Theory and Practice at the University of Chicago

BY HANK REICHMAN

The University of Chicago has earned well-merited praise for its powerful 2014 “Statement on Principles of Free Expression,” a document that has been endorsed by a growing number of institutions.  That statement, authored by a committee chaired by Geoffrey R. Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law and former Provost of the University, declares: “Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn. Except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the University, the University of Chicago fully respects and supports the freedom of all members of the University community ‘to discuss any problem that presents itself.’”

But judging from a report in today’s New York Times, Chicago’s firm commitment to these laudable principles in theory may be more tenuous in practice.  For tomorrow, a day before his scheduled graduation, Chicago senior and student body president Tyler Kissinger faces a disciplinary hearing for his participation in a relatively brief non-violent act of civil disobedience in support of campus workers seeking a $15 minimum wage.  Here’s what happened:

[On May 19] 34 protesters breached the locked doors of the administration building . . . and dashed upstairs to the fifth-floor lobby of the president’s office. Sprawling on chairs and on the floor, equipped with food and chant sheets, they settled in for a long sit-in. The protesters, who were mostly students, demanded, among other things, a “living wage” for campus workers, more accountability from the campus police and disinvestment from fossil fuels. . . .

The sit-in . . . was conceived after university administrators refused invitations from a community organizing group, the IIRON Student Network, soon to be renamed Student Action of Metropolitan Chicago, to attend a public meeting to discuss its demands. Among other things, the group wanted the university to institute a $15-an-hour minimum wage for campus workers, and to provide more access to the records of the university police force, which it has accused of racial profiling in the surrounding neighborhood. . . .

On the day of the sit-in, Mr. Kissinger got past security by saying he was on official business as student body president. He hid in a bathroom for a few minutes, he recalled, then used his backpack to prop open a door to let everyone else in.

The protest ended an hour later when a university official told the protesters they could be arrested and students possibly expelled. Four days later, at a meeting of the student government, the university provost, Eric D. Isaacs, was confronted with students and campus workers pressing the demands.

Mr. Kissinger was called to a meeting with the dean of students, Michele Rasmussen, who criticized him, he said, for letting the student assembly get out of hand and for allowing campus workers to attend. After that meeting, he received the summons to a disciplinary hearing. It said sanctions ranged from a warning to permanent expulsion.

Now there can be little doubt that Kissinger’s actions, and those of his fellow demonstrators, were in some narrowly literal sense disruptive and hence in violation of the university’s right, in the words of the 2014 statement, to “reasonably regulate the time, place and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University.”  But, the statement adds, “these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.”

Is a one-hour sit-in truly disruptive of the university’s ordinary activities?  Are Chicago’s administrators so thin-skinned that they cannot tolerate without sanction the presence of a small group of chanting students in one of their offices?  It would be one thing if Kissinger and the other students were shouting down speakers with whom they disagreed, or preventing classes from meeting, or seeking otherwise to deny the free expression rights of others.  But they did nothing of the sort.  Nor did they cause injury or property damage or meaningfully prevent “ordinary activities” from taking place.  Instead, Kissinger and the other demonstrators were acting in a noble tradition of political expression through non-violent symbolic civil disobedience dating back to Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Moreover, was the administration’s prior refusal to attend a public meeting to discuss the student demands an example of its “vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry” and debate? Who was truly avoiding dialogue here?

And what is wrong with inviting campus workers to attend a student assembly that, among other things, is concerned with their right to reasonable compensation?  With an endowment of some $7.55 billion and a $1.7 billion operating budget the University of Chicago can well afford to pay its campus workers the same minimum wage now being implemented by law for some 60 million workers in California and New York.  I hope readers will excuse me if I suspect that the university’s main concern here is less with alleged “disruption” or maintaining its commitment to free expression than it is with an apparently firmer commitment to continuing to pay its staff a pittance.

Kissinger is 21 years old.  He is undoubtedly idealistic and dedicated to social change and not mere personal gain.  Shouldn’t a prestigious university like Chicago, which brags about its commitment to “lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation,” encourage such a student?  Shouldn’t he have been praised for promoting dialogue at the student assembly instead of being criticized for inviting campus workers and letting it “get out of hand?”

“I think it’s scary for a lot of people,” Kissinger told the Times. “If they are cracking down on people who are protesting, I don’t understand what the university means by free expression. I think students, faculty and staff should have uninhibited access to administrators on their campuses, administrators who are making decisions about their lives.”

Actually, judging by past deeds rather than recent words, Chicago’s understanding of free expression has never extended to civil disobedience at all.  As the Times reports,

The University of Chicago’s reaction is consistent with the tough line it took during the last period of major upheaval on college campuses, the demonstrations of the 1960s. In 1967, the university suspended 58 students for taking over the administration building in a draft protest, though most of the suspensions were not carried out, according to an account on the university library’s website.

In March 1969, the university expelled 42 students, suspended 81 students and put three students on probation for a two-week occupation of the administration building in support of a sociology professor they thought was being denied reappointment because of her leftist views and because she was one of a minority of women on the faculty.

A one-hour sit-in and a raucous student assembly with — heaven forbid! — blue-collar workers present seem quite mild disruptions in comparison to these prior events, but not it would seem in the eyes of Chicago bureaucrats.

Oh, and one final fact much worth noting: Unlike most Chicago students, who come from well-to-do and highly educated families, Tyler Kissinger is the first in his family to attend college.  His mother is a food service worker at Wake Forest University.  Perhaps he has some ideas about minimum wage work from which the provost and dean might learn.

6 thoughts on “Theory and Practice at the University of Chicago

  1. Today at the Scholars at Risk conference, I gave a talk about how the campus obsession with security and safety is often abused to target political activists and dissenters. Interestingly, Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago spoke earlier today (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=guwmqckz1-g) at the conference, denouncing politically correct student activists as the primary threat to free speech on campus, not administrators. I think this case is disturbing evidence of why I’m right, and Stone is wrong.

    When the committee issued its report a year and a half ago, I criticized it for not going far enough to protect free speech: “As for ‘does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University,’ I’m very suspicious of any ‘disrupt’ standard. Disruptions are not necessarily a bad thing, nor are they always acts of repression.”(https://academeblog.org/2015/01/07/university-of-chicago-report-of-the-committee-on-freedom-of-expression) That certainly seems true in this case, especially if anger at allowing activists into a meeting motivated the charges of door-propping.

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