I recently expressed unbridled pride in my alma mater, The University of Chicago, in taking a stand for free speech and rejecting the notion of sheltering students from opposing or disturbing views with “safe spaces” and speech codes. Now, across town, my other alma mater, Northwestern University, appears intent on embracing the opposing view. Northwestern President, Morton Schapiro, has called faculty and students who adhere to views underlying the “Chicago Principle” as nothing more than “lunatics.” Fortunately, I only went to Northwestern for graduate school and was able to secure my undergraduate degree at Chicago in a free and robust community of free thought and free expression. The contrast in the two schools on different sides of the city captures the deep division among academics. However, as one of those “lunatics” and “idiots” denounced by Schapiro, there is no question in my view where the better educational environment can be found in light of Schapiro’s comments. He also denounced those with opposing academic views as just speaking from their privileged backgrounds and lifestyle.
The University of Chicago last week promised incoming students something that is increasingly rare in the United States: an unfettered and uncensored education. While most schools are actively curtailing free speech, its letter warned the students that they will not be protected against ideas or given “safe spaces.” Instead, they will be educated in an open and free environment where they will be challenged by a range of different views — ideas that will at times thrill and at times outrage them. Chicago told its incoming class: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
Over in Evanston, students received a very different message from Northwestern’s President Schapiro: “Look for safe spaces. if you can’t find them, we will help you find them. . . . If they say that…you shouldn’t be warned to prepare yourself psychologically for that, that somehow that’s coddling, those people are lunatics.”
He added that “The people who decry safe spaces do it from their segregated housing places, from their jobs without diversity — they do it from their country clubs. It just drives me nuts.”
As to the ambiguous notion of microaggressions, which now can involve anything from mispronouncing names to using terms like “melting pot,” Schapiro insisted that microaggressions “cut you to the core” and called those of us who object to the vague definition of this new offense as “idiots.”
It is rather ironic to see Schapiro decrying intolerance and calling for a more protected and safe environment by denouncing members of his own faculty and student body with opposing views as lunatics and idiots.
Schapiro has succeeded in not just abandoning principles of free speech but directly assaulting core values of academic freedom. The chilling effect of his words will be most felt by untenured faculty who may think twice about advocating views that Schapiro has not defined as lunacy and idiocy. He might want to ride the EL over to the lunatic fringe on the South side where the third highest ranked university in the nation continues to teach in an open and free environment of ideas.