Milton Friedman Still Haunts Chicago Faculty

The efforts of some of the University of Chicago’s faculty to derail a planned research institute named after the university’s Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006) is full of delicious ironies. In a June 6 letter to Chicago’s president, Robert Zimmer and its provost, Thomas Rosenbaum, more than 100 professors—not a single one from Chicago’s prestigious economics department, where the free market-promoting theories of Friedman and his colleagues became known as the “Chicago School” and generated several more Nobel economics prizes—complained that the university would be forsaking its commitment to “strong intellectual diversity” in establishing its proposed Milton Friedman Institute that would, as one of its founding documents states, emphasize economic analyses that “respect the incentives of individuals and the essential role of markets in allocating goods and services.” Non state-controlled markets and individual freedom seem to be anathema to the literature, music, anthropology, and divinity professors who signed the anti-Friedman Institute letter, which predicts that the institute “will inevitably be a powerful magnet for scholars and donors who share a specific set of interests and values to the exclusion of others, whether this is openly acknowledged or not.”

Of course, as Adam Kissel of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has pointed out, the University of Chicago already has a number of programs that promote a “specific set of interests and values to the exclusions of others, whether…openly acknowledged or not”—except that those interests and values are on the acceptable left, not the anathematized right. For example, Chicago boasts a Center for Gender Studies, where “colonialism” seems to be a major topic of faculty research, along with “feminist, gay and lesbian, and queer studies.” Indeed, the letter to Zimmer and Rosenbaum included the chairman and associate director of the gender studies center among its signatories. Similarly, the university’s Center for Race, Politics and Culture is also colonialism- and gender-fixated, sponsoring a three-semester-long course in “Colonizations,” along with other “courses that posit race and racialization in comparative and transnational frameworks; highlight the intersection of race and ethnicity with other identities (gender, class, sexuality, and nationality); and/or interrogate [that’s a two-dollar synonym for “analyze”] social identity cleavages within racialized communities.”


The signers of the protest letter seemed to be aware that they might be perceived as trying to censor academic views that do not comport with the “socially progressive” ideology that they admit they themselves espouse. So the letter focuses instead on the university’s proposed financial “investments” in the Milton Friedman Institute, described as “a right-wing think tank” by Bruce Lincoln, a history-of-religions professor at Chicago who helped draft the letter. The university hopes to raise $200 million from private donors (including $500,000 of its own seed money) and house the institute in a campus building currently occupied by the Chicago Theological Seminary, which functions as a divinity school for the university and will be moving to larger quarters elsewhere. The idea seems to be that $200 million spent on the Milton Friedman Center will starve out more ideologically permissible academic enterprises elsewhere at the University Chicago.

All this has led to a lively tongue-in-cheek debate among amused conservative academic bloggers over the true motives of the anti-Milton Friedman professors. Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Diplomacy, decided to apply Friedman’s own economic theories to protest letter and concluded that the English and anthropology professors who signed it were essentially academic rent-seekers peeved that Chicago’s economics department, business school, and law school would be the beneficiaries of the $200 million in predicted largesse to the exclusion of their own departments and pet programs. Drezner wrote: “My theory is that the opposition is grounded less on ideology and more on an effort to ensure these departments get a bigger slice of the pie.”

That sparked a response from Jacob Levy, a political theorist at McGill University. Levy pointed out that in fact, the projected $199.5 million for the conservative center to be raised from private donors would free the university to spend its own money on other departments and campus programs, including liberal ones. “[I]n terms of absolute self-interest, rising university tides lift a lot of boats,” Levy wrote. He argued that what the Friedman controversy was really about was a “status game.” Professors of economics, business, and law already make more money, whether in salaries or outside consulting fees, and thus enjoy higher campus status than their peers in the humanities and social sciences, and the Friedman Institute “would symbolically endow them with even greater status”—triggering even more resentment on the part of already envious humanities and social-science professors.

Most recently, Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, has weighed in at the Volokh Conspiracy to conclude the Dresner and Levy are both wrong. Somin wrote: “The anti-Institute professors 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….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 win scholars to Chicago, an institution which in the protesters’ view already has too many faculty who dissent from academic orthodoxy.”

This—watching a university’s mostly lesser lights writhe at the spectacle of one of its intellectual giants’ being honored with an academic institute named in his honor–is all great fun. The best news of all is that so far neither Zimmer nor Rosenbaum has budged on the issue of the Milton Friedman Institute, and so far neither seems likely to do so.

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

One thought on “Milton Friedman Still Haunts Chicago Faculty”

  1. As a long-term (and now emeritized) U of Chigago professor and, while he was with us, an admiring friend of Milton Friedman, I felt equal magnitudes of amusement and chagrin at this latest rigid mis-step by my sometime colleagues.
    Examining the list of protesters one finds many of the “usual suspects” and very heavy representation from the social “sciences” with the anthropology department leading all the rest.
    The proper strategy for the leftist academic “community” of Hyde Park is to encourage one of their own to do work so brilliant and influential that he (she?) too might win a Nobel Prize and then, perhaps, have a new research institute named for him (her?) at their university.

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