One by one, elite American colleges and universities (as well as the less prestigious ones) are giving in to Wokeness, rushing to embrace Critical Race Theory, trying to suppress “hate speech,” and indoctrinating students with a preferred ideology when they arrive on campus. The University of Chicago hasn’t been immune to this, but I’ve taken great pride in the fact that, compared to others, we have remained the Great Holdout among elite colleges.
A large reason for this is because we have several Foundational Principles and Policies that undergird how the University is run. One comprises the Free Speech Principles as outlined by the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression. These so-called “Chicago Principles,” mandating near-absolute free speech (and in a private university!), have been adopted by over fifty of our peer institutions. At Chicago you can say anything you want that’s in line with the courts’ interpretation of the First Amendment, and nobody is going to punish you. You may of course experience “counterspeech,” but the University itself will neither praise nor censure you; it will just say, “Professor X has the right to say whatever she wants.”
The other Foundational principle is the “Kalven Report,” known as the Kalvin Committee’s Report on The University Role in Political and Social Action. I’ve described this report before, but you should read the short document for yourself. It ensures that the University as a whole takes no stands as an institution on political, moral, or ideological issues, but remains neutral. Faculty and other individuals are of course free to write and speak about their own views, but the University does not express official views on politics, ideology, or social issues. Why is this principle so important here? The report explains (my emphasis):
The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.
Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.
The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints. And this neutrality as an institution has its complement in the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest. It finds its complement, too, in the obligation of the university to provide a forum for the most searching and candid discussion of public issues.
The main exception to the Kalven Principles, outlined in the report, occurs when there are cases in “which the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry.” In such instances, the University is justifiably obliged to combat the threats to its underlying principles. Otherwise, we espouse neutrality. During the two great crises of my college years: the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Era of segregation, demonstration, and victory for equality, the University of Chicago remained completely silent. Likewise with the McCarthy “Red-baiting” era.
This estimable principle, which was erected to ensure intellectual independence and freedom of expression, is being dismantled quickly. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, departments are planning or issuing statements that take explicit ideological, moral, and political stands that have nothing to do with the mission of the university to seek truth wherever it lies. Here’s one from our Department of English Language and Literature, representing the views of the department as a whole, about racial inequality. I’ve put the full text below it (click on screenshot to see it in situ):
What it said (the bolding is mine):
The English department at the University of Chicago believes that Black Lives Matter, and that the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks matter, as do thousands of others named and unnamed who have been subject to police violence. As literary scholars, we attend to the histories, atmospheres, and scenes of anti-Black racism and racial violence in the United States and across the world. We are committed to the struggle of Black and Indigenous people, and all racialized and dispossessed people, against inequality and brutality. As part of our commitment to funding and fostering scholarship in Black studies, in the coming academic year (2020-2021) we are prioritizing consideration of applicants who work in and with Black studies for admission to our PhD program.
The department is invested in the study of African American, African, and African diaspora literature and media, as well as in the histories of political struggle, collective action, and protest that Black, Indigenous and other racialized peoples have pursued, both here in the United States and in solidarity with international movements. Together with students, we attend both to literature’s capacity to normalize violence and derive pleasure from its aesthetic expression, and ways to use the representation of that violence to reorganize how we address making and breaking life. Our commitment is not just to ideas in the abstract, but also to activating histories of engaged art, debate, struggle, collective action, and counterrevolution as contexts for the emergence of ideas and narratives.
English as a discipline has a long history of providing aesthetic rationalizations for colonization, exploitation, extraction, and anti-Blackness. Our discipline is responsible for developing hierarchies of cultural production that have contributed directly to social and systemic determinations of whose lives matter and why. And while inroads have been made in terms of acknowledging the centrality of both individual literary works and collective histories of racialized and colonized people, there is still much to do as a discipline and as a department to build a more inclusive and equitable field for describing, studying, and teaching the relationship between aesthetics, representation, inequality, and power.
In light of this historical reality, we believe that undoing persistent, recalcitrant anti-Blackness in our discipline and in our institutions must be the collective responsibility of all faculty, here and elsewhere. In support of this aim, we have been expanding our range of research and teaching through recent hiring, mentorship, and admissions initiatives that have enriched our department with a number of Black scholars and scholars of color who are innovating in the study of the global contours of anti-Blackness and in the equally global project of Black freedom. Our collective enrichment is also a collective debt; this department reaffirms the urgency of ensuring institutional and intellectual support for colleagues and students working in the Black studies tradition, alongside whom we continue to deepen our intellectual commitments to this tradition. As such, we believe all scholars have a responsibility to know the literatures of African American, African diasporic, and colonized peoples, regardless of area of specialization, as a core competence of the profession.
