Building a Legacy

Last spring, the University of Chicago released a proposal to build an institute named for the late Milton Friedman. The institute was intended to provide a home for economics in Friedman’s tradition, but the proposal struck a negative chord for many who recoiled at the prospect of potentially endorsing a one-sided political approach. Over 100 professors banded together to form CORES, the Committee for Open Research on Economy and Society, who put together a petition protesting the institute’s development. Amid much controversy, President Zimmer decided to convene the faculty senate, which includes all 1200 faculty members, to discuss the issue. In the meantime, CORES continues to campaign for its cause, hosting events such as a discussion with Naomi Klein, author of “The Shock Doctrine,” on October 1. For more information, visit

In parts of the world, the name “University of Chicago” is inextricably linked to Milton Friedman and his “Chicago Boys.” This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Friedman’s non-academic activities, as an economic adviser to the dictatorial regimes of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and the military junta in Argentina. Some have made the argument that the University of Chicago economists merely helped the economies of the struggling nations. Others disagree. “The first thing the ‘Chicago Boys’ did in Chile after 1974, for example, was to close down every economics and social science department in the country, except at the Catholic University where they had a foothold,” writes Michael Hudson in the political newsletter CounterPunch.

The mere fact that there are questions about Friedman’s legacy should give the University pause in its plans to name a $200 million institute after him. Of course, he had another side besides dictator-abettor: he was also a pioneering academic economist, who reintroduced a focus on money supply to a discipline overrun by Keynesians. But the proposed institute cannot be named after only the monetary theorist; it must be named after the man as well. Academic freedom dictates that universities be allowed control over their own internal affairs, but academic wisdom suggests that they refrain from naming centers of learning after political firebrands, thus creating an atmosphere hostile to the very academic freedom that nurtured Friedman himself. Language in the University’s proposal (“The intellectual focus of the institute would reflect the traditions of the Chicago School and typify some of Milton Friedman’s most interesting academic work, including…his advocacy for market alternatives to ill conceived policy initiatives”) affirms that this institute would have no place for those not in doctrinal accordance with the late economist.

To focus on the institute’s name, however, would be to ignore the other reasons to oppose the University’s proposal. For one thing, it is a poor use of energy and resources to direct hundreds of millions of dollars to the already well-cared-for Economics Department, while the rest of the humanities and social sciences remain relatively starved for attention. And then there is the Milton Friedman Society, a group of wealthy donors who, having given at least $1 million to the new institute, will get backstage passes to its “people and work.” As CORES and others have pointed out, this appears to be a disturbing commercialization of academic research. Especially given the proposal’s focus on policy as well as theory, it does not seem farfetched to imagine that the Milton Friedman Institute would function as a kind of free market of ideas, in entirely the wrong sense. Want an intellectual justification for your political agenda? For the right price, it could be yours.

None of this, again, is to diminish Friedman’s academic achievements, but if we wish to honor the accomplishments of a great Chicago academic, why not raise funds for a John Dewey Institute, or a Hannah Arendt Institute? Or, if the money must be spent on the dismal science, why not expand the Becker Center on Price Theory? Such a project would not jeopardize the University’s academic integrity–and ultimately isn’t that perhaps what Professor Friedman would have wanted? (Sam Feldman)

As described in CORES’ eight-point petition against it, the Milton Friedman Institute bears little resemblance to its own proposed form. Likewise, the concerns raised by the petition seem rather hysterical. To begin, consider the opposition to any kind of funding for the MFI. The first point of CORES’ petition opposes whatever funding the University provides as “disproportionate” while points five and six argue that philanthropic donations would prejudice, if not outright determine, the results of all research the MFI produces. As for the first, it only seems fair to allow the University to allocate its own money as it sees fit; if it is done poorly, scholars and students will prefer other schools. And a quick glance at the Mansueto Library or Physical Sciences lab construction shows that the MFI isn’t the only body receiving a mix of private donations and University money. The idea that donors would control the nature of MFI research is indeed a troubling one. However, CORES’ belief that this would happen seems unduly aggressive given the University’s oversight, the ethics of researchers there, and the commitment to honest inquiry used throughout the MFI’s proposal.

The petition’s second point, that the MFI’s economic research involves too many economists, is baffling. With all due respect to CORES founders Robert Kendrick and Bruce Lincoln, respectively professors in Music and History of Religions, it’s hard to believe they’d invite the influence of economists into their research. Furthermore, it’s harder to imagine the GSB or Law School faculty claiming that as members of the University community, they deserve a finger in every pie.

From points three and four, it’s clear that CORES’ fundamental problem with the MFI is its open advocacy of free markets, which CORES does not seem to respect and does not want the University to sanction. However, the University, like any institution with a reputable economics department, already does. CORES is also worried about the MFI’s adherence to a particular view, but reigning views and conventional wisdom are common to every discipline. The Franke Institute’s charter, for example, lays out a “basic agenda the Institute serves: paradigm change, interdisciplinarity, multi-culturalism, and public outreach.” And the idea that any group of social researchers wouldn’t “engage issues of policy and not limit itself to matters of academic theory,” as feared in the seventh point, is simply absurd. CORES’ eighth point, that the MFI would mentor undergraduates, cultivating “activist cadres,” is equally ridiculous, not to mention unclear. For what dark purposes does CORES believe the MFI would teach undergraduates? One can only presume they fear simple-minded first-years would become brainwashed capitalist zombies.

Ultimately, the University’s stance towards the MFI is the reasonable one. Milton Friedman’s contributions to the study of economics are undeniably valuable, as CORES acknowledges. The MFI is an excellent way for the University to honor one of its finest and further the intellectual inquiry for which both are renowned. CORES’ ideological opposition, by contrast, is rotten. (Michael Joyce)