America’s Worst Newspaper Columnist?


When the New York Times first announced in April that it was adding former Wall Street Journal conservative writer Bret Stephens to its stable of op-ed columnists — which already included the unctuous moralism of Ross Douthat and the simplistic pseudo-sociology of David Brooks — alarm bells went off.  David Roberts on described Stephens as “a very familiar sort of establishment conservative — a cosmopolitan, well-educated, reflexively pro-Israel war hawk (who once wrote a column on “the disease of the Arab mind”) who thinks anti-racists are the real racists but moderates on select issues to demonstrate his independence.”  Stephens, for example, once criticized Black Lives Matters activists as thugs.

But criticisms of Stephens focused mostly on his embarrassing support of climate change denial.  Here’s what Roberts said about the columnist’s previous writing on the subject:

Stephens called climate change a “mass hysteria phenomenon” for which “much of the science has … been discredited.” He said that people who accept climate change science are motivated in part by the “totalitarian impulse” and they worship “a religion without God.” He said “global warming is dead, nailed into its coffin one devastating disclosure, defection and re-evaluation at a time.” In a column calling climate change one of liberalism’s “imaginary enemies,” he said this:  “Here’s a climate prediction for the year 2115: Liberals will still be organizing campaigns against yet another mooted social or environmental crisis. Temperatures will be about the same.”

There’s lots more; just Google, as I did, “Bret Stephens criticism.”

Now, however, Stephens has weighed in on higher education in an obsequious October 20 paean to University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer under the headline “America’s Best University President.”  What qualifies Zimmer for such an extraordinary title?  According to Stephens it is simply because — supposedly unlike any other college or university leader — he supports “free speech.”  As “evidence” for this, Stephens cites the notorious letter to entering freshmen sent a year ago by Chicago’s Dean of Students Jay Ellison, which announced to students a “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.”  But, as John Wilson pointed out on this blog at the time, “there is a problem: in this announcement, the University actually calls for limiting freedom of expression, and University of Chicago policies also severely limit free inquiry and student rights.”  (See also my own response to this hypocritical letter.)

Stephens cites as well the university’s ballyhooed 2015 report on free expression, which argued that “the aim of education is to make people think, not spare them from discomfort.”  He ignores, however, a subsequent report on discipline (apparently since removed from the university’s website) that, as Wilson demonstrates,”fail[ed] to address serious problems with free speech and due process in the University of Chicago’s rules, and mostly makes proposals to reduce free expression on campus by aiming to suppress protest.”

Ironically (or perhaps intentionally?), Stephens’s column appeared just two days after University of Chicago graduate student employees voted overwhelmingly (1107 to 403) to unionize with Graduate Students United, a joint affiliate of the AAUP and the American Federation of Teachers.  Zimmer’s administration has fought ferociously against the union drive from its start, expending hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire a notorious anti-union law firm. The University attempted to block the vote, in part because a new Trump-era majority on the NLRB might again move to block graduate student unionization.

On the eve of the vote, four faculty members at Chicago wrote on this blog:

Robert Zimmer, President of the University of Chicago, is fond of touting his institution’s commitment to free expression. He recently described his university as “built on the ideals of open discourse, intense and challenging inquiry and analysis, and diversity of perspectives.” To those of us who study and teach there, these familiar bromides—–intended both to flatter us and, more importantly, to impress wealthy donors——have never sounded emptier than they do today, in the midst of a campaign by Zimmer’s administration to prevent graduate student workers from voting on whether to unionize.

Whether graduate student workers are well-advised to unionize is a controversial question. What is uncontroversial is that Zimmer’s administration has done everything within its power to prevent that question from being debated. All its pious talk about “open discourse,” “challenging inquiry” and “diversity of perspectives” is suddenly forgotten when the controversy concerns the university itself. . . .

Throughout this process, the university administration has tried to prevent graduate student workers from unionizing, not by advancing persuasive arguments against their unionization, but by exploiting its monopoly on the means of mass communication, and by a series of legal and political maneuvers. If it were genuinely committed to the values it professes, the administration would present its case in a forum where both sides could be heard, and would then let student employees make up their own minds. That is what education looks like. That is what free expression looks like. That is what democracy looks like.

