Several University of Chicago graduates, some of whom last took classes decades ago, have reunited to perpetuate the school’s free speech culture.
Mark Schiller (B.A. ’85, M.D. ’90), Veronica Schrenk (B.A. ’18), Eduardo Vidal (B.A. ’78, J.D. ’81), and Katrina Vidal (B.A. ’78) are organizing a UChicago chapter of the Alumni Free Speech Alliance (AFSA), a national organization that helps university graduates champion pro-free speech policies at their respective institutions.
According to Mr. Vidal, he and his colleagues believe “they can be an important voice . . . strengthening the University’s commitment to an academic environment of free expression, particularly in a time in which illiberal groups are endangering civil discourse on campus.”
The alumni group’s efforts come in the wake of UChicago’s plunge from first place to thirteenth in the college free speech rankings published by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE)—a drop that occurred within the space of a year.
“Not only students and their parents, but also alumni, trustees and donors, must monitor the work of faculty and administrators on college and university campuses, especially with respect to matters involving free speech,” Mr. Vidal told the Thinker.
“We all have a stake in protecting and expanding UChicago’s exceptionally strong tradition of upholding free expression and dedication to open academic inquiry,” continued Mr. Vidal, a prominent corporate lawyer who serves as the Thinker’s alumni liaison and as a columnist for The Miami Independent.
FIRE, an AFSA partner, is assisting the alumni in launching their chapter. Continuing in the footsteps of AFSA alumni groups for Dartmouth, Columbia, Princeton, Stanford, and other universities across the United States, the UChicago chapter would be AFSA’s twenty-fifth.
“[A]lumni must become involved to make the case for free speech and academic freedom and to provide support for faculty and students who speak up,” AFSA contends. The group adds that it “provides a mechanism for the exchange of information among its members on substantive and organizational issues.”
As far as concrete goals, FIRE encourages alumni to lobby for their institutions’ adherence to “First Amendment obligations or commitments to free expression,” adoption of the Chicago Principles, collection of data on campus free speech culture, and more.
Growing Illiberalism at UChicago
UChicago’s thirteenth-place finish in the 2023 FIRE Free Speech Rankings was strong, given that the school was competing against 247 other universities. However, students at UChicago are quite uneasy about expressing their opinions, with the school coming in 94th in the “comfort expressing ideas” category.
Meanwhile, UChicago ranked 156th for “disruptive conduct,” which measures the on-campus acceptability of resorting to yelling and physical force to shut down speakers. Recent events hint at little turnaround, with October 2023 reports indicating that pro-Palestinian students used amplified sound to silence pro-Israel demonstrators.
In reference to “[d]isruptive conduct, like yelling and shutting down speakers,” Mr. Vidal told the Thinker that “those who engage in this behavior do not belong on campus” and that “students must be comfortable expressing their ideas.” “The only civilized response to bad ideas is better ideas, if we can handle them,” charged Mr. Vidal.
Against the backdrop of UChicago’s increasingly uncertain free speech climate, the UChicago AFSA chapter has already attracted several dozen students and alumni. Mr. Vidal encourages other interested parties to sign up via the chapter website or to contact him, by email, at email@example.com.
To UChicago community members both old and new, Mr. Vidal says, “Go Maroons!”