On Thursday, the William F. Buckley Jr. Program hosted one of its largest events of the year so far. The event featured a conversation between University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer and Yale Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science Nicholas Christakis and focused on the issue of free speech on campus and the core educational values of institutions of higher learning.
Around 150 people, including current students, alumni and Buckley fellows gathered to watch the conversation over Zoom. The Buckley Program, which was founded by undergraduate students at Yale in 2010, aims to promote intellectual diversity and open political discussion on campus through debates, conferences and speaker events like Thursday’s conversation. The program is headed by an undergraduate student board, which organizes several of these events each semester.
“One needs to be in an environment of open discourse because it makes everybody’s education better,” Zimmer said. “It’s what’s necessary for a great education. On the other hand, we also want a civil society in which people are not just being gratuitously, personally insulted, and that should be pointed out. Sometimes, honestly, people have a hard time seeing that there’s a difference between the two.”
Zimmer has made freedom of speech a priority during his tenure as the president of the University of Chicago, a position he has held since 2006. Christakis has also spoken and written extensively about this subject, playing a central role in the controversial Halloween debates of 2015, which centered around the issue of cultural appropriation regarding student Halloween costumes.
In 2015, Christakis, then the head of Silliman College, was widely criticized after he defended an email written to the Silliman community by his wife, Erika Christakis, who was also associate head of Silliman College. Erika Christakis’s message, which came in response to an email from the Intercultural Affairs Council cautioning against culturally appropriative Halloween costumes, criticized guidelines surrounding student attire as hindrances of free expression.
Both Nicholas and Erika Christakis stepped down from their roles at Silliman in 2016, although neither of them publicly attributed their resignation to the backlash following the Halloween incident.
Jasper Boers ’22, the speakers director of the Buckley Program, spoke to the program’s decision to invite these two speakers, describing this event as “something that we had wanted to do for a while,” and emphasizing his interest in “dialogue between the two of them as to what good universities look like, especially in the age of cancel culture.”
Zimmer, Boers asserted, has “helmed” the University of Chicago’s efforts to become “pretty much the leading university when it comes to freedom of expression on Campus,” referencing the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education, which ranked the University of Chicago as the first university in the country on the issue of free speech.
Boers referred to the “leading role” that Christakis played in the “reckoning over what the tenor of campus dialogue should be” through the Halloween debates of 2015.
“He was definitely subjected to a lot of attacks on his family and death threats, so I think that he makes a good figure to represent this argument or movement for more diversity of speech and thought on campus,” said Boers.
The event was moderated by Kobe Rizk ’21, the president of the Buckley Program, who said that the Program was interested in discussing “not only what are the principles of a university as they relate to free speech and free expression, but what efforts does a university make to actually live up to those principles and practice them, especially when it’s the most difficult to do so.”
During the conversation, both speakers referred to what Zimmer described as a “narrowing of what is permissible in terms of speech and thought.” In reference to this idea, both Christakis and Zimmer emphasized their support of intellectual diversity, especially in the classroom.
“I think there’s this sloppy conflation between the articulation of an idea and a personal attack,” Christakis said. “There is a big difference between those things. I certainly wouldn’t allow the latter in my classroom, but I think ideas are totally fair game.”
Also discussed was a letter printed in Harper’s Magazine in July of this year, entitled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” which Christakis said he was “delighted to sign.” In reference to the letter, which was signed by more than 150 writers and academics calling for increased intellectual diversity and open debate, Christakis noted that “free expression is often painful and messy.” The letter prompted a counterletter response and was roundly criticized for failing to address systems of power and privilege.
According to Christakis, terminating faculty from “institutions that are devoted to the preservation, production and dissemination of knowledge” due to possibly controversial statements, is “anathema to the mission of those universities.”
Absent from the conversation was any outright discussion of the 2015 Halloween debates. Rizk said that the debates “didn’t come up naturally,” adding that “a lot of what I wanted to talk about was the future of free speech, and while that was a very notable incident that garnered a lot of attention from across the country, I felt that Professor Christakis has made many statements on that in the past.”
Buckley student fellow Kevin Xiao ’23 said that his interest in the event was piqued by Zimmer’s “unwavering commitment to academic freedom and intellectual free inquiry at UChicago.”
“His refusal to sanction ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ had been controversial at the time, but I thought it was a powerful statement of his principles and what he thought the purpose of the university was — to challenge students and force them to consider viewpoints that they hadn’t previously heard,” said Xiao.
Boers referred to the University of Chicago’s discussion of free speech on campus as “something that we had looked to as a model for where Yale’s leadership should be,” noting that, “I think it would be wonderful to have perhaps Peter Salovey pick up on some of what President Zimmer says.”
The event, “A Conversation with Robert Zimmer and Nicholas Christakis,” was also streamed on YouTube, where a recording of it in full is now available.
Lucy Hodgman | firstname.lastname@example.org