A (Slight) Name Change for Milton Friedman Institute

U. of Chicago hopes specifying a research focus will calm a controversy, and while some aren't fully on board, there are signs of lessening tension.
November 4, 2008

The Milton Friedman Institute hasn't opened yet, but like its namesake, it has already generated its share of controversy. The institute, conceived as a center at the University of Chicago that would incubate rising scholars and support cross-disciplinary research, aroused immediate ire from faculty members concerned that it would serve to promote Friedman's free-market ideas rather than foster an open environment that would also include competing academic theories.

Some were worried that the institute would be beholden to the ideological preferences of its donors, or that it would become analogous to an on-campus think tank in the mold of Stanford University's generally conservative-leaning Hoover Institution. Perhaps the most powerful driving factor behind the criticism was the institute's name: dedicated to one of the university's most well-known scholars, the late Nobel Prize-winning economist whose theories symbolized what became known as the "Chicago School" of economics.

Now that name is changing -- or, more accurately, it's becoming longer. The Milton Friedman Institute will now be known as the Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics, a shift that the university hopes will emphasize the center's focus on academic research over the legacy of a single scholar.

Although the name change has already eased some tensions on campus, it's not clear whether faculty members will consider their concerns alleviated to the point where any organized opposition will collapse.

The idea to change the name of the center seems to have come up by accident. At a public panel addressing the controversy last month, James Heckman, a Nobel laureate who himself worked with Friedman, said it might be a "good idea" to change the name, a suggestion already dismissed by other members of the institute's faculty committee, which he sits on. Since then, the possibility of addressing the disagreements by altering the name took hold.

“During the [Faculty Senate] meeting and in subsequent discussions, faculty have suggested augmenting the Institute’s name to make clear that it is solely an economics research institute," wrote Thomas Rosenbaum, the university's provost, in an e-mail to faculty last week. "The faculty and deans who were instrumental in establishing the Institute agreed that this would be a useful direction to pursue.... We have accepted this proposal and we will be using this official title henceforth.”

The decision came on the heels of a much-discussed Faculty Senate meeting on Oct. 15, which some described as the most substantive such gathering in decades and which attracted over 200 faculty members.

"There has been a very robust discussion, and both the administration and the faculty committee that helped bring the Milton Friedman Institute into existence have been listening very closely to the concerns and responding as best they can," said Steve Kloehn, the university's news director.

"It was never designed to be a think tank supporting a particular point of view or any sort of partisan or ideological organization," he continued. "It's always been about a high level of research in economics representing a wide range of approaches. So I think the new name better represents what it was always intended to be."

And while some critics of the institute are happy with the outcome, it doesn't necessarily signal the end of the controversy.

"You know, I'm pleased that the administration has shown some flexibility," said Bruce Lincoln, a professor at Chicago's Divinity School and co-chairman of the Committee on Open Research on Economy and Society, which was formed in opposition to the institute. "They haven't really consulted on this, they did it unilaterally, they haven't addressed all of our concerns ... there's more yet to be done. I think the discussion is far from over at this point. Serious problems have been raised, the administration has shown mixed willingness to hear about those problems ... and I think the discussion has to continue."

He said that, after the elections are over, he will poll members of the group to consult on possible next steps.


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