Protecting that community of inquiry means keeping any number of intrusions at bay. And the university is constituted as a system of safe spaces: around here we discuss as economists in order to make progress on our research agenda without constantly having to re-argue our premisses against philosophers pointing out how inadequate they are. In that classroom professors teach and students learn biology, in a discussion that is insulated from anti-scientific anti-vaccine ranting and creationist ranting alike. The students in the Black Students’ Association get together to explore questions of culture and identity, discuss shared experiences of life in a majority-white society or university, or just relax, insulated from the “but affirmative action should be abolished and people should be judged on their merits!” hectoring from each conservative white student who thinks they’re the first to communicate this radical idea. Each of those insulated environments is a part of the larger university whole; each of those debates can happen in other university settings. But in order to make intellectual progress, we create a system of nested and overlapping safe spaces within which we can say to the boring and disruptive critic endlessly repeating first-order objections: “Go away. Hush up. We have work to do.”...My own arguments about this grow out of ideas developed n Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, chapter 11. And see the University of Chicago statement on freedom of expression and the Kalven Report, which are much better statements of governing academic principle than is last week’s letter from Chicago, more concerned with the university itself and less concerned with extramural culture war signalling.--Jacob Levy @BHL.
It is very hard to convey to folk who have not been there the ways in which The University of Chicago is a distinctive place of higher learning. (Disclosure: I was awarded my PhD there in 2002.) This is due to its location on the South Side of Chicago, its monastic buildings, Chicago's weather, the university's record in research excellence, its orientation toward graduate education -- despite housing a fantastic college with a famous 'core' --, its bureaucratic-administrative maze, and its corporate sense of self. It's not for all, and it takes a certain personality to survive and thrive there. There are other places with great research excellence and a distinctive sense of self, but few that combine it.
To get a sense of what this corporate sense of self is about, look at the (January 2015) faculty "Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression" [HT Michael Kremer]. This report invokes and quotes several of the most prominent former presidents of The University of Chicago: Harper, Hutchins, Levi, Gray. It then adds, "The words of Harper, Hutchins, Levi, and Gray capture both the spirit and the promise of the University of Chicago." [The report is also notable because it is clear about the abuses of invocations of civility: "concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas," (emphasis added).*] The real oddity to an outsider is that these names are familiar to me, and that if given the chance, I can also hold forth on ways in which they shaped the university, local housing policy, and discussions about the life of the mind Stateside. (To be sure, each one of them is controversial in interesting ways.)
I mention this because when I read Dean Ellison's letter to the incoming students of the class of 2020, my first reaction was, "This guy must be new to The University of Chicago"** and my second thought was, "OMG The Corporates have taken over The UofC." [On this second point, see this piece by Malloy Owen in the American Conservative!] That is, the Dean's letter does not invoke the corporate spirit that is characteristic of The University of Chicago (in fact it violates it) and it fails to convey the complexity of the issues involved. It is, as Jacob Levy suggests, more charitably read as a form of signalling in the culture wars.
Here are two examples: (i) Dean Ellison invokes civility as a virtue without qualification, despite the known problems with it as a means to control speech; (ii) his letter pretends as if the education of a young mind is not a matter of careful cultivation; (again to quote the faculty report) "the fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission," (emphasis added). The fostering of such an ability requires lots of careful pedagogical and disciplinary choices by instructors, curricula committees, and students alike. These choices will entail, due to constraints on, not to mention opportunity costs of, time and attention that not all objections, that not all viewpoints, and not all possible conversations will occur. (Jacob puts it nicely above, they are partially "insulated environments.")
Rather, Dean Ellison writes as if students arrive on campus fully formed and once there, engage in an "intellectual journey" where they will be asked to respect and participate in "freedom of expression" (which is taken to be a "defining characteristic" of the university). On their journey the students are expected, and I quote, to "explore."
Now, by all means encourage intellectual exploration in one's curriculum or one's pedagogical choices (in residence halls, in the class-room, in reading lists, etc.), but what we're seeing here is how a college student is being conceived as a (perhaps sophisticated) tourist. Even if they are not meant to be signalling in the culture wars, Dean Ellison's words are marketing-speak. They are unworthy of the great history of the University of Chicago. The University's 1967 Kalven report, (which is mentioned in Dean Ellison's letter as is the faculty report I quoted above), explains how as part of its research and educational mission a university "creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones." (I hope to return to the Kalven report soon.]
Dean Ellison's letter explains how members of the incoming class should expect some "discomfort" on their journey. Perhaps the worst form of discomfort is to recognize that you are in on the dirty secret that you are part of an institution that will merely replicate the existing social arrangements.
* It goes on to say that, "The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University."
**To the best of my knowledge Dean Ellison had no prior relationship with The University of Chicago. He played a fascinating role in responding to Harvard's cheating scandal which resulted in "administrators to secretly search the email accounts of resident deans to determine the source of the leak."