Alan Dershowitz, in Newsweek, decries the University of Chicago’s adherence to Groupthink

Say what you will about Alan Dershowitz, but in his new piece in Newsweek (below) he’s right—and by that I mean he agrees with me. Dershowitz’s article is about the University of Chicago, and in particular the English Department’s new Statement of RightThink, along with its announcement  that grad students in the next year’s class will be taken only in Black studies (see my posts here and here). Ben Schwarz wrote a related piece that appeared yesterday in Spiked.

Now that this travesty has made more “mainstream” media, it’s going to pose a difficulty for our administration, which prides itself on Chicago’s unique freedom of speech and thought, and in fact touts these features to sell the school to prospective students and their parents. If every department in Chicago goes woke, not only endorsing the Black Lives Matter platform but admonishing everyone to join in, it’s going to dissolve our reputation for free and untrammeled discussion.

As I said yesterday, I don’t mind so much that the English Department is funneling new students into Black Studies, for that’s a curricular matter—presumably temporary—that has no effect on freedom of thought (Schwarz disagrees, and I think he made a good point). But I do think that the English Department, along with about five or six other units in the University, has trodden hard on our principle of taking no official stands on matters of ideology, politics, and morality. In fact, Law Professor Geoff Stone, former Dean of the Law School and Provost of the University, agrees that units of the university must also also abide by this neutrality, as he wrote in 2007 on the Law School Blog. When Stone was a student here, he demanded, along with many others, that the University make a statement against the Vietnam War (it didn’t).

In 2007, Stone, a professor, was buffeted by Law School students demanding that the University divest itself of all investments in Darfur. Stone said his mind had changed from when he was a student, and now he espoused neutrality according to the Kalven Principles, implying that the Law School (a unit of the University equivalent to a department) must also adhere to those principles:

Now, almost forty years later, I understand. In 1973, I joined the faculty of the Law School as an Assistant Professor. In 1987 I became Dean of the Law School, and from 1994 to 2002 I served as Provost of the University. I suppose I have become an organization man. My current views may perhaps be dismissed as those of one who has sold out to the “establishment.” I prefer to think of my change of mind as the product of understanding, experience, and even wisdom. I now know what my professors knew then.

The Kalven Report has it precisely right. Universities – most especially this university – exist for a very special reason. They exist to create a forum in which students, professors, and researchers may explore every issue from every side without fear of official condemnation or judgment. They exist to enable talented and committed individuals to seek the truth. They exist to serve as a safe haven in which even the most controversial and despised views may be aired, confronted, and considered. They do not exist so students, faculty, researchers, and administrators can vote to determine the truth. They do not exist to proclaim the truth. For a university, it takes much more courage to stand silent, then to yield to the pressure and temptation to take sides. But once a university takes sides, it is no longer a university.

. . .What the Kalven Report forbids, however, are decisions of the University designed expressly or symbolically to proclaim “right” moral, political, or social positions. That is the issue presented by those who insist that the University should divest from Darfur. The University’s investments in corporations that may do business in Darfur cannot in any meaningful sense be said directly and materially to have caused the tragedy in Darfur. Those who demand divestment want the University to make a statement about what is morally, politically, and socially “right.” And that is precisely what the University should not do.

Lawyers know all about slippery slopes. If the University divests from Darfur, then others will surely insist that the University must then divest from corporations that manufacture cigarettes, perform abortions, sell arms to Israel, and pollute the environment. Of course, there are degrees of right and wrong and degrees of evil. But it is not the role of the University to take positions on such questions. Indeed, the University should no more divest on the basis of these sorts of issues than it should prohibit students and faculty from speaking freely on campus in support of tobacco subsidies, the moral legitimacy of murdering abortionists, the right of Palestinians to destroy Israel, or even the morality of genocide. The role of the University is not to “decide” such questions, but to create and nurture an environment in which we may freely and openly debate them, without fearing that the University has already resolved them on our behalf.

Or, as the Kalven report states, “[The University] is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.”

But I digress. I wanted to make the point that our University is bound to take no official position on such issues, even in departmental and divisional statements, though of course individuals are permitted and encouraged to express their views qua individuals. And this principle was recognized by our former Provost.

On to Dershowitz (click on screenshot):

Like me, Dershowitz is less concerned with the temporary (I think) funneling of all English grad students into Black studies, and more with the strong admonition to adhere to a Critical-Race-theory style platform.

The University of Chicago’s English department, which has been ranked nationally as top in its field, has declared a set of beliefs to which its faculty is “committing.” Its announcement began with the following mea culpa: “English as a discipline” has encouraged “colonization, exploitation, extraction and anti-Blackness.” It then expressed the faculty’s collective belief: “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.” Finally, it announced that “for the 2020-2021 graduate admissions cycle” it will accept “only applicants interested in working in and with Black Studies.” It is this last restriction that has generated the most interest—and criticism. But it is the formal declaration of a collective creed by a university department that is most troubling.