And it’s not just graduate employees. In June 2016, a day before his scheduled graduation, Chicago senior and student body president Tyler Kissinger was hauled before 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.  According to the New York Times, that protest “was conceived after university administrators refused invitations from a community organizing group . . . 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. ”

As I asked at the time,

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?

The fact is that for all its high-falutin’ free speech rhetoric, the University of Chicago, to use Wilson’s words, “has one of the worst speech codes (and perhaps the most confusing one) that I’ve ever read. It’s full of arbitrary power, lack of due process, and multiple disciplinary systems that are never adequately explained.”

It isn’t only liberals like Wilson and me who find that Chicago’s rhetoric hardly matches its reality.  Stephens writes that “Chicago has always been usefully out of step with its peers in higher education . . . and takes perverse pride in its reputation as the place where fun goes to die.”  Apparently, Stephens hasn’t been paying attention, even to voices on the right.  Listen to Malloy Owen, a self-proclaimed conservative Chicago student, writing on the website of The American Conservative:

[T]he university spends enormous sums on glass-fronted residential complexes, state-of-the-art student-recreation centers, a large and growing private army of security guards to assuage parents’ fears about the South Side, and a complex and well-funded career-advancement program. Robert Maynard Hutchins’s university is being managed like a multinational business. Chicago is making a bold investment in the kinds of programs and amenities that attract students with futures in finance—the future major donors of the world. And it’s paying off: the acceptance rate has dropped from 68 percent in 1995 to 7.6 percent this spring, while the percentage of applicants who accept offers of admission has risen sharply. Meanwhile, fully 20 percent of last year’s graduates went straight into jobs in finance or consulting. President Robert J. Zimmer and his colleagues have turned the UChicago brand around.

The war over trigger warnings and safe spaces, which was renewed this week in various online fora, suggests that this dramatic transformation has come at a heavy cost. In a conversation about how we treat one another in the classroom, it might be worth asking how exactly we might learn to make a place for one another, to acknowledge and respect the variety of human experience and suffering, to move beyond the intellectual arrogance that prevents us from having interesting, civil conversations about deeply personal problems. As it happens, those are some of the core aspirations of liberal education.

At one time, the University of Chicago might have been thought to be the one place above all others that was capable of preparing its students to acquit themselves well in difficult, valuable conversations about race, class, and violence. As my experience in seminars attests, though, Chicago is no longer fully committed to humanizing its students the old-fashioned way, through books and discussion. The left’s attacks on free speech may endanger the academic project, but the greater threat to the free exchange of ideas comes from academic corporatization. As long as that process continues unchecked, the university’s bold rhetorical defense of an art that it no longer teaches us how to practice will be nothing better than posturing.

Rather than being America’s best university president, it would be fair to say that Zimmer is surely one of its most corporate.  For his administration “free speech” is little more than a branding mechanism.  But Stephens may well be America’s worst newspaper columnist.

2 thoughts on “America’s Worst Newspaper Columnist?

  1. President Robert Zimmer of the University of Chicago is certainly the best among his peers at employment contracts, and is the highest paid (upwards of $3.5 million in 2016, and recently purchased a nearly $4 million dollar private residence). Universities are in the business of education, but they are also in the business of business—theirs—and times are good: UC senior professors are also the highest paid in the country, along with Stanford and Harvard, and together, go some way in explaining why UC graduate students recently voted in favor of union representation.

    Regarding that student vote, in the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution, it is an interesting historical coincidence that Karl Marx keeps resurfacing, and that class struggle and conflict are still so central to societies, including our educational institutions. America’s best university president? That depends on your measurement. In business, we usually assign the presence of third-party unionization to a failure of management, including the antagonizing effects of disproportionate economic rewards.

    As for Mr. Stephens, his NYT editorial did not disclose his conflicts of interest, including his alumnus status. As for his writing, the author here has captured its difficulties very accurately, although as an aerospace professional, I would recommend considering Mr. Stephen’s views on the larger special interest motivations that attend the climate debate, and not dismiss them merely due to their authorship.

    Relatedly, readers may appreciate an Op-Ed I wrote this weekend in The Chicago Maroon concerning campus protest and speech, as a follow-up from my interview this last Spring on WTTW public television’s “ChicagoTonight” with FIRE legal expert, Ari Cohen:

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.