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The Milton Friedman Institute and Ideological Intolerance in Academia:

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.

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Chicago Profs Oppose Milton Friedman Institute:

A proposal to create a Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago appears to have created some controversy, as reported here and here. 101 professors at the University signed a letter raising concerns about the new center. In particular, they raised concerns that it would be a "right-wing think tank" and would reinforce popular perceptions that the University of Chicago lacks ideological diversity.

Daniel Drezner has looked into the complaints about the proposed Center, and suggests an alternative explanation for the opposition: "The Milton Friedman Institute will distribute the bulk of its benefits to the department of economics, the law school, and the business school." I suspect Friedman would appreciate Drezner's take, particularly insofar as it applies a Friedman-esque analysis to the Friedman Institute's opposition.

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Chicago Opposition to MFI - Another View:

Jacob Levy offers an alternative take on UChicago faculty opposition to the creation of a Milton Friedman Institute:

Now, if you model academic behavior as rational, mutually-distinterested self-interest, you find that everyone should welcome an inflow of $200 million into another part of their university. You predict that there will be no opposition.

If, however, you model academic behavior as a status game, more concerned with relative position than with absolute position, and you find that your university is going to take the fields that are already very high-status in the world and relatively even higher status within your institution, and symbolically endow them with even greater status by making them more central to the institution's name and identity and campus and budget, then things look very different. The promise of getting the econ department's leftover offices and the spilloff from the interest on the new endowment pale in comparison to what will be lost. You predict that there will, in fact, be opposition.

While Levy and Drezner (both former Chicagoites) place their emphases in different places, I am not sure their accounts are in conflict. Sure some faculty in other departments are envious and fear the new Institute's presence may (further) eclipse their work, but they'd have less to be envious about were they to receive a bigger piece of the pie.

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Why Ideology, Not Interest Group Politics, Explains Academic Opposition to the new Milton Friedman Institute:

Last month, I argued that ideological bias against Friedman's libertarian views explains the actions of the 100+ University of Chicago professors who signed a petition opposing the establishment of the new Milton Friedman Institute at their university.

However, political scientists Jacob Levy and Daniel Drezner have put forward alternative explanations based on interest group politics. Drezner argues that the protesting professors are unhappy because their departments aren't getting a big enough slice of the $200 million in research funds that will go to the new Institute. Most of the signatories to the petition are non-economists, he points out, and economists will probably reap the lion's share of the Institute's research grants. Levy, by contrast, suggests that the signatories are motivated not by a desire for more money, but by fear that the Institute will will cause their departments to lose status relative to economics professors:

[I]f you model academic behavior as rational, mutually-distinterested self-interest, you find that everyone should welcome an inflow of $200 million into another part of their university. You predict that there will be no opposition.

If, however, you model academic behavior as a status game, more concerned with relative position than with absolute position, and you find that your university is going to take the fields that are already very high-status in the world and relatively even higher status within your institution, and symbolically endow them with even greater status by making them more central to the institution's name and identity and campus and budget, then things look very different.

I'm a big fan of interest group explanations of political behavior. In this case, however, Drezner and Levy's clever arguments are unpersuasive. The key problem is that both imply that academics will always, or at least usually, oppose the establishment of big new research centers at their universities if the centers are going to fund work in fields other than the academics' own. Thus, economists should protest whenever a new political science center is set up, historians whenever literature profs get a new pot of gold, and so on. This is a necessary implication of both Drezner's theory of competition for funding and Levy's status argument. The only difference is that under Drezner's approach, the protestors will be motivated by a desire to get some of the new money for themselves, while under Levy's, the driving force is fear of loss of relative status. At the very least, both theories predict protest unless the university simultaneously grants additional funding to the departments from which the protesters are drawn.

In reality, of course, such protests almost never happen. In nearly all cases, academics tend to be indifferent or mildly favorable to the establishment of new research centers at their school if the centers fund fields other than their own. And I am nearly certain that such would have been the reaction at Chicago if the new economics research center were called the John Maynard Keynes Institute rather than the Milton Friedman Institute; if it were associated with pro-government views rather than libertarian ones.

In addition, Drezner and Levy's theories imply that Chicago professors outside of economics can be expected to oppose the creation of the Milton Friedman Institute regardless of their own ideologies. If Levy is correct and the new Institute causes, say, political scientists at Chicago to lose status, it will do so regardless of whether they are liberal, conservative, or libertarian. Similarly, under Drezner's theory, conservative and libertarian political scientists will have just as much reason to oppose the Institute as liberal ones. In reality, of course, as far as I can tell not a single conservative or libertarian professor signed the anti-Institute petition. All the protesters seem to be liberals or radicals (see here for the list).

The anti-Institute protesters are engaged in expressive politics, not interest group rent-seeking. They dislike libertarianism and free market ideology, and don't want to be associated with it even indirectly. Drafting and signing the petition is a low-cost way of expressing their views and dispelling any possibility that outsiders might think that they are pro-free market just because they teach at Chicago. In addition, they like - many people of all ideological persuasions - prefer to be surrounded by others who agree with their political views. They aren't happy that the Institute might attract more non-left wing scholars to Chicago, an institution which in the protesters' view already has too many faculty who dissent from academic orthodoxy. When they say that they are opposed to the Institute because of its supposed "neoliberal" (i.e. - free market) ideology, they mean it.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Why Ideology, Not Interest Group Politics, Explains Academic Opposition to the new Milton Friedman Institute:
  2. Chicago Opposition to MFI - Another View:
  3. Chicago Profs Oppose Milton Friedman Institute:
  4. The Milton Friedman Institute and Ideological Intolerance in Academia:
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