“Under-theorized and superficial,” “opportunistic”: Faculty worried Grossman Institute was beholden to wealthy donor

Professors were troubled when the Grossman Institute was proposed as a research center aiming to link behavioral economics with biology.

By Lee Harris

Jeremy Lindenfeld / The Chicago Maroon

NEWS

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January 28, 2020

The Chicago Maroon was recently sent a set of minutes of the Council of the University Senate. The Council, sometimes referred to as the “faculty senate,” is the “supreme academic body of the University,” according to the Statutes of the University of Chicago. More information about the minutes and Council can be found here.

Quotes and attributions in this article, unless otherwise noted, are taken from minutes of the Council. The Council’s discussions are paraphrased in the minutes, and Council members vote at each meeting on whether to approve the previous meeting’s minutes. Speakers therefore have a chance to contest or revise the way their comments are paraphrased. Still, the minutes should not be read as direct quotes, or as perfect reproductions of conversations that took place.


“Intellectually incoherent.” “Quixotic and not helpful.” “Under-theorized and superficial.” “Oriented towards the pursuit of funding.” UChicago professors did not mince words as they sat discussing a newly proposed research institute at faculty senate meetings in 2011.

Members of the Council of the University Senate were troubled by the proposed course of research for the institute, then named the Grossman Institute for Quantitative Biology and Human Behavior. Some worried it would be beholden to its benefactor, trustee Sanford Grossman, an economist who founded the hedge fund QFS Asset Management. Grossman envisioned an institute that would ground the study of behavioral economics in biology.

At the time, the Council was already on edge.

When the Grossman proposal came before the Council, faculty were still reeling from a bitter dispute over the proposed Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics. Some thought the Friedman Institute, proposed in 2008, falsely purported to represent the views of faculty who in fact had misgivings about Friedman’s legacy. The dispute made national headlines. 111 faculty members signed a petition describing “the University’s evident fixation on financial assets and its desire to exploit the Friedman brand name for fund-raising purposes.”

Now, a fight was brewing over another research center. The Council was faced with a proposal many found more alarming than the Friedman Institute.

Several professors said the Grossman Institute’s focus on describing complex social behavior using quantitative genetics seemed at best unrealistic and at worst morally offensive, recalling pseudoscientific efforts to map human behavior onto immutable biological characteristics.

In debates over the Grossman Institute, several faculty members’ frustration with their lack of involvement in decision-making came to a head. The debates forced the faculty senate to reckon with what the bounds of faculty jurisdiction over non-degree-granting institutes should look like.

Grossman Institute: A chance to recruit star researchers

Sanford Grossman (A.B. ’73, A.M. ’74, Ph.D. ’75) is an academic economist who founded a Greenwich-based hedge fund that at its height managed more than $5 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal. The University announced in 2011 that Grossman would fund a  research institute that would span the Biological Sciences Division and the Social Sciences Division.

Early that same year, the proposed institute was discussed at meetings of the Council of the University Senate, the body of faculty members elected to deliberate on academic matters.

Conrad Gillam, a geneticist, provided an overview of the proposal, which he described as a trailblazing effort to apply modeling from quantitative biology to human individual, social, and cultural activities.

Researchers would aim to identify genetic correlates for particular behaviors “incorporating biological and neurobiological information, alongside social and environmental data,” Gillam said. He cited “economic decision-making as an example that might bring all of these strands together.”

The ambitious research would be exclusive to the University of Chicago, Gillam said, since “no other peer institutions are approaching these issues in exactly the same way.”

Gillam repeatedly stressed that the Institute would be an opportunity for the University to recruit high-profile talent. A faculty oversight group, he said, had “determined that the study of human behavior was of greatest interest to the star evolutionary genomics researchers.”

A top-down imposition

In the subsequent discussion, several Council members raised concerns about the content of the proposal and suggested that it had seemed like a top-down imposition by the central administration, rather than an outgrowth of existing faculty research.

Biophysicist Leslie Kay said she “would like to see the neurosciences grow from an already- established strength, rather than creating a new discipline that may or may not be successful, because there is so much distance in between biology and complex social behavior.” Kay questioned “why this initiative needed to be structured as an Institute, especially in light of earlier years’ debates regarding the Institute for Molecular Engineering.”

Daniel Margoliash, a neuroscientist, said that the proposal “focused on hopes and intentions for neurosciences for the future, and yet neuroscientists had not been involved in shaping it.”

In a recent interview with The Maroon, Margoliash said that early whitepapers for the Grossman Institute that he reviewed at the time were “just silly.” He would not accept such a lightweight proposal from his undergraduate students—nor would they be likely to submit one.

Other faculty described the research whitepapers as attempting to link DNA directly to human behavior, omitting the crucial intermediary of the brain.