We acknowledge the university’s and our field’s complicated history with the South Side. While we draw intellectual inspiration from the work of writers deeply connected to Chicago’s south side, including Ida B. Wells, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, and Richard Wright, we are also attuned to the way that the university has been a vehicle of intellectual and economic opportunity for some in the community, and a site of exclusion and violence for others. Part of our commitment to the struggle for Black lives entails vigorous participation in university-wide conversations and activism about the university’s past and present role in the historically Black neighborhood that houses it.
Note that because it is the statement of the department as a whole, it is also a statement from the University. For at the University of Chicago, more than anywhere else, it is the faculty who are considered to run the school. Departments admit students, set curricula, and in those ways are the heart of the University. Departments have no more right to take ideological or political positions than does the University as a whole, represented administratively by the President and Provost. Nevertheless, we have here a specimen of performative wokeness that violates in may ways the Kalven Report.
Now in some respects the English Department statement also defends the mission of the University, and in that way is fine. It’s within a department’s purview to emphasize equality, assuring students that their freedom of expression, and their rights, will not be abridged on the grounds of ethnicity, race, or sex. Likewise, it’s within a department’s mission to set its curriculum, and if they want to increase the number of courses on ethnic studies because they think it’s educationally useful in today’s society, then that’s fine, too.
But this statement goes far beyond that. Have a look at the first paragraph. First, the Department explicitly aligns itself not with racial equality, but with the Black Lives Matter movement, which holds to a specific political and ideological view. Have a look at their “What We Believe” page, which says a lot about “state-sanctioned violence”, the death of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown (with the shooters exculpated by Obama’s Justice Department), “cisgender privilege”, and a pledge to dismantle the “Western-prescribed nuclear family structure.” Black Lives Matter is a political movement, one that adheres closely to the tenets of Critical Race Theory. Note too the Department’s statement, “We are committed to the struggle of Black and Indigenous people, and all racialized and dispossessed people, against inequality and brutality.” Yes, there’s nothing wrong with holding that view, but doing so as a department violates the Kalven Report in a big way. It is a statement not of academic commitment, but of political commitment. Even in the Sixties we saw no departments, much less the University, issuing such statements. The conflation of academic with political commitments, violating the Kalven dicta, persists throughout the statement. The bolded part at the end again expresses a political commitment.
I emphasize again that during the racial turmoil of the Sixties, inarguably more serious and far-reaching than the troubles going on now, the University remained silent. There were no statements like the above. Individual faculty and students, of course, had plenty to say!
The rest of the Department’s statement, while it could be interpreted as a valid commitment to change the curriculum and to ensure equality of students, is also couched in cringeworthy wokespeak, using much of the argot of postmodernism. The view that “all scholars have a responsibility to know the literatures of African American, African diasporic, and colonized peoples, regardless of area of specialization, as a core competence of the profession”, implies that this is a duty not just of English students and professors, but of all students and professors. That is a prescription for everyone, not just a requirement for those in that niche of English studies.
More important, the statement is one that enforces ideological rigidity and conformity upon the Department. If you were an untenured professor in this department, would you dare challenge the tenets of Black Lives Matter, or question affirmative action? No way! The statement above is ideologically rigid, implying that the Department will brook no dissent. So while you could argue that it’s just mandating and explaining a new curriculum, you’d be disingenuous to think that it isn’t also putting in place a system of political values that will brook no dissent. The University in the Sixties would never have written such an authoritarian screed.
Writing this post gives me no pleasure. I don’t like to criticize my school, of which I’ve been immensely proud for nearly 35 years. And, of course, I’m bucking authority here. But I can’t hold my tongue any longer. It’s not just the English Department, either: other departments are contemplating similar statements. And lately we’ve received notes from the President and Provost that seem to skirt the Kalven Principles in similar ways: by conflating our academic mission with a political and social mission, calling for us to commit to action not just on a university level, but on a national level. Again, while I approve of many of the sentiments, for I accept the need for university initiatives to promote racial equality, including affirmative action, those views should be limited to our mission as a university. While as an individual I’m happy to promote such initiatives on a broader scale, it is not the business of the University—or its departments—to do so, and for the cogent reasons outlined in the Kalven Report.
As that report says, the University “is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby. . . . . . Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.”
I fear that, caught up in the desire to conform to what liberals are supposed to do, my university is indeed beginning to “endanger the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.” We may not wind up in the sad position of The Evergreen State College, but we may well converge on Yale and Harvard, losing all that made the University of Chicago a unique American institution.
UPDATE: Lest you think that this kind of statement is limited to the Humanities, there is an even stronger statement, one that clearly contravenes the Kalven Report by expressing political views and calling for action beyond the University, on the website of the Department of Human Genetics.