Any individual faculty member is entitled to commit him or herself to what the English Department calls “the struggle of Black and Indigenous people and all racialized and dispossessed people, against inequality and brutality,” but no department has the right to compel its faculty, staff or students to subscribe to any set of beliefs or commit to any “struggle.” Universities, and departments within universities, must be open to all points of view, beliefs and struggles. In totalitarian countries around the world, universities are required to be aligned with governmentally approved values. And when I was in college, some universities required teachers to take loyalty oaths against Communism.

But in the United States today, professors and students must remain free to come to their own conclusions, to arrive at their own beliefs and to decide for themselves which struggles are most important. That is what real diversity requires—diversity of thought, belief and commitment, not imposed uniformity.

Not in the English Department (or in Human Genetics, in the School of Social Service Administration, in the History and Physics Departments, and in the Smart Museum, all of which have published their own official versions of the English Department statement (see the English Faculty Statement here; it’s given as an official faculty statement, not the views of several individuals).

Why is it wrong to strong-arm faculty and students into swearing fealty to a specified ideology? It’s a no-brainer, really. As Dershowitz says:

Allowing a university department to impose its collective beliefs on all professors and students is a core violation of academic freedom. It threatens freedom of speech and conscience. It coerces compliance by dissidents who fear cancelation and discrimination. It risks turning great universities into propaganda mills for political correctness. Most frighteningly, it threatens to produce a generation of leaders who have not been taught how to think for themselves, but instead have been indoctrinated into a groupthink reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984—a book which I doubt will ever be assigned by the University of Chicago’s brave new English curriculum.

Nor does the Chicago English department want to limit its imposed beliefs only to its own faculty and students. It insists that “all faculty, here and elsewhere” commit to its “struggle” and follow its lead. I hope they don’t. It’s the road to conformity and tyranny of the mind, even if well intentioned. As Justice Louis Brandeis cautioned a century ago: “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men [and women] of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.”


  1. Randall Schenck
    Posted September 19, 2020 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Amazing the English department would go so far off the standard. The institution should quickly get them back on the ground.

  2. rickflick
    Posted September 19, 2020 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    The wording here:
    …the faculty’s collective belief: “In light of this historical reality, we believe that…”, reminds me of the wording of church denominations. They want to distinguish themselves from other churches, so they come up with a creed that members must accept. If you don’t accept it, all of it, then you cannot be a member. That does not sound like a free university to me.

  3. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 19, 2020 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    When he’s right, he’s right, as he is right here, and he’s always been solid on civil liberties. But The Dersh long ago shot his wad in terms of personal credibility.

    He’s a fame whore, who was once one of the most brilliant and outstanding lawyers this nation has produced. But, like Col. Kurtz, he headed too far up the river, past the Do Lung bridge, and his ideas, his methods became … unsound.

    • Posted September 19, 2020 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      You’re not saying that we should ignore this because he lost his credibility, are you?

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted September 19, 2020 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        I should hope my first sentence suggests the opposite.

  4. Jon Gallant
    Posted September 19, 2020 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    The English Department’s decision was a sort of affirmative action in curriculum, and its general statement is something like a loyalty oath—which already exists, in the form of required Diversity Statements, at a number of institutions of higher education. Similar steps toward the creation of a 100% anti-racist curriculum can easily be imagined in departments of History, Philosophy, Political Science—-and even in Biology and the medical sciences.

    These subjects have long been afflicted by the idea that the incidence of sickle cell anemia in populations of African descent is due to something called the HBB gene, rather than due to the systemic racism against which all of higher education must now unceasingly struggle. This struggle will surely include general rejection of genetic determinism—and therefore conceptions like the HBB gene and allele frequencies must be eliminated from Biology, along with what underlies them, namely the discipline of Genetics.

    This exemplary process was tried out in the late-lamented USSR a number of years ago. The authorities there ruled that Medical Genetics, in particular, was the most ideologically suspect part of Genetics. In accordance with this view, the Gorky Research Institute of Medical Genetics was shut down, and its director, Solomon Levit, was executed, along with several other academic offenders. For a generation thereafter, Biology in the USSR illustrated the benefits of these policies of ideological alertness and struggle.

  5. Mike
    Posted September 19, 2020 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    In the “Related” items below this post, WordPress links to this


    from 2016. I wonder what has changed in the last four years to make some parts of the University of Chicago more like so many other universities (like mine) where departments are issuing political statements of belief, and department members are expected to adhere to those beliefs (or at least not disagree with them in front of the children) as a condition of employment & study.

    • Posted September 19, 2020 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      “I wonder what has changed …”

      To go with the affliction of Trump Derangement Syndrome, much of America is currently afflicted by Death-of-George-Floyd Derangement Syndrome.

    • Mike
      Posted September 19, 2020 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      Sure I understand the afflictions, and other universities have had woke administrative structures for a long time. It’s the emphasis on institutional (not just personal) response to these things at University of Chicago that seems new and surprising. Are there new administrators?

  6. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted September 21, 2020 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    It looks odd if US doesn’t have the concept of ethical investments!? It appears to be all the rage globally [ ].

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