Searching for a University: Considering the Chicago Principles

            In recent years the definition of the University has been in flux. As NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt has noted[1], the university is oscillating between truth and social justice. The competition between these values has been seen on campuses across the United States for several years. The shout-downs at Yale[2], the meltdown at Evergreen[3], the creation of “bias response teams”[4], and attempts to squelch research with unfavorable conclusions[5] would all seem unsurprising to those who have attended to the news. But how can a prospective student interested in attending a truth university, a university that values truth over social justice, know which universities value truth? One indicator is the Chicago Principles[6]. The Chicago Principles are protections for free speech, and since 2014, over 70 universities have adopted them as their own[7]. Any prospective student who values honesty, open dialogue, and commitment to the truth ought to take this into consideration when selecting a university to attend.

         To begin, we must ask why a prospective student should desire to attend a truth university over a social-justice-university. The answer is relatively simple: so, you can have your cake and eat it too. By aiming at truth, by seeking out the honest state of our nation, justice in this country and potential means of fixing it, then social justice can be done; one would certainly not expect to solve this problem by basing their assumptions and solutions on falsehoods. However, if one aims at social justice, then there is no reason to expect an arrival at the truth. Elements of the truth may be found, but when conflicts between the truth and social justice emerge, one would expect the truth to be sacrificed for supposed justice; though I would suggest that any justice that relies on falsehood isn’t truly justice. Effectively, by pursuing truth, one can arrive at social justice, but by pursuing social justice, one will undermine the truth.

         The Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre noted in Existentialism is a Humanism, that by choosing one action over another, one values that action over the other. Like choosing water over soda, one values the water, in that moment, as being more valuable compared to the other options available to them. And if this person values a superordinate goal of “being healthy”, for example, then choosing water, which is in accordance with that goal, is an indication of valuing that goal. Therefore, how one acts, indicates what one values. If Sartre is right, then if a university values the purveyance of true knowledge, it will act in accordance with this aim.

This is where the Chicago Principles and free speech protections come in: They are an indication of valuing truth. Free speech is necessary for the acquisition of true knowledge. In order to acquire knowledge, one must both hear the expression of knowledge and be able to express what knowledge they have. The philosopher John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, discussed why free speech is necessary for the discovery and understanding of the truth, which, by extension, is a justification for free speech in a truth-aimed university. First, Mill said, one cannot know certainly that the opinion they hold is true. Therefore, to censor an opinion they believe to be false, is to risk censoring the truth and deny oneself the opportunity to correct one’s own false views. Second, even if one could know that their opinion is true, then, given that expression is necessary for correction, by censoring untrue expression, the means for correction are denied, and untrue opinions will remain quietly held by the other. Third, engaging with falsehood illuminates and strengthens its justifications. Those true beliefs held without justification are, when confronted with false arguments, frail enough to crumble. Therefore, regardless of the truth value of one’s opinion, the censorship of another opinion is detrimental to one’s understanding of a true statement over time. As a result, universities that hope to acquire true knowledge must necessarily protect free speech as a means of acquiring and maintaining true knowledge, and adopting the Chicago Principles is an indication of valuing the truth.

         In conclusion, humans are limited. What we don’t know leaves us vulnerable to those things we don’t see coming. It is truth and its acquisition that mitigates ignorance and that vulnerability. But in order to acquire truth, one must be free to inquire and express their, even faulty, opinions. And so, the Chicago Principles, which protect free speech, enable universities to acquire truthful knowledge, and, in turn, indicate what it is that they value. And if a student hopes to mitigate their vulnerabilities, and even aid in the achievement of social justice, they ought to go to a university that protects their means of doing so – a truth university – a university that has adopted the Chicago Principles.


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gatn5ameRr8

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/05/the-peril-of-writing-a-provocative-email-at-yale/484418/

[3] https://quillette.com/2018/02/22/the-evergreen-meltdown/

[4] https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-bias-response-team-is-watching-1525806702

[5] https://quillette.com/2019/03/19/an-interview-with-lisa-littman-who-coined-the-term-rapid-onset-gender-dysphoria/

[6] https://provost.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/documents/reports/FOECommitteeReport.pdf

[7] https://www.thefire.org/chicago-statement-university-and-faculty-body-support/

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