Keynote Address, on the occasion of Central European University moving to Vienna

Robert J. Zimmer
Academic Freedom and Open Inquiry
Keynote Address 
On the occasion of Central European University moving to Vienna
September 16, 2019
University of Vienna, Austria

It is a great honor and privilege for me to be with you today at this historic moment, as Central European University moves its primary location to Vienna. I want to begin by expressing my great admiration for the founders and leadership of CEU – including George Soros, Michael Ignatieff, and Leon Botstein - who have been consistently committed to creating and sustaining an outstanding university, and who have resisted efforts to suppress the academic freedom necessary to have such a university. Their work has required clarity of vision, commitment to values, and demonstrated courage. I likewise want to express my appreciation to the City of Vienna and particularly the University of Vienna, for welcoming CEU, and to the University of Vienna for recognizing the significance of the moment, not only for CEU but for universities world-wide. The University of Vienna has a truly remarkable record of achievement over its long history. It also understands well from experience the destructive force that repression brings to society and its universities. Both components of its history make it deeply meaningful that the University of Vienna is taking such an active role in promoting academic freedom, and I want to express my great appreciation and admiration for Rector Heinz Engl and his colleagues at the University of Vienna for this highly consequential stance.

While the story of CEU has its very particular elements, there are aspects of this story that are playing out around the globe, reflecting our time of grave challenge for universities world-wide. Namely, the values of academic freedom, open discourse, free expression, deep questioning, and broad intellectual challenge are under significant attack. The specific social, cultural, and political drivers of such attacks vary around the world, but these threats have many commonalities as well. The stakes are extremely high - we should not underestimate them. In responding to these challenges, each university will define what it is, what it stands for, the nature of its education and research environments, how it is contributing to the future of its students and the work of its faculty, and collectively what that means for our societies. And in turn, the way a society as a whole reacts to these circumstances for universities will reflect what it does or does not value, and, intentionally or not, will profoundly affect its future.

To deal with these challenges, it is singularly important for universities to have clarity about fundamental principles and values to guide us in making potentially hard decisions. Without clarity about fundamental principles and the guideposts they provide to action, decision-making will inevitably become reactive and the likely result will be the weakening of universities by sequential catering to one segment or another of its complex constituency.

It is precisely these fundamental principles that I will discuss today. Specifically, I want to address three questions. First, what are the principles of academic freedom, open inquiry, free expression, and intellectual challenge about and why are they so important. Second, what is the state of academic freedom and open inquiry on campuses today and how can we explain it. And third, what should be the nature of our response to the current situation.

Let me begin with the principles of academic freedom, open inquiry, free expression, and intellectual challenge, what they are about and why they are important. To do so, it is useful to emphasize what I will not discuss, namely the stance in law of various countries towards free speech. As we all know, different countries have different histories and cultures, and their precise stance towards speech in society as a whole may reflect these differences. While this is a fascinating topic, it is not my topic today. Rather, my topic is about the mission of universities, what they contribute to society, particularly over the long run, and what is necessary for universities to fulfill their mission at the highest possible level of excellence. It is precisely in this context that considerations of academic freedom and free expression arise.

Universities have two core missions – education and research. From their inception in Europe almost a millennium ago, universities have sought to empower their students for their futures beyond their studies. Needless to say, the conception and potential shape of these futures has evolved dramatically over the centuries, as has the education that universities offer. But this mission has been an enduring one. And today, from the world’s great research universities to the smallest of colleges, this is one widely accepted mission. The research mission of universities was not as explicit for many years, although there was often a great deal of research taking place because of the intellectual quality and interests of certain faculty members. But with the founding of the University of Berlin by Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1810, the trajectory of the university world changed. Research became an intrinsic and explicit part of the mission and, for research universities, education and research became intertwined. Inquiry became the heart of universities – inquiry into fields of research, and education embedded in an environment of inquiry. The latter is captured nicely in a statement by Friedrich Schleiermacher, a broad thinker in Germany who was an active participant in the intellectual ferment that led to the founding of the University of Berlin. Schleiermacher, writing in 1808, describes the goal of university education as enabling students “to become aware of the principles of scholarship, so that they themselves gradually acquire the ability to investigate, invent, and to give account.”

Academic freedom, free expression, open and uninhibited discourse, questioning of assumptions and dominant paradigms, and ongoing intellectual challenge are critical values for universities because their presence is required in a powerful and effective environment for research, education, and the inquiry that lies at their foundation. Faculty involved in research need to revisit assumptions, freely explore new and imaginative approaches, develop, sharpen, and test new ideas, and understand boundaries - where their ideas and those of others apply productively and where they do not. Students need to develop intellectual skills and habits of mind – to confront new and different ideas through various modes of inquiry, recognize assumptions - both their own and those of others, understand legitimate competing interests, analyze unintended consequences, know the difference between a desire and an argument, appreciate context, history, and change, learn how to synthesize different perspectives, and to coherently advocate a position. These intellectual skills and habits of mind will be essential for students in their futures, as they strive to address the complex work, societal, and personal challenges they will inevitably confront, whatever the specifics of their future path. Intellectual challenge, free expression, and open discourse are therefore critical as a foundation for supporting both research and education. Abridging these features simply makes us worse at fulfilling our mission. We defend them because we are committed to the importance of research and the education of our students, and we seek to do this at the highest level of excellence we can achieve.

