In a 2017 New York Times column headlined "America's Best University President," Bret Stephens praised Robert Zimmer of the University of Chicago as a defender of free speech.
The column quoted speeches and letters from Zimmer and other University of Chicago administrators and professors, including a committee that, as Stephens quoted it, issued a 2015 report finding that, "Concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community."
So it was surprising to see a blog post from John Cochrane, who until recently was a professor at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. Cochrane wrote on June 15, "I spent much of my last few years of teaching afraid that I would say something that could be misunderstood and thus be offensive to someone. Many of my colleagues report the same worries."
If that level of fear accurately describes the situation at the University of Chicago, where the university administration has deservedly won national attention for coming down clearly, decisively, and publicly on the "open debate" side of the campus speech wars, imagine just how bad things are in the rest of academia.
In a moment when black Americans fear being killed by police, the concern that tenured professors might be inconvenienced might seem trivial. The worry at Chicago as described by Cochrane was less that university administrators would, on their own initiative, rule speech out of bounds, and more that a student would lodge a grievance that would, in turn, generate an investigation that would then accumulate a momentum of its own—with no due process. It could end with a teacher falsely labeled as a racist, one of the worst things a person can be called in contemporary America.
David Brooks, another New York Times columnist who is a member of the University of Chicago's board of trustees, tweeted over the weekend that the story of "radically shifting attitudes and awareness on race" is ten times more important than the story that "the hardcore cancel culture is losing its mind."
Perhaps. But the two stories are not unrelated. Among the people getting canceled are those whose "attitudes and awareness on race" have not shifted rapidly enough to suit the hard core's vanguard. At FutureOfCapitalism.com I have published a still-growing list of 20 people who have lost their jobs in these purges. The list includes the CEO and co-founder of the Wing, a coworking community for women, Audrey Gelman, who had conceded, "Employees were required to attend diversity and antibias trainings, but it was a one-time requirement and didn't go deep enough." It also includes the president of the Poetry Foundation, Henry Bienen, and its board chairman, Willard Bunn III, who resigned after issuing a George Floyd-related statement that critics said was "vague and lacking any commitment to concrete action," the Associated Press reported.
These aren't people who committed hate crimes. They are people who committed thought crimes or people who appear guilty, at most, of being well-intentioned but clumsy. They were antiracist but they were mediocre at it rather than excelling. That didn't used to be a firing offense in most places. Maybe those of us who favor excellence rather than mediocrity, in general, should welcome the expansion of high-stakes high standards to the field of diversity and inclusion.
This is complicated stuff, in part because it is a good thing that there is a stigma attached to racism, and it is a good thing that people in power, as professors are, are motivated to choose their words with care rather than without it.
But as important a value as antiracism is, there are other closely related values as well, among them the rule of law and seeing everyone as fully human and, in many cases, capable of improvement and repentance. Another recent New York Times column quoted the longtime national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, bemoaning what he described as, "one wrong picture, and you are finished for life."
Zimmer is recovering from emergency brain surgery, but the University of Chicago website carries a speech he gave at Vienna in September 2019. "As frequently the case for groups filled with self-righteousness, many simple well-meaning behaviors are given malignant interpretations followed by demands for corrective action," Zimmer said. "On some campuses there is a tone of discourse ostracizing those with currently unpopular views, faculty are concerned about bringing up certain topics and ideas for fear not of disagreement but of being demonized, and some university administrators are actually fostering an environment in which students' feelings of discomfort with ideas take precedence over the importance of actually discussing ideas."
Those words are as true now as they were then.