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Several years ago Robert Zimmer was asked by an audience in China why the University of Chicago was associated with so many winners of the Nobel Prize — 90 in all, counting this month’s win by the behavioral economist Richard Thaler. Zimmer, the university’s president since 2006, answered that the key was a campus culture committed to “discourse, argument and lack of deference.”

Reflecting on that exchange in March, Zimmer noted a depressing trend: While Chinese academics have made strides to “inject more argumentation and challenge into their education,” their American peers are moving “in the opposite direction.” As universities go, so ultimately go the fate of nations.

The University of Chicago has always been usefully out of step with its peers in higher education — it dropped out the Big Ten Conference and takes perverse pride in its reputation as the place where fun goes to die. It was out of step again last year when Jay Ellison, the dean of students, sent a letter to incoming freshmen to let them know where the college stood in respect to the campus culture wars.

“Our commitment to academic freedom,” he wrote, “means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

The letter attracted national attention, with cheering from the right and caviling on the left. But its intellectual foundation had been laid earlier, with a 2015 report from a faculty committee, convened by Zimmer, on free expression. Central to the committee’s findings: the aim of education is to make people think, not spare them from discomfort.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/20/opinion/robert-zimmer-chi...
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