The University of Chicago Isn’t Living Up to Its “Principles”

Behind the lauded free-speech declaration is a standard-issue progressive institution.

Much has been made of the “Chicago Principles,” formal statements by the University of Chicago concerning the institutional inclusion of opposing political viewpoints. Articulated in 2015, the principles seek to set expectations concerning the accommodation of all perspectives, especially within group settings such as public-speaking events, but also, theoretically, in publications and disciplines. Also produced by the institution is the so-called Kalven Report, which commits the university to a principle of “institutional neutrality.” Some universities are actively copying these principles: starting a center or issuing memoranda. Others even seek to organize a new institution, all of which reveals a widespread belief in viewpoint plurality.

The Chicago Principles have gained much fame due to their deemphasis of such ideological concepts as “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and other sensitivities that are usually invoked when students reject positions or views that challenge their belief structures. There’s no doubt that this is a welcome pushback from the perspective of many students, parents, faculty, and campus speakers. It is also a mature position for a university to take in a legal sense, as free speech is both constitutionally protected and recognized in case law from student and university litigation, going back several decades.

Finally, the Chicago Principles have served as good branding, as their declaration has differentiated the University of Chicago from nearly all its peers. UChicago has been praised as a “haven of heterodoxy.” To a certain extent this is true.

Many of UChicago’s core administrative actions and programs are consolidated behind one political position.But in another critical context it is not. Many of the University of Chicago’s core administrative actions and programs are consolidated behind one political position, and not just in a casual or ad hoc way but systematically, throughout its organization. How this political or ideological position should be characterized is a good question, because it doesn’t fall neatly into a traditional category. It is both highly conservative in one sense and radically progressive in another. What both elements have in common is obedience to government-industrial policy and objectives.

The position I’m identifying stems not just from preferences or values but from economics: The university will, as a routine institutional behavior, take money from most sources, and it will do what those sources generally wish. The scientific method, or rational empiricism, can be modified or suspended as necessary; specific ends can be served if the means are provided. (About this, more below.)

Of course, the Chicago Principles are functional as a first-order practice (that is, as a general, everyday campus observation or pledge). But their establishment can also have larger strategic purposes: They sound welcoming, mature, and independent, even if they turn out to be window dressing. In other words, they may be a curtain, behind which is more political partisanship than you might expect.

This is where the university’s actual behavior becomes more interesting. What is the University of Chicago doing in practice that turns free speech into doublespeak?

The head of the university’s Board of Trustees, David Rubenstein, is a long-time, active DNC political donor, as well as the former head of the defense and security-sector hedge fund The Carlyle Group. He has embraced the BLM movement and went so far as to finance the rewriting of American history by underwriting a multi-million-dollar thematic re-design of Founder James Madison’s home to favor “antiracist” narratives and exhibits. The board also includes the Pritzker family, one member of whom is the current progressive-Democrat governor of Illinois, known for his devotion to special interests.

The president of the university is advised by a full-time senior consultant who was Michelle Obama’s White House chief of staff, while former Obama aide David Axelrod was, until recently, the director of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, a partisan political-advocacy center that masquerades as a student-training program, even as the nearby Obama Foundation acts as a political-influence organization that finances and promotes political ideologies through an “Obama Scholars” program on campus. Speakers at UChicago’s left-leaning law school are nearly exclusively from one political party, and when a conservative does show up, UChicago Law can revert to the manners of an elementary-school playground.

The hiring of so many progressives is a structural flaw that prevents the realization of consistent heterodoxy.Chicago’s economics department is an interesting case, as well, because it is arguably what the university is best known for. Along with the business school, the economics department is the intellectual and commercial core of the university where Nobel awards, alumni density, corporate relationships, and more are concerned. The economics department produced the “Chicago School,” with its culture of merciless academic confrontation based on facts and data. (Chicago Ph.D. and Stanford professor Thomas Sowell calls such economics a “contact sport.”) Yet even here, the university’s ability to maintain an objective, empirical posture is compromised by excessive “revolving-door” hiring of senior, partisan government officials. Former Obama administration economist Michael Greenstone heads up the university’s Becker Friedman Institute, along with “EPIC,” the UChicago energy policy institute that acts as an unofficial White House green-energy-policy center. (Note Greenstone’s active congressional lobbying.) Former Obama administration chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, Professor Austan Goolsbee, is also an active political ideologue and casts many economic policy problems as if he were still representing the former president.

The Booth School of Business’s Stigler Center has also been “captured” to some extent by a left-leaning bias and is active in partisan public affairs—for example, by supporting cellphone tracking of Americans’ movements or “repeat voting” when progressives don’t get their way the first time. Whatever the Chicago Principles say, the hiring of so many political progressives is a structural flaw that prevents the realization of consistent heterodoxy. The few conservative faculty who exist can be marginalized easily enough.

Indeed, when one looks closely at recent university actions (including, for example, a move to keep a conservative student group off campus), one sees an institution that is trying to thread the needle between taking a stand on free speech and accommodating the political interests of the progressive Left that actually runs the university. Thus, it is unsurprising to read that a business professor “spent much of [his] last few years of teaching afraid,” that many students are “hostile to attempts at bipartisan, thoughtful discussion,” and that the academic catalog is full of “crazed left-wing course listings.”

The fascinating thing about the “Chicago Principles” is that they even exist at all. Would a statement that declares different opinions tolerable be taken seriously if the subject were physics? Or astronomy, chemistry, or aerospace engineering? Why is it necessary to formalize, at an institution of higher learning, a willingness to hear all viewpoints that contribute to knowledge? Since when do we think it noteworthy in America that a university “allows” different perspectives?

What good, then, are the Chicago Principles and the Kalven Report? Free speech is not, in its ideal form, merely an accommodation of opposing viewpoints but a structural, institutional configuration that comprises actual, tangible heterodoxies, informed in large part by hiring. Little actual heterodoxy exists on UChicago’s campus, either in its faculty or within its administrative ranks. Yes, the principles have some “teeth,” but in its institutional and operating culture, the University of Chicago is part of the ideological uniformity of higher education. In this way, it forms a “trust” with schools such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Berkeley, which have consolidated higher education’s political ideologies. The “ideals” may be different, but the outcomes are largely the same.

Matthew G. Andersson is a graduate of the University of Chicago, a technology professional, a former CEO, and the author of the forthcoming book Legally Blind, concerning how ideology affects law and policy.