The package in the mail was from an old friend, a distinguished professor I’ve known since we were both young. I prodded the padded envelope. It felt like a book. And, indeed, it was a book: his latest. Opening it and reading the inscription—“For Joshua—with you in times good, bad, and mixed”—brought me close to tears.
It used to be that colleagues, some of them old friends, others known to me only vaguely, sent work all the time: published books, published articles, books and articles in manuscript, rough drafts, prospectuses, half-baked ideas. They’d arrive with gratifying frequency, by snail mail and by email, at home and in the office, sometimes for me to savor, often for me to comment on. Since becoming a non-person in the eyes of the intelligentsia, however, I have received nearly nothing. This was the first book an American academic had sent to me in over two years.
Here’s why this is interesting: the author teaches at the University of Chicago. If you have been paying attention to the debacle that is American higher education these days, you will know that Chicago is the one elite university with a good record of resisting the worst impulses of society.
Chicago’s presidents have been outspoken champions of free expression. Would that every university were led by a Hanna Holborn Gray or a Robert Zimmer! Administrators and faculty at Chicago have worked together to create three of the most important policy documents in academia today: the Kalven Report (1967), which insists on institutional neutrality on political and social issues; the Shils Report (1972), which bars “consideration of sex, ethnic or national characteristics, or political or religious beliefs or affiliations in any decision regarding appointment, promotion, or reappointment at any level of the academic staff”; and the robust guardian of free speech known as the “Chicago Principles” (2015). As for Chicago’s heterodox students, they have for the past few years been putting out the excellent Chicago Thinker (motto: “Outthink the Mob”). Few were surprised when the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) last month crowned Chicago number one in the 2022–2023 College Free Speech Rankings.
There are only five colleges and universities in the country at which more than three professors have communicated with me, even just cursorily, since July 2020. At most institutions the number is zero. One of the four is Princeton University (FIRE ranking number 169 of 203), where I taught for almost a quarter of a century and where a small number of former colleagues have been vigorously defending me against the waves of hatred, while another small number will acknowledge my existence privately. The second of the four institutions hardly counts since it does not yet have a proper faculty, student body, or curriculum: the University of Austin, on whose board of advisors I am proud to sit. The third is unranked by FIRE: the University of Dallas, a Catholic institution with a core curriculum where I felt very much at home on a recent visit. The fourth is the fiercely independent Hillsdale College, which holds the number one ranking among the “warning schools”—ones that “prioritize other values over a commitment to freedom of speech”—but whose overall score even so would place it at number thirty-two, far ahead of any of the Ivies (Dartmouth leads that pack at number eighty-three; Yale, Penn, and Columbia bring up the rear at numbers 198, 202, and 203, respectively). And then there is the University of Chicago.
No other university has close to as many faculty members who have been supportive of me—and supportive of a good number of others who have fallen afoul of the new academic commissars. You might say “So what?” and accuse me of egotistically pretending an anecdote is data. But given the media attention my story has received, I suppose I’ve become something of a Rorschach test.
Although I have never had any formal ties to the Windy City, over a dozen humanists, social scientists, and scientists in a range of departments and schools at the University of Chicago have written op-eds and blogs (here are three), permitted themselves to be seen with me, or at least checked in regularly to make sure I’m OK. None of these people believes I am a saint or never did anything wrong, as of course I did. But, well, John 8:7, for starters.
I am aware that the University of Chicago is not paradise. Even in the Maroon world, according to FIRE, “42% of students say shouting down a speaker to prevent them from speaking on campus is never acceptable”—which leaves the other 58 percent. Worse, there’s actual violence: fatal shootings of students around campus don’t stop zealots from demanding that the university’s police force be defunded.
Furthermore, a couple of years back, the department of English decided that it would accept “only [graduate] applicants interested in working in and with Black Studies.” The geophysicist Dorian Abbot has been a regular target of attacks, internal as well as external, for speaking up—in a way that a majority of Americans would find wholly reasonable—about the problems with “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.” Earlier this year, the new department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity came into existence. And, sure, some faculty members, including one with a high public profile, have gone out of their way to denounce me.
Still, Chicago clearly is different from everywhere else, and we should all ask why. In my case, I am led to inquire what gives so many Chicago professors the courage to stand up to injustice, even when the injustice is to someone to whom they owe nothing—someone at a different institution, in a different field—and even when their actions could well come at a personal cost.
Does the University of Chicago attract a certain type—those who appreciate its sturdy history of allowing strong personalities to speak their minds? Does the University of Chicago mold its constituents so that they come to appreciate this sturdy history? Or is the University of Chicago the sort of place it is because a certain type just happens to have ended up there? I imagine the answer is a combination of all three.
Chicago, it should be remembered, was an upstart university, with unusually rigorous academic standards from its inception in 1890, an early emphasis on the core curriculum and interdisciplinarity (the pinnacle was the creation in 1941, under Robert Maynard Hutchins, of the idiosyncratic Committee on Social Thought), and a de-emphasis on athletics. As far as I can tell from the outside, Chicago’s impulse to distinguish itself from its peer institutions remains, and there is a notable refusal by the senior administration to condemn faculty for making controversial statements.
It does not take much for a university to lose its way. Consider, for example, Columbia, which vaunts its core curriculum and has had at its helm for more than two decades someone who made his scholarly name in defense of the First Amendment. Uniquely “abysmal”—that’s how FIRE now describes Columbia’s commitment to free speech. Or take Princeton, which has long been viewed as the most traditional of the Ivies. In 2015, with support from its president, Christopher Eisgruber, Princeton became the first institution after the University of Chicago formally to adopt the Chicago Principles. But these days, the place is Bedlam—here are just a few stories from recent weeks—with Eisgruber having turned, almost overnight, into “the worst Ivy League president,” in the words of Richard K. Vedder. There is a lesson here for Robert Zimmer’s successor, Paul Alivisatos: he must take care to safeguard the wisdom and excellence of the university he has had the privilege to lead for a little over a year.
I’m hopeful Alivisatos will do the right thing. For now, at least, I give thanks for the University of Chicago: My kind of town, Chicago is/ My kind of people too/ People who smile at you.