To me, the University of Chicago has always represented the gold standard in academic rigor and excellence in American academia. Having never attended this institution, or even visited it, I don’t know whether it deserves to be thought of this way. But my encounters with many a graduate of the University, including some fairly recent ones, has done nothing to disturb my impression, which dates back to the Saul Bellow-Allan Bloom era.
Now, consistent with its tradition, the University of Chicago has issued a ringing endorsement of academic freedom and open inquiry. In a letter to incoming students, it tells them not to expect safe spaces and a trigger-free existence during their time at the University.
The letter explains that one of the defining characteristics of the school is its unwavering commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. Civility and mutual respect are vital to the campus culture, but not at the expense of shielding students from unpopular opinions or ideas.
The students are informed:
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.
The University’s affirmation of academic freedom and open inquiry stands in contrast to the trend at elite colleges and universities. The letter is thus a breath of fresh air.
It is also a smart move. The University doesn’t want students too fragile to hear views they deem intolerable. It wants robust students who will thrive in an environment of free debate.
The policy set forth in the letter will deter the fragile from applying. It will encourage the robust to apply.
If the University of Chicago corners the market, so to speak, on the latter kind of student, it won’t just preserve the right kind of academic environment. It might also improve the quality of the student body, as traditionally measured by GPA and SAT scores, by becoming the school of choice for many high school students who might otherwise prefer a top Ivy League institution.