Mediocrity is easy. And if mediocrity is the aspiration, then one can allow some erosion of these values. But excellence should be our aspiration. Excellence is not easy and comes with a price – and in this case the excellence of the research and education at our institutions comes with the price of ensuring that the values of academic freedom, free expression, open discourse, and intellectual challenge are sustained and not eroded, are lived every day and not only when convenient, and are defended when attacked. And as we know well from history, and as we see in the case of CEU, this is not always simple.

Why are these missions of education and research so essential to societies? Every society faces complexes challenges, and the world, encompassing many different societies and their interactions, adds another layer of complex challenges. Understanding how to think about these challenges, the multiple perspectives from which they can be viewed, the nature of discovery that can help address them, embedding relevant understanding of context and history, anticipating change – all of these are immensely challenging, whether in science and technology; policy, economics, and business; or the stewardship and understanding of societies’ cultures and how they might interact. Universities are the core societal institutions for building the foundation for dealing with these challenges. The research they carry on today, the leaders and contributors of the future that they are training, provide, as no other institutions in society provide, a sustained capacity for addressing societies multiple and multi-faceted challenges. With the benefit of having universities of excellence, an enlightened broader society should, and sometimes does, realize the importance of academic freedom, free expression, and open discourse to its own well-being.

Now let me turn to my second topic, the state of academic freedom and free expression on campuses. Understanding this demands some historical context. I have described the critical importance of these values to the education and research missions of universities and their capacity to contribute to societies around the world. Nevertheless, the history of universities, academic freedom, and free expression and open inquiry tells a much more complex story. Over the centuries, there have been constant battles over these issues – with religious institutions, state authorities, and political and moral claims-based movements. One of the most famous of such battles with religious institutions was that of the Catholic Church with Galileo, who as a professor at the University of Padua had been doing research that supported the heliocentric view of our solar system, a view the Church found deeply problematic on the grounds of religious dogma. The decades-long battles culminated with the Inquisition trial that led to Galileo’s guilty plea and house arrest for the remainder of his life. This is but one example of such battles with religious authorities that lasted for centuries.

The struggles with state authorities of course has a similar long life. Our own times have seen dramatic such examples. In the middle of the 20th century the University of Berlin became a shadow of its former self, first because of the Nazis and then the East German regime; the University of Vienna itself suffered a similar fate during the Anschluss and its aftermath; and the universities of eastern Europe are now in various stages of the process of recovery from the weight of domination by the Soviet Union. The 1950’s in the United States saw enormous pressure on universities to curtail free expression during the McCarthy “red scare” era. And of course, state actions designed to curtail academic freedom have led to the move of CEU to Vienna.

Beyond religious institutions and state authorities, there can be many other demands to constrain academic freedom and open discourse.

Various political or moral-claims movements have also regularly sought constraints on universities. They have come from all parts of the political spectrum and both from within universities and from outside universities. This is a major issue in the United States today, as many individuals and groups are making constant demands upon universities to silence those with perspectives they find offensive or even that just make them uncomfortable. Moreover, as frequently the case for groups filled with self-righteousness, many simple well-meaning behaviors are given malignant interpretations followed by demands for corrective action. Many universities are in fact acceding to these deeply misguided demands. This has also become a major issue elsewhere, in the U.K. for example. It is one of the great issues of our times for in higher education in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Among the most dramatic and public ways in which political or moral-claims movements from within universities are constraining free expression and academic freedom are the long list of disinvited speakers - including for example Christine Lagarde, Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice, and Larry Summers, - other invited speakers being shouted down and not being allowed to speak, and faculty being called to task in a variety of ways for having controversial views. Sometimes violence has erupted because of the objections of a segment of a university community to a speaker’s views or background. These however are just overt symptoms of yet more widespread problems. On some campuses there is a tone of discourse ostracizing those with currently unpopular views, faculty are concerned about bringing up certain topics and ideas for fear not of disagreement but of being demonized, and some university administrators are actually fostering an environment in which students’ feelings of discomfort with ideas take precedence over the importance of actually discussing ideas. How students interact with each other is often a casualty of these damaging tendencies. Students should be learning from each other by working through and discussing different opinions, analyses, backgrounds, perspectives, and cultures. But the environment of demonization and ostracism of those with opposing views can choke the intra-student discourse vital to an education.

