At long last, the University of Chicago contravenes its own principles of political and ideological neutrality

July 23, 2020 • 12:00 pm

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.

39 thoughts on “At long last, the University of Chicago contravenes its own principles of political and ideological neutrality

  1. The biggest advantage the US has against its competitors has always been its free speech policies. However, the Overton Window is closing so fast there that I see no reason for future immigrants to choose the US. Goodbye, without free speech, the Western world has nothing special to offer.

    1. So long as the United States of America retains the First Amendment to its constitution, with its express prohibition on abridgments of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the US will remain a bastion of free expression, the prevalence of “groupthink” among some segments of its society notwithstanding.

      And I expect the United States will retain the First Amendment in perpetuity.

      1. The First Amendment is just words written on paper. If the people don’t take any notice of those words, you haven’t got a bastion of free speech, you’ve got nothing.

        1. Those words originally scribbled on parchment have perdured for 230 years, through two bouts of sedition laws, a civil war, two world wars, and two Red Scares, among other vicissitudes.

          I’m confident they can well withstand this current spate of Wokeism.

          The protections the First Amendment affords against government intrusion upon free expression are stronger today than they’ve ever been, and are in no danger of disappearing anytime soon, due in no small measure to their having been committed in writing in the Bill of Rights bequeathed us by our constitution’s framers.

          Though ever vigilant, we must remain.

          1. I think Jeremy’s got a good theoretical point though. I’d say the fourth amendment is in pretty bad shape, and it’s easy to envision that in some dystopian future the words of the first amendment remain but it’s “protection” is as carved-out as the 4th’s.

          2. The government is putting anonymous militaristic thugs on the streets of the city of the USA and they appear to be able to arrest anybody for any reason with no checks in place.

            The First Amendment offers no protection against the excesses of the Woke Left because the Woke Left is not the government.

            It’s all very well saying the constitution can withstand the current spate of Wokeism, but that means bugger all to people who have had their lives destroyed just for asking questions about (for example) should trans women be allowed to participate in women’s sports.

            The US Constitution, by the way, is not fit for purpose. The fact that it matters which party controls the Supreme Court shows that it was poorly written. In fact, the fact that a political party can control the supreme court is, in itself, a disaster.

            1. The US Constitution, by the way, is not fit for purpose.

              Yes, it’s the worst possible system — except for all the others.

              As to whether “a political party can control the supreme court,” although it’s true that federal judges are appointed by the president (with the advice and consent of the US senate), that goes to the essence of our system of checks-and-balances between the three branches of government. Those same federal judges are appointed for life, thereby freeing them from any subsequent political control. (You’ll notice that Trump’s own two appointees both voted against him in the recent case compelling him to disclose his tax returns to the Manhattan DA’s office. And in today’s Hili dialogue, Jerry notes that this is the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in US v. Nixon — the case in which three of Richard Nixon’s own appointees told him he had to turn over his damn Watergate tapes, a decision that led directly to Nixon’s resignation of the presidency.)

              The US constitutional system is far from perfect as you’ve noted — and as Donald Trump amply demonstrates every day — but it is, in the long run, self-correcting. Therein lies its genius.

              1. “The US constitutional system is far from perfect as you’ve noted — and as Donald Trump amply demonstrates every day — but it is, in the long run, self-correcting. Therein lies its genius.”

                The constitutional system may in the long run self-correct, but in the interim the case can be made, which I do, that it has been an utter failure several times. To be brief (trust me, I can be much longer), the system failed to prevent a civil war. One can argue whether self-correction took place with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, but its deficiencies resulted in more than 700,000 casualties. An analogy can be made to science, which is also self-correcting. In the areas of health, science corrects previous errors, but until that takes place, it has often hurt multitudes of people when the “bad” science deemed certain drugs beneficial that turned out to be quite dangerous.

              2. I would argue that many Western European democracies have better systems. Even my country’s system does a better job of selecting judges for its courts, and I live in a monarchy.

                It’s also clear that your system of checks and balances isn’t really worth anything. The Republican senate was able to prevent Obama from getting his nomination on the supreme court. A Republican senate turned Trump’s impeachment trial into a farce and the same senate is failing to even vote on a lot of legislation passed to it from the House.

