Room for Hope
In what Gerard Baker describes as an “encouraging” interview with University of Chicago president, Paul Alivisatos, Mr. Baker asks the president about his outlook for improving the climate for free speech at American universities and colleges. Can they create more ideological and intellectual diversity in the faculty? How can American higher education continue to be a force for socially and economically valuable research and discovery?
Gerry Baker: What about the balance between teaching undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and research? Again, is that something you think the university has right now or do you think that balance needs to be redressed?
Prof. Paul Alivisatos: Well, I’m astonished by the care that’s given to the teaching at the university, how deep it is. I visited recently the faculty who are responsible for the core curriculum, which is really a foundation point.
Gerry Baker: That’s still very much part of the university education (inaudible)?
Prof. Paul Alivisatos: Very, and I think it’s really foundational and to see the faculty, how carefully they were thinking about how to constantly honor the history of the core but also renew it, was really inspiring to me. At the same time, absolutely we’re creating entirely new research fields. I mean in quantum information and in biotech areas and so on, there’s completely new things happening. Or even in the field of economics, as you mentioned, it’s transforming into some sense of an experimental field as well as one where there are foundational things. So all that’s going on.
Mr. Baker asks MR. Alivisatos to give his overall sense of the “ferment” that we’ve had in the last decade or so about safe spaces and students objecting to certain types of speech, the university came out with its principles… how to look at it, how to see tits state. Because it is a topic, of very strong principles, of great interest to a lot of people.
Prof. Paul Alivisatos:
… I’ve been studying Harper quite a bit because it’s just so important to me and it’s astonishing how he designed the university on purpose as a response to some of the things that happened in European universities, wanting to ensure that government interference in what faculty did was not going to happen. And that’s stayed true through the years. And indeed, as you say in Bob Zimmer era, great, great president of the University, my predecessor, the Chicago principles were developed. They’ve been adopted by over a hundred universities. I believe that free expression is the core principle of the university and it’s a culture. And so I view myself as president as having a very important role in that.
But it’s also something that arises every day in each and every classroom and how students come to it and how they talk to each other. And so we have a broad set of programs that I’m initiating that will help promote the understanding of free expression when we bring people in, what we do to help them understand why it’s important and how to engage in it. We try to enhance its practice as an everyday culture in the university. I have a responsibility in protecting it when something is going off and we think very hard about advancing it.
For example, when there are over 90, perhaps a hundred, now universities that have adopted the Chicago Principles, can we partner better with them or can we partner with other parts of society where free expression has become so challenged in order to help them perhaps view some of the ways in which we operate as models for them. And so all of those are very much on my mind and you’ll hear me speaking about them often.
… let me give you an example of how we try to really create an environment that’s thoughtful. We have a lecture series now, there’s a lecture series that is intended to bring people to the campus to talk about the challenges of free expression. And our first speaker was Anthony Julius, a brilliant barrister from the UK.
And he was in a dialogue with one of our law school faculty, Genevieve Lakier, and the dialogue was around, well what happens if somebody inside a university isn’t truth seeking but is a provocateur? And there was a discussion around, well, what does that really mean and how would you even know? And there were hundreds of students there and there were faculty and there was a huge grand old debate about this. To me, that’s the essence of a university that’s not afraid to bring those topics up and say, look, let’s have that debate.
Of course there are going to be people who will object to things and it’s very concerning to me. We had an example this fall where people from outside the university were trying to prevent a speaker from being able to speak. We had an instance where there was a speaker coming and there was a kind of organized social media campaign. It was around …
Prof. Paul Alivisatos continues:
So somebody was coming and there were people who felt like we don’t want that point of view to be expressed. And they were mounting a huge campaign. Unfortunately, and this is where we talk about the issue of protection being so important. A social media campaign veered into that range where people started to make threats of violence and that impacted us. But we managed to have a version of the event go forward. That concerns me very much. Obviously if people start to try to engage in that way, that’s way out of the range of what’s appropriate. And we have to defend free expression from that, and we have to be determined to do that. But it’s also really hard. So that’s the world we live in today and we are really working very hard to make sure that that full range of debate is taking place.
Gerry Baker: Many of these people who object to speakers, to particular points of view and who actually try to block particular points of view from being represented public speakers, they phrase it as the speech that they’re objecting to is a form of direct personal harm. You see this all the time. People say, if you know some right wing politician comes and speaks, I, as a minority or a woman or someone, that is a direct form of violence. We hear this even phrase of speech is violence. You do have exceptions in your principles of freedom of expression, which I think everybody understands hate speech and that kind of stuff. But how do you deal with that argument that actually speech can be violence and therefore this is something that we have to prevent.
Prof. Paul Alivisatos: Well-meaning but wrong. If a student has come to the university in order to learn how to know not what to know, and every moment each classroom, each peer conversation could be the moment which they should be seeking, where suddenly something that they thought was true turned out not to be. That’s the moment of deepest education and you don’t know when that’s going to happen. And if you’re not open to hearing what another person has to say, even if it’s a difficult thing to hear, you’re not giving the chance to actually be truth seeking in your work. Look, we take that on and we work on it very, very hard. And it’s all the way from the first day at the convocation speech. In my convocation speech this year, I spoke about the university being a kind of gift economy. And in the gift economy the greatest gift that we can do is to listen to others and also to candidly say our own views.
To read the full transcript, go here. (WSJ, 17 February 2023)
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