Grading the University of Chicago's Letter on Academic Freedom

When I was a heretical student at a Catholic high school deciding where to apply to college, I thrilled at the prospect of an educational institution where free inquiry would reign supreme and forceful debate would never be hemmed in by dogma.

A letter like the one that University of Chicago Dean of Students John Ellison sent last week to incoming first-year students––reminding them of the school’s “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression," and affirming that those admitted to it “are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship”––would have struck me as a glorious affirmation: that robust intellectual communities truly did exist; that I would finally be free to follow my brain; that college would be a crucible that tested the strength of all my beliefs.

Today, I am more forgiving of Catholic educational institutions, which served me well; and more skeptical that any college’s worth is best measured by its stated aspirations. Still, I couldn’t help but imagine a bright 18-year-old, preparing to leave an intellectually stifling environment to attend the University of Chicago, receiving that letter, opening it with curiosity, and lighting up at what lay ahead, even as she steeled herself a bit more for the intellectual challenges that it promised.