Fighting Friedman

In May 2008 the University of Chicago announced the establishment of a Milton Friedman Institute, named after an economist who was a devoted champion (in popular media as well as academic work) of “free market” economics. Friedman was also infamous to many in Latin America for his association with the economic programs of brutal dictators in Argentina and Chile.

The Institute spawned direct opposition in the faculty group CORES (Committee for Open Research in Economy and Society), and its student affiliate, SCORES. Graduate Students United, the graduate student labor organizing group, also voted to oppose the Institute. CORES succeeded in forcing a general meeting of the faculty senate, which resulted in changes to the Institute’s website and a name change, adding “Research in Economics” to the title to emphasize (ostensibly) its non-ideological orientation. In the meantime, the financial crisis reduced fundraising opportunities for the Institute and made a major dent in the reputation of Friedman, icon of deregulation.

Throughout the academic year, CORES and SCORES have hosted lectures and panels to generate discussion, as well as directly challenging the University administration and the founders of the Institute. Next year, says organizer Toussaint Losier, SCORES will also inaugurate an Institute for Open Research on Economy and Society: “In addition to bringing to Chicago a range of liberal and left intellectuals critical of the neoliberal orthodoxy, the Open Institute will host a nationwide student public policy competition that will bring student teams to Chicago to work with a community organization in solving a pressing local issue.”

The University of Chicago’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society developed a project to request alternative proposals for the institute. (See the RFP [Request for Proposals] at http://ourmfi.org.) Inspired by Laurie Palmer’s 3 Acres on the Lake, an unofficial request for proposals for a DuSable Park, they ask students, faculty, staff, and community members to imagine their own use of the space, thus reinventing the institute. As organizer David Schalliol puts it, “we hope to receive projects motivated by and composed of a broader set of elements […] the alternative RFP is an art activist project, a performance piece that adopts the closed bureaucratic mode in order to subvert institutional processes and reframe theoretical and aesthetic understandings.” Submissions will be accepted until November 1, and will be presented at a public gathering and at ourmfi.org.

 

Members of the groups involved in opposing the institute agreed to be interviewed by email and a selection of responses follow.

Is this conflict about more than just the name? What do you see as the worst thing(s) about the proposed institute?

Yali Amit (CORES) It was not just about the name, although the name is indeed a serious ideological provocation.

The original proposal of the institute included clear biases towards Friedman’s ideology and a special status for a group of wealthy donors under the name of the Friedman Society. So it wasn’t just the name. If it had been the MF institute for the study of positive government/public intervention in the Economy and Society maybe we would have enjoyed the joke.

Lauren Berlant (CORES) The franchising of the production of knowledge to the interests of private wealth; the public re-association of the whole of the U of C with exuberant free-marketism; the non-transparency of administrative decision structures; the disrespect for faculty governance; the decision to have 2 economics departments while letting other kinds of knowledge stay at steady state or atrophy.

Kara Elliott-Ortega (SDS) The worst part of the MFI is its lack of inventiveness. With the creation of a new institution come many opportunities to redefine what it means to do research, hold conferences, and create dialogue for the better of the university community as a whole. We want a school that actively values input of students, faculty, and staff as well as the broader community.

Bruce Lincoln (CORES) One has to ask why the University would abandon its historic commitment to maintaining a position of impartiality when it comes to matters of ideology and politics. One might conclude that University administrators are true believers who really are eager to endorse Friedman’s ideas. Alternatively, one might conclude that the position of impartiality is only a posture, and that its sole utility is to justify resisting initiatives from the left. Third, one might suspect that the fundraising opportunities perceived in the name “Milton Friedman” were so tempting that the administration was willing to relax its guard so as to maximize the potential profit. It’s this last one that strikes me as the worst possibility of all, and also the most likely. What one sees here is capital penetrating the academy, appropriating its reputation, and reshaping the research agenda to serve its quest for profits.

Toussaint Losier (SCORES and GSU) I took the MFI to be a living example of how “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”— funding academically rigorous research that legitimizes policies crafted to serve the wealthy and shore up their dominance, all at our expense.