                Your “better than all the rest” system even failed to put the candidate with the most votes in 2016 in the Whitehouse.

              3. “better than all the rest” system. Wasn’t that based on a Churchill quote: ‘…No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’

                The US is just one example. One would hope that improvements can be made. The only changes Putin is likely to support would be to solidify his own grip on power.

    1. I recognize that snark doesn’t really help, but the bomb-thrower in me wants to write “Dear English Department, thank you for all the new recruits. Sincerely, Science.”

  2. The aggravating thing, in my mind, is that it would’ve been so easy to fix. Just start off with a bit recognizing the Kalvin policy, then replace “The English Department” with “We, the undersigned English professors…” Even in the case of new offered classes etc., they could’ve said something like “we have requested the Department allow us to offer classes on…and the Department has agreed” or something like that.

    They didn’t need to give their social opinion the imprimatur of the school; practically everything they wanted to accomplish, they could’ve accomplished as a ‘group of scholars’ resident at the school instead. But, I guess, telling the students that the school itself – not just the professors – was behind them was important to these folk.

    1. On the contrary, the statement of Correct Think had to have the imprimatur of the department and the school, as a source of
      its authority. As Bret Weinstein has pointed out repeatedly, the entire operation is about power. He saw it coming at Evergreen State College 3-4 years ago, and here it is, everywhere.

  3. Well I am very sorry about this, but also a bit not surprised. A minor quibble about the statement itself is that its opening lines brings up the BLM cause, and it names recent victims. That is a strategic mistake, imo, since 10, 15 years from now we don’t know if BLM will even exist as named cause. The names of the victims can also seem distant years from now, believe it or not.

  4. For another among umpteen examples of this trend, here is a recent bulletin sent out by the Univ. of Wash. School of Medicine.

    “To the UW Medicine Community:
    In the past three weeks, the UW Medicine Office of Healthcare Equity hosted three race-based virtual caucuses for employees. The caucuses served as a formalized, supportive space to talk, be heard and grieve about the recent killings of Black citizens by law enforcement and the long history of police brutality against Black people.
    The caucuses were well attended and many of you who participated expressed interest in continuing to meet to discuss ways to advance our organization’s equity, diversity and inclusion goals, dismantle oppressive systems and work toward becoming a truly anti-racist organization. We are pleased to announce that the race-based caucuses will continue through September, with the intention of convening formal, standing affinity groups going forward.”
    [My italics]

    The three exclusive affinity groups were a Black Caucus, a People of Color Caucus, and a White Caucus. These were zoom events. But had they been physical gatherings, I presume that buses carrying participants to them would have been divided into segregated sections for each affinity group, in the interest of the great goals of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

  5. Jerry, I’m sorry for your loss. My university administration has been captured by intersectionalists. So far the effects are subtle, and I hope won’t become extreme. Some of the intersectionalists’ ideas and initiatives have been good. But overall my colleagues and I are wary.

  6. Clearly, the alumnus letter should set an example by not asking for the resignation of the head of the English department, or anybody else, as an instructive lesson on how to get things done without resorting to Cancel Culture tactics. Let’s hope the university engages accordingly, or the Gen Z-ers will draw the opposite conclusion and then we’ll really be in trouble.

  7. I took both a B.A. and M.A. in that department once upon a time. This statement is most disappointing. The great authors of our language would appear to have no value to these scholars independent of their usefulness in an activist political agenda and/or as cannon fodder in a fashionably unreadable critique. Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton were foolish ensough to think they were making art when all they were really doing was revealing themselves to be racists. This at a University that once harbored the likes of J.M. Manley, Ronald Crane, Norman Maclean, Wayne Booth, and David Bevington. They too were deluded – by the idea that form, beauty, and meaning could be found and described in old books and that the study of great authors should be an attempt to actually “understand them as they understood themselves.” What a falling off there is here. So sad.

  8. … the University of Chicago remained completely silent. Likewise with the McCarthy “Red-baiting” era.

    As an historical aside, it seems to me that at least some aspects of this era — some of which predated the rise of Joseph McCarthy himself — should have fit within the “exception to the Kalven Principles” applicable to “cases in ‘which the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry.’”

