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July 16, 2008

Faculty members protest Milton Friedman Insitute

More than 100 academic faculty members have united in protest over the University's soon-to-be established Milton Friedman Institute, sending a letter to President Robert Zimmer in which they take issue with the economics research institute's name and its foundational precepts, and requesting a meeting of the complete faculty to discuss their concerns.

The Institute, which was announced in May, is slated to conduct economic and public-policy research across several disciplines. Set to open in time for the fall quarter, the Institute was created at the request of members of the economics department and the Graduate School of Business (GSB).

Its namesake, Milton Friedman, was a longtime member of the University community. Friedman, who died in 2006, was a professor for more than 30 years in the economics department and is credited for his role in creating the Chicago school of economics and his well known support of free markets.

But approximately eight percent of the University's faculty members were concerned enough over what they believe to be the Institute's potential biases that they formally expressed their concerns to Zimmer and Provost Thomas Rosenbaum.

"It was a heterogeneous group," said Bruce Lincoln, a professor at the Divinity School. "But we all felt a reason to discuss this."

Lincoln, who helped draft the letter, said that some of the issues raised by the faculty were a perceived ideological bias for the Institute toward a conservative agenda, disciplinary narrowness, and the amount of money being spent. The University plans to invest $200 million in the project.

"This endeavor could reinforce among the public a perception that the University's faculty lacks intellectual and ideological diversity," the faculty wrote.

The claims have taken some members of the economics department by surprise, including Lars Hansen, a distinguished service professor in the economics department and chair of the committee that recommended the Institute's creation.

"Some of the [concern] is due to emotional responses to what Milton Friedman stands for," Hansen said. "But we're not about espousing political views. The Institute was designed to further economic analysis. We're very happy to embrace him."

Hansen took particular umbrage at the notion that the Milton Friedman Society, a membership of Institute donors who contribute $1 million or more, might exert an influence on the policies of the foundation.

"It would be a mistake to have no input from anyone outside the University, but there's no notion that they're buying research," Hansen said. "That was made clear."

Other members of the committee were more blunt in their criticism of the letter. GSB professor and committee member John Cochrane was quoted in a recent New York Times article about the dispute as calling the petition "drivel."

Soon after Lincoln and 100 others submitted their letter, Zimmer and Rosenbaum agreed to meet with representatives of the group in late June. However, Lincoln said none of the faculty was satisfied with the meeting's results, which were a reiteration of the University's support for the Institute.

"[Zimmer] told us that it's not the administration's role to decide what kinds of projects and research may go on. It's up to the department and that they had the administration's support," Lincoln said.

Neither Zimmer nor Rosenbaum could be reached for this article, but a spokesperson for the University maintained the administration's support for the project and echoed Lincoln's statements.

"The administration takes these proposals very seriously. If another group of faculty felt that they wanted to recommend another foundation, that would be taken just as seriously," said Associate Vice President for Public Affairs Communication Robert Rosenberg.

Disappointed with the meeting, Lincoln and about 20 other professors who signed the letter decided to petition Zimmer to call a Faculty Senate meeting.

The entire University faculty comprises the Senate. The original proposal for the Institute was presented before the Council of the Faculty Senate, which is a representative body. According to Lincoln, the last time the entire Senate convened was in 1986 to discuss divestment from South Africa.

"We want a campus-wide discussion," Lincoln said. "I hope it will be in the best spirit of the University: serious, principled, challenging, impassioned at moments," Lincoln said.

Lincoln said he hopes that with more faculty awareness, more professors will support the effort to effect change in the Institute's conception.

Hansen said he didn't expect any delays in the opening of the Institute, including any stemming from a Senate meeting, if one occurs.

"The President, the Provost, the Board of Trustees and the [Council of the] Faculty Senate approved this," he said. "I wouldn't understand the reason for the Senate to delay this."

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