Debate over economics think tank continues at University of Chicago

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Education reporter
  • October 23, 2008 @ 11:00 AM

The first faculty-wide senate meeting of its kind in 24 years could take place by the end of the year at the University of Chicago as a controversy continues over the name of a new research institute.

The Milton Friedman Institute is named after the famous U of C economist who predicted the “stagflation” of the 1970s and whose theory of free and open markets led to 25 years of economic growth worldwide.

But ask a growing number of faculty opposed to the institute’s name, and they’ll point to an economist who ushered in a second Gilded Age of greed and excess that is now unraveling amid turmoil in the global financial markets.

And that symbol is the wrong one to headline the $200 million institute, says Bruce Lincoln, a history of religions professor.

“On moral and political grounds I thought it was an outrage,” he says.

Lincoln has helped organize at least 100 faculty members who are opposed to the name and want the administration to reconsider the choice.

Last week, the first faculty senate meeting since 1998 drew about 300 faculty members, but only about half of the meeting time was dedicated to debating the Friedman Institute issue, Lincoln says.

The meeting was called by the university’s president and was “very tightly controlled” to limit debate, Lincoln says. Such meetings used to happen yearly.

A new petition is circulating that would require another faculty senate meeting; Lincoln plans to submit it to the university administration next week. That meeting would be the first since 1984 that would be convened outside of the annual meetings.

The controversy has rallied some students as well. About 100 demonstrated outside of last week’s faculty senate meeting, Lincoln said. And several student groups have contacted him wanting to get involved.

Lincoln says Friedman’s political views were unfailingly “right wing” and that naming the institute after him is tantamount to the university endorsing Friedman’s personal ideology.

But other professors dispute that.

Friedman was a libertarian, argues John Cochrane, who served on the committee that in January recommended creating the Friedman Institute.

“What the guy stood for is you need economic freedom to have political freedom,” Cochrane says.

Cochrane, a finance professor in the Graduate School of Business, is somewhat dismissive of the debate and says there’s not much news to it now.

“Now it’s down to, lots of other people around the world don’t understand what he said, so to them he’s a symbol of things they don’t like,” Cochrane says.

But Lincoln and the faculty on his side of the debate aren’t about to give up. They want a new committee to take another look at the institute’s name.

“Anybody that cares about the health of the economy should care about what the best economists in the country are going to be thinking about and how they’re going to work on things,” Lincoln says.


Greg Gabrellas, a senior undergraduate anthropology major, says many students see a larger issue than just the name of the institute.

"Students felt that curtailments on faculty speech and action in the senate was a gross violation of the principles of free inquiry that the university should stand for," he says.

And a solution isn't as easy as convening a new committee.

"This is not the first instance in the recent past when the administration has clamped down on student initiatives," Gabrellas says, pointing to a request last year from students and faculty that the university pull its investments in companies operating in Darfur. That request was rejected by the Board of Trustees even though it went through the proper channels, he says.

"Students want structural changes in the way that the university is organized, how the university functions," Gabrellas says.



Peter Sachs is a Chicago-based journalist. He covers higher education for the Daily News.