President Robert Zimmer said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal yesterday that all speakers invited to college campuses should be able to speak, including white nationalists like alum Richard Spencer.
Zimmer was asked by Chicago-based higher education reporter Douglas Belkin, “If Richard Spencer—who attended the University of Chicago and has become a leading white nationalist—was invited to speak at the University, would you have a problem with that?”
He responded: “Faculty and students invite all sorts of people, and we don’t restrict who they invite. I don’t invite people. We offer no restrictions to student groups and faculty. What they want to do is hear, discuss, and potentially argue with the people they invite.”
Pressed on whether he would allow Spencer to speak if invited, Zimmer said, “It would be fine if he came to speak, just like if anyone else came to speak.”
Zimmer also dismissed criticisms regarding the letter released to the Class of 2020 this summer that addressed trigger warnings and safe spaces.
“You were criticized as sending out that letter [which was written by Dean of Students Jay Ellison] as a way to appease your alumni donor base. Were alumni voices taken into account when the letter was mailed?” Belkin asked.
“The only voice that was taken into account was the common understanding of the value of the University of Chicago and its culture,” Zimmer said. “I am not the first president to speak out in this way. I view myself as simply continuing to reassert what has been a longstanding value of the University of Chicago that has defined the way we have behaved.”
Zimmer also discussed his views on the role of universities in providing a space for discourse.
“The purpose [of universities] is to be a place that gives the most empowering education to students and creates an environment for the most imaginative and challenging work of faculty. Confrontation of multiple ideas and ideas that are different from one’s own is critical to this,” Zimmer said.
He argued that there is less expectation from students to confront different ideas than in the past.
“What you’re seeing is a kind of drift of discourse,” he said. “You see actions by a lot of people which seem to indicate that they feel that they can, in fact, legitimately stifle the expression of others whose views they fundamentally disagree with.”
Zimmer added that his background in mathematics has influenced his dedication to open discourse, explaining how the interdisciplinary nature of his studies allowed him to develop an “integrated view” procured from different perspectives.