The Collegian
Friday, February 23, 2024

OPINION: UChicago president preached free campus expression but suppressed details and dissent

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

On Tuesday, Feb. 12, President Ronald Crutcher asked Robert J. Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, what the weaknesses of UChicago’s free speech policy were. 

“There are none,” Zimmer replied to a nearly full crowd at the Queally Center, enunciating his apparent sarcasm with a light chuckle. 

Zimmer was an invited guest as part of the University’s Sharp Viewpoint Speaker series. Though his remark was good-natured — and he went on to explain that no bureaucratic policy is perfect — his response to this anonymous, audience-submitted question was illustrative of Zimmer’s attitude throughout the interview. I observed Zimmer carrying an air of arrogance in his remarks. He never fully addressed the ramifications of such a revolutionary policy of free expression, and he even refused to answer questions I believed were pertinent to the discussion. 

This is not to say that I disagree with Zimmer’s overall message, or the policy he has crafted at UChicago. The methodology behind UChicago’s speech policy is that the university will never uninvite speakers who have already been contacted to visit, even if their views may offend certain groups. The university is instructed to intervene only in a situation in which symbols or speech are being used to threaten a person or group. 

The approach has become known colloquially as “The Chicago Statement,” and 35 American universities have adopted some or all of its tenets as of 2018.

The goal of this policy, according to Zimmer, is to promote the true purpose of higher education — that is, to create situations in which students can grow by discussing freely and sometimes learning through uncomfortable situations. Zimmer believes that through a free speech policy, students will be better equipped to tackle real-world issues after they leave the proverbial “safe space” of a college campus. 

I take no issue with this philosophy. Neither would I take issue with a counterargument to Zimmer’s idea of a university’s purpose. For example, one could argue that it is essential that, given the segregated history of almost all non-HBCU college campuses, university officials protect minority students against hateful rhetoric. 

This discussion as a whole is essential and relevant, but I felt Zimmer did not want to lean into the true conversation. Zimmer simply called censorship “bad” and “not useful” without any discussion of a systematic approach, and claimed that free speech inherently promoted inclusion. This seemed to be an opinion without much argumentative grounding. 

Further, Zimmer refused to answer a question about the importance of freedom of the press, which he claimed was irrelevant to the conversation about free expression on campus. I found this claim absurd, as Crutcher explicitly mentioned the fact that Zimmer’s policy had garnered quite a bit of attention in the national press, and not without controversy. And what of student media outlets, which are integral mechanisms of free expression at institutions of higher education? It seemed that he missed an opportunity to discuss something that was both interesting and well within the scope of the discussion. 

Again, I am personally a supporter of Zimmer’s free speech policy at the University of Chicago. Nevertheless, this is irrelevant when one takes time to listen to a distinguished speaker. Students and faculty members should expect to hear someone who acknowledges the positive and negative traits of the viewpoints they are arguing against and then formulates a comprehensive, deep-rooted argument that gives listeners an opportunity to broaden their own mindsets on hot-button issues. 

After all, isn’t that the kind of discussion Zimmer said he seeks to create on his own campus?

Contact contributor Ryan Shaw at 

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