These examples demonstrate that in addition to large scale institutional structures such as states or religious institutions sometimes seeking to constrain academic freedom, demands for problematic constraints can arise from less formal but still potent political or moral-claims groups, often from within universities themselves. This indicates that the formal protections provided by adhering to policies of academic freedom and free expression need to be amplified by an institutional culture that supports argumentation, challenge, and respectful open discourse that allows for deep disagreements, and an acceptance that discomfort will sometimes be a consequence of such a challenging environment.

Let me relay a quick anecdote about such a culture of intellectual challenge at the University of Chicago. It concerns three Nobel laureates in economics, Milton Friedman, Jim Heckman, and Bob Lucas. After Milton Friedman died, we had a memorial service for him at which I was going to speak. By coincidence, Jim Heckman was in my office a few days beforehand and I asked him if he had any thoughts about what I might say. He suggested I read a paper of Friedman’s entitled “Positive Economics” and he was sure I would find it helpful for preparing my remarks. I followed his advice, read the paper, and as predicted by Heckman found inspiration for my comments. Following the service, we all went to a reception and I ran into Bob Lucas. Lucas said to me, “nice remarks”. Then he paused for a moment and continued, saying – “but I always had a problem with that paper.” And he then explained to me what might appear to be a minor point but that he felt was a real difficulty connected to Friedman’s articulation of the nature of models and knowledge in science. So Lucas was continuing to argue with Friedman even at his memorial service. This is an uninhibited environment of intellectual challenge and engagement.

Given my remarks about why academic freedom, free expression, and open discourse are so important to universities and through them to society, why is there so much historical and present-day opposition? One part of this is not surprising. The long-standing issues with certain religious and state institutions are in many cases simply about power and its maintenance. There is evident fear that allowing open discourse will foster ideas that in one form or another will constrain the exercise or even maintenance of power. This is often accompanied by claims of either moral or political rectitude and value – you never hear anyone say “my having authority is not so great but I want to suppress discourse anyway”. Suppression of academic freedom is always accompanied by value claims when in many cases the real issue is authority.

But as we have discussed, there are also calls for suppressing open discourse and academic freedom from those not necessarily in a position of institutionalized power, but who make moral or political claims to validate their own position of suppression. Here again, we should not be surprised. In truth, many people, perhaps even most people, don’t really like free expression in all its complexity. They fully support and are deeply committed to free expression for people they agree with. But tolerating speech that you may find offensive, dumb, morally questionable, politically objectionable, producing discomfort, or religiously undesirable is not something everyone naturally embraces. In other words, one reason we see a constant effort to constrain academic freedom and open discourse is that some people are trying to keep certain views unexpressed and unheard out of self-righteous moral or political indignation, an agenda driven by such moral or political views, and comfort arrogating to themselves and those they agree with the right of speech while denying it to others. We have seen this throughout history, and we see it today in all the moral-claims arguments in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere.

Therefore, in promoting an environment of academic freedom, free expression, and open discourse one is always working against strong undercurrents that may rise and become visible at any moment.

My third topic is what to do about this situation of assault on principles so important to the quality of education and research. I will mention three approaches I believe are relevant.

First, as I indicated earlier, is clarity that these are fundamental principles for the very meaning and quality of universities. A contrary view of universities, which one sometimes hears explicitly and more often sees implicitly, is that universities are very complex institutions, with very complex sets of interested parties and constituents, many things they are trying to accomplish, and many issues that must be balanced- and that academic freedom and free expression are either explicitly or implicitly just one of the values among many that must be balanced, weighed, and sometimes traded off. With this position, it is inevitable that university leaders and faculty will find themselves succumbing to great pressure for constrained speech. Therefore, a primary approach necessary for maintaining academic freedom is the clarity that this is not just one of the hoped-for features of universities, but for reasons I described earlier, is essential to universities’ very meaning and mission, and the fulfillment of that mission at the highest level.

Second, one cannot rely solely on formalisms and policy. One needs to build and sustain a culture that lives open inquiry every day. This means a constant effort on the part of faculty and university leaders to promote and model the values of open inquiry and intellectual challenge in all their work on campus every day, and for students to learn to appreciate why these values are so important to the quality of their education. Otherwise, it is too easy to have a set of rules and policies about academic freedom, but also a sterile and quietly suppressed environment that embodies fear of discourse and engagement of disparate views rather than one that embraces robust discussion.

The third feature is courage. Whether dealing with attempts by an institutional authority such as a state, or with a passionate group of moral self-righteousness claiming moral authority and virtue, standing for principle is not simple. It requires courage, which increases the chance for success, but in truth cannot guarantee it. And as I said earlier, we are witness to such courage today on the part of CEU and its leadership, as well as on the part of the city of Vienna and the University of Vienna, for which again I want to express my admiration.

Let me conclude by returning to Galileo. There is a well-known and perhaps apocryphal story that after being convicted he muttered “eppur si muove”: and yet it moves. It us up to us today, perhaps, to rephrase Galileo at this important moment for academic freedom in universities throughout the world by saying, out loud this time, “Eppur, pensiamo; eppur parliamo.” And yet we think; and yet we speak.

Congratulations once again. Thank you very much.