Federal Action Regarding Diversity and Free Expression on Campuses

To: Members of the University Community
From: Robert J. Zimmer
Subject: Federal Action Regarding Diversity and Free Expression on Campuses
Date: November 24, 2020

I write to reaffirm the University’s opposition to federal governmental action that could limit free expression in higher education. Earlier this autumn, the White House issued an executive order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping that seeks to define how universities and other institutions may conduct training and education on diversity and topics related to race and sex.

This particular action prohibits federal contractors from conducting workplace diversity training that “inculcates” any government-defined “divisive concepts” related to race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating; the executive order also requires federal grant recipients to certify that they will not use federal grant funds to promote these “divisive concepts.” 

In recent years, I have spoken against the potential for federal action, whether from the executive or legislative branch, to interfere with the vital foundation of free expression, open discourse and intellectual challenge in higher education. These are pillars of our University’s distinctive approach to scholarship, built and maintained over generations, and articulated by the faculty Committee on Freedom of Expression in a report now widely known as the Chicago Principles.

Federal action that could affect the content of dialogue on campuses is of particular concern in relation to these principles of free expression, as I indicated in my 2019 message on federal action and free expression. Expression can be limited in many ways, whether by design or through actions that result in chilling the environment for discourse and intellectual challenge. We oppose any precedent that empowers the federal government to interfere in speech on campuses. This would enable the government, with all its resources and authority, to define the content of campus dialogue and thus compromise free inquiry. A second concern is the establishment of a bureaucracy to pass judgment on whether discussions and educational content on campuses pass muster under a government-imposed standard. Such judgments are subject to change according to who is in power and what policies they wish to promulgate, and this alone could pose a profound threat to open discourse on campus.

The University of Chicago is deeply committed to providing training, education and research on the widest range of issues, including those involving diversity. For the federal government to set boundaries on such discussions, or to define prohibited forms of “inculcation,” interferes with the autonomy and free ability of members of our campus community to explore these and other issues as they see fit. Although this particular action concerns dialogue about diversity, we oppose any federal action that could have the effect of limiting academic discourse.