

And besides that, the University of Chicago has never lowered its moral reputation by hiring an ex-terrorist to teach in its law school. Nor has it been so tone deaf and optics blind as to trash its own public relations by "cancelling" any well known writer, let alone a writer of Epstein's national reputation for extraordinary literary talent, cultural insight and intelligent humor. Nor has U of C been so stupid as to denounce "a truth universally acknowledged," that honorary doctorates are often undeserved (unless money, social connections and political influence are to constitute academic merit,) and for expressing a mere statement of the obvious, an irrefutable statement that is so obvious as to constitute a truism, that a doctorate in education is not intellectually or professionally comparable to a doctor of medicine or, indeed, to a doctorate in any substantive academic or professional field (and, in fact, is thought by many to be just a step above a bachelor's degree in physical education,) and then to justify brainlessness with silliness by whining that Epstein makes occupants of NU's faculty lounge livid.

All of which makes one wonder about the credentials of all those PhD's in NU's faculty lounge and Administration Building and whether their degrees are of the same quality and caliber as Dr. Jill Biden's.

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on January 14, 2021 at 16:28:19 pm

Right on target that Dr. Biden is not a "doctor who helps people." She's just an English teacher in a community college. That certainly doesn't help people. The real helpers are doctors with medical degrees, who are so much smarter than all those so-called "doctors" in other fields, who are not intellectually or professionally comparable. I mean really--we have to keep up standards and smack down these pretentious upstarts who think that earning a doctoral degree (in the wrong field) should entitle them to some respect. Right?

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Donald Marshall
on January 14, 2021 at 16:57:37 pm

Your sarcasm is thick and clumsy. Read Joseph Epstein to learn how irony works.

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on January 14, 2021 at 17:07:59 pm

Clumsy sarcasm aside, a doctorate in education does not substantively qualify Mrs. Biden as "an English teacher in a community college" or any other place of learning, nor as a teacher of history, economics, chemistry, physics, etc. Maybe English grammar or physical education or "diversity."

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on January 14, 2021 at 16:53:47 pm

And as for McGinnis' diversity points, Heather Mac Donald in "The Diversity Delusion" has said all that needs be said about the "diversity racket." It's a national disgrace, all made possible by some loose talk in 1978 by a judicial mediocrity, Justice Powell, in the horrible Bakke decision and kept alive in 2003 in Grutter (for another 25 years?) by another judicial mediocrity, Justice O'Connor. Yet a third mediocrity, Biden's pick for Assistant AG for the Civil Rights Division, based on her writings and public statements, appears to me to be a crypto-racist who will utilize the sacred cow of "diversity," much as that shibboleth is now used in every university and large corporation, as a legal subterfuge, a code-word, for legally rationalizing and justifying invidious racial discrimination in favor of blacks and against whites and Asians.

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on January 14, 2021 at 18:03:32 pm

This would track except that Northwestern has upheld academic freedom quite fervently in the past before. See: Satoshi Kanazawa and Arthur Butz. The school is deeply committed to academic freedom and also diversity/equity. Those aren't mutually exclusive.

Epstein was only loosely related to Northwestern and hadn't even taught there since the early aughts.

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on January 15, 2021 at 16:34:11 pm

Yours is certainly a respectable opinion, but not without points of contention.

Taking as true your point that "Northwestern has upheld academic freedom quite fervently in the past before," this is essentially character evidence that may be relevant to the issue of mitigation, but not to whether the University's conduct regarding Mr. Epstein was objectionable. Past performance, of course, is no guarantee of future results, and previous examples of liberal principles do not inure to the benefit of current transgressions, such as the odd and arguably silly comments of the Northwestern English Department.

The assertion that "[t]he school is deeply committed to academic freedom and also diversity/equity," taken as true, is irrelevant. Unless these commitments have a practical influence on the University's behavior, they are mere aspirations, the ephemeral promise of lip service in contrast to the more reliable evidence of deeds.

Likewise, the claim that "[t]hose [academic freedom and diversity/inclusion] aren't mutually exclusive" looks good on paper but is fraught with inconveniences in actual practice. The ideals of "diversity and inclusion" are the rhetorical refuge for those activists whose ideologies and objectives are otherwise. One does not achieve either diversity or inclusion by purging disagreement, demanding that speakers be de-platformed in the name of "safety" or accommodating claims that the only possible grounds for disagreement with woke orthodoxy is "misogyny," "transphobia," "hate," "racism," or its more recent derivative, "white supremacy." We need not accommodate the rather infantile notion that actual diversity and inclusion must be abandoned in the name of "safety" and allow the labels to be appropriated for purposes of performance theater. "Inclusion" applies to people who think differently; who, in good faith, have different ideas about virtue and the common good; and who have different ideas about how much deference should be given to irrational subjective sensitivities. The idea that either inclusion or diversity results from ideologically motivated campaigns of exclusion is one that is doomed to failure.

So again, I will take your word for it that Northwestern University is committed to academic freedom, and the behavior identified in Professor McGinnis's essay is an aberration brought on by a momentary irrational passions. But this does not deter calling out illiberal behavior when it occurs.

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on January 14, 2021 at 18:08:47 pm

Z9 asserts (quite properly, BTW):
"How has your intellectual flourishing been affected by your professors and mentors deciding that some thoughts and knowledge are too dangerous for you?""

Unless, of course, as we have had occasion to observe this past month or so, the hiring authorities are also "woke", have had the *benefit* of a similar education, know neither history, philosophy, the art of rhetoric and logic and are predisposed to find offense in all those who do not lack such knowledge.

Unfortunately, there are far too many employers that are the product of the late 20th / early 21st century University system and have adopted the same fabulist conceptions of "ordered" liberty, where "order" means selective entitlement to pre-political rights such as speech, conscience etc. "Those like us are entitled to rights. The "other" is not.

In my seven plus decades in this country I have observed the most radical transformation of mores, culture, political philosophy and practice. Looking back, I can not imagine a time that I ever thought that a man would be denied, or have cancelled his Life Insurance policy BECAUSE he posted some favorable comments regarding The Trumpster.
Yet, it occurred yesterday. Kurt Schilling was "disappeared from the pool of citizens that were entitled to Life Insurance Policy protections.
Next, it will be the 2nd Amendment. Thus, no life insurance and no practical and effective insurance against life threatening assaults.
I was not one who said or believed that "It could not happen here." I always believed that while not probable that it was indeed possible. Sadly, in my short time span on earth, I have lived to see it in its nascent form.
Should we permit them to take the next step?
First they :take" words; then they take guns. (No, I am not some militia type, BTW) By then you are truly defenseless and any attempt to oppose the fabulists, either by rhetoric or "more direct" means will be termed treason, sedition or extremism.
Oh, and you will be denied employment by the university "(mal) educated nitwits with their "silly ass" pretension to knowledge and moral high ground.
It ain;t new. I experienced it myself some 35 years ago. Even then "wokeness" was infecting the corporate ranks.
My Gawd, Edith! What has happened? Where is Archie Bunker when we truly need him?

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on January 14, 2021 at 10:24:40 am

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