Academics Demand Econ Journal Purge Prof For Criticizing Defund Police Movement

Only 16 percent of Americans support slashing police budgets

University of Chicago campus / Getty Images
June 11, 2020

Students and professors are demanding that an academic journal fire a professor who criticized efforts to defund the police.

Activists submitted a petition accusing University of Chicago economics professor Harald Uhlig of "trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement" on his Twitter account. The campaign came after Uhlig wrote that Black Lives Matter "torpedoed itself with its full-fledged support of #defundthepolice." Max Auffhammer, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and University of Michigan economics professor Justin Wolfers created the petition to oust Uhlig from his position of editor of the prestigious Journal of Political Economy.

Uhlig's comments "hurt and marginalize people of color and their allies in the economics profession," the petition said. "We do not question the right of Prof. Uhlig to make such comments, but we are strongly opposed to him holding a position of power as the editor of a prominent journal in our discipline."

Uhlig did not respond to request for comment.

In a tweet thread, Uhlig criticized the "#defundthepolice" movement and called for a serious conversation on police brutality and policy reforms instead of the proposal—which is gaining traction on the left even as an overwhelming majority of Americans oppose it. A YouGov poll found that only 16 percent of Americans support decreasing law enforcement funding in the wake of nationwide protests; 65 percent oppose the idea.

"Time for sensible adults to enter back into the room and have serious, earnest, respectful conversations about it all: e.g. policy reform proposals by [the Democrats] and national healing. We need more police, we need to pay them more, we need to train them better," Uhlig said.

The petition, which is no longer active, allegedly urged Uhlig to resign his position as lead editor of the Journal of Political Economy. Uhlig has made comments on controversial topics in the past, including the riots and looting that followed the murder of George Floyd's death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, as well as the 2017 Charlottesville protest that left one dead.

Uhlig's comments sparked condemnation from liberal economists, journalists, and activists across the country. New York Times columnist and City University of New York professor Paul Krugman called Uhlig a "privileged white man who evidently can't control his urge to belittle the concerns of those less fortunate." Wolfers, another contributor to the New York Times, said he was angered by Uhlig's tweets and claimed that the professor was engaged in "a sophomoric debate about language" in order to "condescendingly try to ridicule the movement."

After the petition gained traction, Uhlig offered an apology for not choosing his words and comparisons more carefully and for "irritating people." Wolfers called the apology an "a**-covering, followed by [Uhlig] speaking on behalf of communities of color in a way he has no business doing."

Online petitions and propositions to fire professors for offensive speech have gained traction in the wake of Floyd's death. The University of California, Los Angeles placed an accounting professor on a leave of absence and launched an investigation into his conduct after he refused to give minority students exemptions from the scheduled final exam. The incoming journalism dean at Arizona State University had her job revoked after she called some police officers "good" in a tweet.

The letter was submitted to the editors of the Journal of Political Economy and the University of Chicago president on June 10. The journal did not respond to a request for comment.

*The university is standing by the professor. A University of Chicago spokesman told the Washington Free Beacon on Friday that the school is committed to not only combatting racism, but preserving academic freedom and "open inquiry."

"This commitment to an inclusive and just society is essential to our abiding commitment to free and open inquiry as the cornerstone of our academic mission," a University of Chicago spokesman told the Washington Free Beacon on Friday. "The University does not speak for individual faculty members, and it does not take a position in the debates and discussions in which faculty members are involved. At the same time, faculty members do not speak for the University. The University seeks to foster an environment of dialogue that is both challenging and respectful."

 Economics department chair Robert Shimer echoed that sentiment in a blog post addressed to University of Chicago economics professors. It warned that certain speech—referencing Uhlig's comments—could hinder the reputation of the university. While noting that the department would not police the speech of academics, he cautioned his colleagues that "the right to free speech comes responsibilities."

"I urge each of us to remember that with the right to free speech comes responsibilities. What we write affects public policy. What we write and how we write it affects how scholars and the broader public view us," Shimer wrote. "It also affects how people view our colleagues, the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics, and the broader community of economists at the University of Chicago and elsewhere, as well as our ability to attract the best scholars to our department."

*This story has been updated to include comment from the university