    I’m thinking here particularly of the “loyalty oaths” that were required of professors at some universities and the creation of dossiers by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI on academics thought to harbor “communist sympathies” (which essentially meant anyone to the Left of Eleanor Roosevelt). I’m also thinking of the concomitant and intertwined so-called “Lavender Scare” in which homosexuals were purged from positions, including positions in academia that touched in any way upon national security.

  9. Much as we would like all such decisions to be made on principle only, I suspect practical concerns in both departments.

    The English department is probably recognizing that their graduate students will not get jobs at other universities if the department doesn’t join the herd and adopt the critical theory business.

    The Human Genetics department is making a tactical defensive move, as they will inevitably come under the gun regarding eugenics.

    1. The connections between eugenics and Human Genetics also proved dangerous to scientists in the latter discipline in the USSR. It was among the factors which led the authorities to discover that Solomon Levit, the director of the Maxim Gorky Research Institute of Medical Genetics, was a counter-revolutionary
      wrecker and an American spy, for which he was executed in 1938.

  10. I don’t envy anyone who speaks out against this, because I can already predict the responses. They will be branded an apologist or enabler of white supremacy (because you’re either with us or against us), accused of making students feel unsafe, and will be the victim of a campaign of character assassination on twitter, followed by a campaign to fire them.

  11. We were having a discussion earlier about capitalization. In that light:
    I think we all agree that Black lives matter. That is not the same as promoting Black Lives Matter.
    The latter indicates support for Black Lives Matter Foundation, Inc.
    That implies agreement with their stated principals and demands, including things like the disruption of the nuclear family and the radical redistribution of wealth.

    I do think it is clever to give an organization a name that is also a statement few would disagree with.
    We could start an atheist organization called “Jesus is my savior”.

    As it is, we are in a position where if we reject any of the tenets of Marxism, it means we hate Black people.

  12. “…lately we’ve received notes from the President and Provost that seem to skirt the Kalven Principles in similar ways..”

    Maybe it’s confidential, but, if not, is it possible to know more about these? Robert Zimmer was singled out for praise here on this general matter in the last year or so, and I think he is still President.

    I’m a retired academic mathematician, and that’s his field. He’s younger, and I have not met him, though had a short post-doc in that department ages ago. So perhaps that is partly why I take an interest in this direction.

    Coming from that higher level of UChicago could be more serious in the long term. Having an English Dept. that has been ‘captured’ by the Critical mob is far from unique among North American universities.

    Has Brian Leiter blogged on this?

  13. Oh my, that Dept of Genetics letter! What the hell? That’s like me, an organic chemist, accepting personal responsibility for all past misuse of chemicals even though I had nothing to do with it! ‘Sorry about the sarin nerve gas everyone, and the development of explosives like RDX that has maimed and killed so many humans, especially PoC around the world over the years. The field of organic chemistry has a sordid and blood-stained past when it was used as an instrument of racist oppression of minorities.’ This sounds like the self-loathing of original sin.

    To learn more about some actual genetic science behind Nature and nurture, check out Sam Harris’s July 17 podcast interview of behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin on The Nature of Human Nature.

  14. Totally on your side here, Professor. I went to the U. Melbourne (Australia), Georgetown (D.C.) and St. John’s Law School in NYC – decent places all, but the U of C. has been famous for a few years now for not putting up with the new nonsense and the Khmer Woke. It is disappointing to see this latest development and kudos to you for calling it out.
    This moral panic has burst its banks.
    D.A., J.D., NYC

  15. My oldest friend, much further to the political right than myself (and yet we have remained friends for 30+ years, something that seems to have been declared impossible recently), stated some time ago that “universities are f*cked”. As someone who graduated in 1990, I didn’t want this to be true, but it feels like my friend is being proved correct every day now.

  16. Wish we had copies of all the drafts of the Constitution before the “final” version so we could see the changes that were made. It’s amazing that those with such divergent opinions managed to agree on anything. Still, what we have inherited is better than what a great many countries have. And, the U.S. citizens have a responsibility to maintain and/or improve it. Learn. Read. Write. Protest. Vote.

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