 

What do you hope your group will accomplish? What has it already accomplished?

Lauren Berlant (CORES) We accomplished being inconvenient. We accomplished a public performance of being not-docile and not-defeated by the shifting shape of the place. We didn’t accomplish much apart from reminding the faculty that it can organize dissent, and reminding the students that failing to win is not the worst thing. The administration cleaned up its language but the economic crash did the rest of the work of delaying, if not defeating [the opening of MFI].

Kara Elliott-Ortega (SDS) My personal hope is that when the MFI finally opens, it has physical and organizational space for bringing a different kind of radical economics to campus. For those of us who are trying to solve problems of social justice in the world, an understanding of economics is vital—but it has to be one that takes into account the social realities that the current MFI does not include in its definition of economic research.

Bruce Lincoln (CORES) Ideally, I would like to see three major changes. First, the name of Friedman should be removed from any Institute that takes shape. Second, the mission of the Institute should be articulated in ways that distance it from any particular ideology and invite a wide range of topics, orientations, and methods. Third, donors should be given no special access and no influence over the workings of the Institute. We’ve made some progress on all these points, but not nearly enough.

Toussaint Losier (SCORES and GSU) Thus far, opposition to the MFI has resulted in several minor concessions. While the institute has begun operating, it has the new title of “the Milton Friedman Institute for Economic Research.” The proposal that spelled out its narrow ideological agenda and wealthy donor initiative has been removed from the website, with the MFI now marketed as a “normal” research center.

Marshall Sahlins (CORES) The least would be renaming the Institute. The most to block its formation. The best to hope for would be the confinement of the Institute to the Economics Department—but I fear this will not happen.

 

Are there divergences of strategy within the opposition to the MFI?

Lauren Berlant (CORES) Some people wanted to shame the administration right away, some wanted to model what rational critical discourse might look like that wasn’t just the performance of a fake public sphere; some people are more interested in the unfairness of the distribution of economic resources and others are more interested in the franchising of the University to the right.

Toussaint Losier (SCORES and GSU) There was consensus among students to follow the lead of faculty and agreement among faculty on drawing public attention through media outreach and campus protests to Milton Friedman’s legacy as well as mobilize faculty to wield their limited decision making power, all to force administration officials, particularly the President and the Provost, to come to the table and meet their demands. While it [following the faculty’s lead] created exciting opportunities for student-faculty solidarity, it predicated continued action on the direction given by professors. As a result, it limited the degree to which [students] could open up the discussion to questions of campus governance, budget priorities, and student power.

David Schalliol (SDS) SDS is introducing another dimension to the discussion through playful engagement with these serious issues. Given limited opportunities for concerned parties to offer input about the MFI, our request for alternative proposals for the MFI (http://ourMFI.org) “hopes to further public dialogue about the MFI as well as organizational transparency, economics, community involvement and the issues that most concern you—all the while providing an opportunity for the greater community to envision what our university looks like.”

Marshall Sahlins (CORES) The opposition for too long tried to negotiate with an already-committed University administration, on the principle of “if the Czar only knew….” My own preference was to have the entire faculty vote by email on whether the University should have an MFI.

 

Apart from the impact on the administration’s plans for the MFI, have there been beneficial side effects of your organizing work?

Kara Elliott-Ortega (SDS) One of the best parts of organizing against the MFI has been support between graduate and undergraduate students. It is the first issue in my three years on campus around which faculty, grads, and undergrads have organized together.

Bruce Lincoln (CORES) There have been some wonderfully enlightening discussions, often of quite unexpected nature, and lots of people have been led to engage with topics and colleagues they’d rarely encountered before. I also think that a lot of respect and trust have been built within the CORES group and that these people will continue to cooperate on many more issues in years to come.

Marshall Sahlins (CORES) I am once again convinced that the University administration is more committed to the bottom line than to academic virtue, of which it has only an abstract conception, and that the faculty on the whole is more engaged in the international realms of their disciplines, whence derives their local esteem, than in the functioning of the University. But it is not for emeritus professors like me to talk. We were specifically forbidden to attend the Senate meeting where the MFI was discussed. ◊