Yali Amit, a statistician, said at a meeting in February 2011 that through his academic and administrative work, he had experience spanning biology, statistics, and quantitative analysis. Yet, notwithstanding the talented geneticists at UChicago, he said, it was “still difficult to identify the effect of a small number of genes on a biological trait.”

Amit went on to describe his “discomfort with the notion of connecting genes to an obscure concept such as empathy.”

Moishe Postone, a social theorist who led the development of Core curriculum offerings in the social sciences, offered further ethical objections to the project. Postone “noted that in the United States there was a tendency to view social problems in biological terms, in a way that was not as prevalent within other countries. This often led to the search for scientific solutions rather than addressing social considerations, and he viewed this proposal as another example of that approach.”

Bruce Lincoln, a professor in the Divinity School, spoke in harsher terms. The proposal was “under-theorized and superficial,” he said, and “appeared to be opportunistic and oriented towards the pursuit of funding.” At worst, he said, it was “reminiscent of reductionist attempts to ground understandings of human behavior in the body and in chemistry.”

On the other side of the debate, several Council members were alarmed by the criticisms, which seemed to them like dangerous infringements by some members of the Council on their colleagues’ freedom of research.

“Even though there may be fundamental internal disagreements about the value of certain research initiatives,” sociologist Andrew Abbott said, “other than extreme cases involving illegality, faculty members should be free to pursue the research directions of their choice.”

Some saw arguments about academic freedom as a red herring. Margoliash “offered the view that when a group of researchers collaborate around an initiative and seek a substantial amount of University resources (in the form of significant financial commitments as well as institutional approval), at that point a question arises as to whether or not the Council should become involved.”

Council jurisdiction after Grossman

The final outcome of the debate over Grossman was mixed, according to faculty who were initially critical of the proposal. Neuroscience was added to the name of the institute—it is now the Grossman Institute for Neuroscience, Quantitative Biology and Human Behavior—and research proposals were amended to address some faculty concerns.

“We kicked up quite a fight,” Margoliash said in a recent interview with The Maroon. “It has come to be the neuroscience institute that a great many of us had hoped would develop.”

“On one hand the administration didn’t really budge at all on the formal jurisdiction of the council,” Amit told The Maroon in a recent email. Yet, “ultimately, the Grossman Institute ended up actually being a real Neuroscience Institute and is not significantly involved in Quantitative Biology (e.g. genetics) or Human Behavior.”

The proposal was updated to include a focus on neuroscience, without ever being permitted to go for a vote. But the debate had set off wider disagreement.

At a meeting of the Council in May 2011, following months of discussion, Lincoln said the updated proposal should come before the Council for a formal vote. He cited a passage from the University Statutes which reads: “The competence of the Council shall extend to the Institutes.”

Some colleagues said that a vote was not technically required, but agreed that, given a proliferation of instutes susceptible to undue influence by donors—Grossman, Friedman, and proposed Confucius Institute, to name a few—the Council ought to consider voting on new institutes in the future.

In the ensuing debate, administrators said that allowing the Council to vote on non-degree-granting entities would be a slippery slope—and, they said, historical precedent showed that institutes didn’t fall within the Council’s jurisdiction anyway.

Political scientist John Mark Hansen, then dean of the social sciences division, said that the existing governance system, in which the Council did not need to vote when an institute was established, served the University well: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Hansen reflected on the creation of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture in 1996—widely viewed as a fixture of campus life, he noted—and warned that there might have been “negative repercussions” if faculty had been required to vote on its creation.

Kenneth Polonsky, the dean of the biological sciences division, expressed outrage that faculty were proposing to veto the Grossman Institute, arguing that “it was fundamentally against the general academic and intellectual interests of the University of Chicago for one group of faculty members to adjudicate the research activities of other highly respected colleagues.”

The threat to academic freedom was so serious, according to Polonsky, that he “conveyed his personal willingness to discuss this matter with the Board of Trustees if it was decided to use this as a test case to resolve issues of jurisdiction.”

President Robert Zimmer agreed that Grossman should not be a test case.

The Grossman Institute proposal had been brought to the Council for the purpose of “sharing information and receiving feedback,” Zimmer said—not for the purpose of conducting a vote. The debate over the Grossman Institute shouldn’t be the basis, he said, for overturning “60 years of governance.”

But, Zimmer acknowledged that there ought to be further deliberation on the Council’s jurisdiction. He announced that three committees would be charged with determining what role the Council might play in reviewing proposals for future non-degree-granting research centers.


In the next article in this series, The Maroon looks at the debate over Senate Council jurisdiction that grew out of disputes over the Friedman and Grossman institutes, and what happened with the three committees created to resolve that debate.

Debates in 2010 and 2011 over the Grossman Institute and the jurisdiction of the Council can be read below.