The University of Chicago has decided to establish an economics research institute named after the late Milton Friedman. Normally, a university's decision to name an institute after it's most famous and successful professor would be a completely uncontroversial nonstory. However, over 100 University of Chicago professors have signed a letter protesting the decision. Essentially, they object to naming a research institute after Friedman because he was a libertarian rather than a liberal or leftist - even though Friedman's academic distinction is such that he clearly deserves the honor. It is inconceivable that you could find 100 academics at Chicago or any other major university who would sign a letter opposing the creation of an institute named after a liberal academic whose intellectual achievement's were as great as Friedman's.
The letter states that naming the center after Friedman would "reinforce among the public a perception that the university's faculty lacks intellectual and ideological diversity." This is a weak argument to say the least. No one assumes that universities endorse all the views of the people they name research centers or buildings after. For example, I teach at the George Mason University School of Law. That doesn't lead anyone to assume that I or the university as a whole endorse Mason's opposition to the Constitution or his other political views. Everyone understands that the university is named after Mason to honor his achievements, not to express agreement with his opinions. Universities - including Chicago - routinely name all sorts of facilities in honor of liberals or leftists without anyone even suggesting that this might lead people to think that the school lacks "ideological diversity." Even more to the point, the University of Chicago, like most universities, has entire departments overwhelmingly dominated by liberal or leftist ideological views. I doubt that many of the signers of the anti-Friedman letter are concerned about this, even though it leads to a real lack of ideological diversity as opposed to the mere "perception" thereof.
Some letter signers interviewed in the Chicago Tribune article linked above claim that the center will be a "right-wing" organization that, in the words of one, will cause "work at the university and the university's reputation [to] take a serious rightward turn to the detriment of all." There is no proof of this other than a sentence from the Institute's proposal which says that it will focus on the issues raised in "some of Milton Friedman's most interesting academic work." Obviously, focusing on the issues addressed in Friedman's work is not the same thing as automatically endorsing his conclusions. But even if the Institute does attract a disproportionate percentage of libertarian or (less likely) conservative scholars, so what? Plenty of academic departments and research centers are overwhelmingly left-wing. As long as the work produced by the Institute is of a high quality and is judged by objective standards, it should not matter if a disproportionate percentage of it is right of center. Since the Institute would be run by Chicago's world-class economics and business school faculty (including several Nobel Prize winner), it's highly likely that it will produce outstanding scholarship.
In my view, academia as a whole is in need of greater ideological diversity. But that doesn't mean that every single department or research center has to be internally diverse, merely that the academic world should be more diverse overall. Diversity across institutions is sometimes furthered by homogeneity within particular schools and departments. If the Milton Friedman Institute does end up producing primarily libertarian or conservative work, that would actually increase the overall diversity of the University of Chicago and the academic world as a whole, since both are overwhelmingly liberal (it's true that the Chicago Economics Department tends to be libertarian, but most of the university's other departments have ideological orientations similar to those of their counterparts at other schools - i.e., liberal ones).
In fairness to the University of Chicago, it should be noted that the 100 signers of the letter represent only 8% of the school's total full-time faculty. It's possible that some of the non-signing faculty sympathize with the signers' objectives. But the majority of the school's faculty - maybe even a majority of its liberal faculty - perhaps do not agree with the letter. By no means all liberal and leftist academics are ideologically intolerant. The majority, I think, are not. But there is obviously an intolerant minority that wields considerable influence.
NOTE: The article claims, incorrectly, that the University of Chicago Law School is "conservative." That isn't true, even if one defines "conservative" broadly to include libertarians. The University of Chicago Law School has historically had more libertarian professors than most other top law schools (and a few real conservatives as well). But it has always had a majority of liberal professors, at least since the New Deal. The fact that merely having a substantial minority of non-liberal scholars was enough to give the school a "conservative" reputation is itself an indication of the ideological imbalance in academia.
UPDATE: The text of the 100 scholars' letter is available here. All of their stated concerns focus on the Institute's supposed "neoliberal" ideology and the "harm" that that might supposedly do the University's reputation for "diversity." Read the letter and judge for yourself.
Related Posts (on one page):
- Why Ideology, Not Interest Group Politics, Explains Academic Opposition to the new Milton Friedman Institute:
- Chicago Opposition to MFI - Another View:
- Chicago Profs Oppose Milton Friedman Institute:
- The Milton Friedman Institute and Ideological Intolerance in Academia: