U. of Chicago's Plans for Milton Friedman Institute Stir Outrage on the Faculty

June 01, 2010

The University of Chicago's plan to move ahead with developing a controversial institute named for Milton Friedman has prompted more than 170 of the university's faculty members to sign a petition complaining that it is becoming increasingly "corporatized" and that its president, Robert J. Zimmer, is trampling upon their shared-governance rights.

The petition, in the form of a letter that leaders of the protest say they will present to Mr. Zimmer on Tuesday, calls upon the institution's president "to reverse course" and "extricate the university from a misguided and destructive corporate model" that, it says, has led administrators there to forge ahead with various expansion plans without a faculty vote.

"You can begin by halting the development of the Friedman Institute and changing its name," the letter says.

A spokeman for the university, Jeremy Manier, said in an e-mail that the university's administration had not yet received the petition and was not ready to comment on it at any length. In a terse official statement contained in the e-mail, the administration said: "If a letter or petition is submitted, university leaders would want to consider it fully and respond thoughtfully to the whole document, through the appropriate channels."

The director of the Friedman Institute, Lars Peter Hansen, responded to the faculty petition by issuing a statement that said "I continue to believe it is appropriate to recognize Milton Friedman as a scholar of extraordinary impact." He added, "I see little evidence in the petition as it is drafted that would give me confidence that the faculty signers are really interested in assessing the quality of research and discourse that is explored in the Institute."

The establishment of a Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics without a vote of the full faculty is hardly the only action by the administration that the letter cites as objectionable. It also objects to the university's decision to allow the creation of a Confucius Institute—a language institute sponsored by the People's Republic of China—on the campus without the Faculty Senate's approval.

The letter argues that the university has risked having its reputation used to "legitimate the spread" of such institutions, which have been cropping up at colleges in the United States and other nations around the world.

Among other complaints, the letter alleges that the administrative staff has experienced "metastatic growth," that the administration has been interfering with academic matters at study-abroad programs, and that the administration has been withholding information on the budget and other matters from faculty governing bodies. It argues that the university has assumed "a business mentality, in which academic units are understood—even designed—to function as product lines and profit centers," and that power over academic matters is being shifted "to the donors whose favor the administrators court."

The letter's focus, however, is on the Friedman Institute, which the university announced last month it would be locating in a soon-to-be-renovated building that had been housing the Chicago Theological Seminary, which will move. The institute has sparked controversy ever since the university's 2008 announcement of plans to establish it in honor of Mr. Friedman, a Nobel laureate in economics who spent 30 years at the university and advised the Reagan administration and foreign governments on economic policy.

The institute began sponsoring interdisciplinary academic conferences, hosting visiting scholars, and supporting research more than a year ago.

A faculty group formed to oppose the institute, the Committee for Open Research on Economy and Society, played a central role in the latest petition drive. The letter its leaders are submitting to President Zimmer characterizes Mr. Friedman as "among the most partisan, most polarizing figures in the history of this university," and says his name is associated with "his relentless championing of a free-market fundamentalism now largely discredited" and with "the services he rendered to brutally repressive regimes in Chile, China, and elsewhere."

Among the faculty members who signed the petition, the most heavily represented academic divisions are the humanities, the social sciences other than economics, and the biological sciences. Few, if any, of the signatories are from the three academic divisions that proposed the institute: the economics department, the business school, and the law school.