Panel at SSA Explores the Meaning of Academic Freedom

Free expression and inclusion are important components

(This article appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of SSA Magazine.)

The role of academic freedom, unfettered discussion, and inclusion at American universities became lively topics at a panel discussion at SSA titled “Academic Freedom and Diversity: Viewpoints on Institutional Practices and Tensions.”

Several hundred students, faculty, and members of the University community gathered January 3 in the SSA lobby to hear speakers from the UChicago faculty and other institutions talk about the meaning of those concepts. A video recording of the discussion is available on C-SPAN.org and on the University/SSA’s YouTube channel: https://youtu.be/LHVetHA-QeQ.

The issue had attracted national attention last fall, when the College sent a welcome message to incoming undergraduates, reaffirming the University’s commitment to academic freedom and diversity, and noting that students should expect to encounter perspectives that they find challenging or even uncomfortable.

President Robert J. Zimmer framed the University’s perspective, emphasizing that diversity and the free discussion of a variety of viewpoints are essential to the University’s core mission of research and education. He noted that a setting in which “people all from the same background and similar perspectives are sitting around and fundamentally agreeing with each other and arguing only at the margins is not the way to create an environment of intellectual challenge.”

Dean Neil Guterman, the Mose & Sylvia Firestone Professor at SSA, explained how the concepts relate to SSA. “The School of Social Service Administration, as a professional school of social work, particularly benefits from and promotes academic freedom and the unfettered pursuit of ideas, ones that address the concerns of those who are most vulnerable and marginalized. We at SSA dive into and address the most complicated, multilayered, and sometimes contentious of social problems, like poverty or violence, in a tireless search for real solutions, and to rigorously educate in ways that promote social equity and justice.”

He added, “Part of the importance of diversity stems from a value on social equity and societal inclusion, as universities are arguably the most important institutions in our society that foster entry and integration into the mainstream.”

The panel was moderated by Associate Professor Gina Miranda Samuels, who, with Assistant Professor Marci Ybarra, organized the discussion. Panelists included Geoffrey R. Stone, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor at the Law School; John Boyer, Dean of the College and Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor in History; Zareena Grewal, Associate Professor of American Studies and Religious Studies and the Program in Ethnicity, Race, and Migration at Yale University; and Lorraine M. Gutiérrez, AM ’78, Professor of Social Work, University of Michigan School of Social Work, and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, Professor of Psychology, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

Guitérrez said her own experiences during college as a woman of color help her understand the challenges minority group students face.

“Diversity is part of the hidden and the formal curriculum. When I look back at my years at Stanford University, the majority of faculty and students were white and upper middle class. The expectation at that time was that I, as a lower middle class student would learn to conform. If I did not conform, I would struggle. . . and it was no one’s responsibility but my own to figure out how to deal with that struggle,” she said.

Being champions of diversity is an important goal for people engaged in social work, she added. “Social workers must be sensitive to cultural and ethnic diversity and strive to end other forms of social injustice and prevent the domination, exploitation, and discrimination against any person based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, marital status, immigration status, or mental or physical disability.”

At the end of the panel discussion, Samuels invited the audience to break into small groups and continue the conversation. “Part of free expression, I think, is listening carefully to what another person is saying before you form your own response. It means being humble and open.”

William Harms