An open letter to the University of Chicago’s English Department

September 21, 2020 • 9:00 am

There’s been considerable negative publicity about the University of Chicago English Department’s “woke” statement adhering to Critical Race Theory, and their concomitant decision to admit graduate students next year in only one area: Black Studies. In response, the English Department has engaged in somewhat mendacious behavior. Yesterday I found that once again they’d altered their Faculty Statement of July 2020—the second change—without indicating that they’d done so. Rather than just put up a conventional post, I decided to write an open letter to the Department. I won’t send it to them, as they’d pay no attention, but I’m sure they’ll find out about it. Here goes:

Dear University of Chicago Department of English,

In the past several weeks you’ve taken it upon yourselves to make a department-wide political statement committing the English Department to a specific form of anti-racist belief and action, as well as asserting that not just your faculty, but the entire University of Chicago faculty (and perhaps that of other schools) must undertake the same actions pledged by your group. As your Faculty Statement of July 2020 asserts:

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.

You also pledged to accept graduate students for the next year only in one area—Black Studies. Until two days ago, the July 2020 statement said this:

Note: For the 2020-2021 graduate admissions cycle, the University of Chicago English Department is accepting only applicants interested in working in and with Black Studies. We understand Black Studies to be a capacious intellectual project that spans a variety of methodological approaches, fields, geographical areas, languages, and time periods.

This differs from the initial version of your statement (same date), which said this: “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.”

What was once a priority has now become a requirement.  I have no beef with your decision to funnel all students into one area of study, for this is a curricular decision that is the purview of all departments. However, as Benjamin Schwarz pointed out in Spiked, your decision about graduate study smacks of prioritizing your curriculum based on your ideological views. This is not the way a curriculum should be designed.

More important, as both Schwarz and Alan Dershowitz noted (the latter in Newsweek), your department’s statement violates our University’s Kalven Report (one of our Foundational Principles), which mandates that the University must make no official political, ideological, or moral statements—the one exception being about issues that bear directly on the mission of the University to foster free and untrammeled speech and to operate smoothly.

Those principles make clear that the appropriate unit of opinion and dissent is the individual student or faculty member—not departments, schools, or administrators acting in their official capacity. As our former Provost and Law School Dean Geoff Stone explained during the controversy about investing in Darfur, even the Law School should not make political statements, for the law school, like the English Department, is an official moiety of the University where speech can be chilled by official statements. And the University has made no such statements—not during calls to defend accused Communists in the McCarthy era, not during demands to decry the Vietnam War, and, tellingly, not during the Civil Rights crisis of the 1960s. Individuals, of course, made statements, but the the University remained silent. Why, then, do you think the present situation is different—different enough for you to violate the Foundational Principles of our University?

I happen to agree that there is persistent racism in America that needs to be eliminated, and that people should work towards equality and equity for all. But that is my personal opinion as a faculty member, and I would never dream of asking my department to post an unsigned statement of solidarity to that effect. Such statements, like yours, impose an ideological uniformity upon a department that stifles dissent and discussion—the very result that the Kalven Report was designed to prevent.

While it’s a judgment call, I won’t criticize your department’s decision to restructure the curriculum so that all incoming graduate students can work in only one area. Others disagree and see this as a curricular decision growing out of a departmental ideology. It is still curious, though, that your statement about the new graduate policy was just moved to a separate page, presumably to make it look like your July 2020 statement of solidarity had no connection with the curricular decision. This is the second change you’ve made in that statement. But this one hardly fools anyone familiar with the history of your statement. In fact, that statement has now been changed twice since the original formulation, yet still bears the same title and date. I’m surprised that, of all departments, the English Department makes post facto emendations of official statements without noting that it’s done so. I thought that writers were supposed to note when statements had been changed, especially when the statement’s date remains unchanged.

But what I do criticize is your use of the English Department’s webpage to blatantly violate the Kalven Principles, ascribing collective responsibility to your department and to the entire University, and calling for collective action. This is an official statement, and will serve to quash any speech that dissents from your message.

I respectfully request that you either remove that statement from your webpage or append a list of signatories, making it clear that this represents the personal sentiments of a group of named people. If some people refused to adhere to that statement, that should also be noted.

Jerry Coyne


38 thoughts on “An open letter to the University of Chicago’s English Department

  1. That is a fine letter and directly to the heart of the issue. You just might be causing a few others to have a bit of insomnia.

  2. Very nicely put – it would be interesting to see how the English department responded if it was officially sent.

    Btw, there’s a typo towards the end of the third-from-bottom paragraph: “I’m surprised that, of all departments, the English dDepartments makes post facto emendations of official statements without noting that it’s done so.”

  3. That’s a very clear piece of writing.

    I’m still thinking over the John McWhorter discussion… how there is a threat of being called a racist…. perhaps a veil of fear… this piece of writing works to lift that veil somewhat….

  4. Thank you Professor Coyne for doing this! I was going to recommend as much given that this is your university, your incisive and thoughtful critiques, presumably more freedom to share such critiques publicly as professor emeritus, and the extraordinary and desperately needed leadership that the Univ. of Chicago has modeled to all US academia on the principles of free speech and free inquiry.

    Mendacity indeed. It’s reminiscent of the recent blatant mendacity and revisionist history exhibited by the NYT on their 1619 Project, covered here:

    1. In the article you cite, author Phillip Magness is critiquing the New York Times for editorial changes it made to the text of certain 1619 Project articles without giving notice. It doesn’t deal with the substance of the project, although I believe Magness is highly critical. However, as I have stated many times before and in some detail, the thesis of the Project 1619 Project is important, correct, and needed to be said: American history cannot be understood without fully grasping the role of slavery and race in its unfolding. Many of the right-wing critics of the project have attacked it out of purely cynical political calculation: perpetuate the fairy tale version of American history, thus allowing its critics to be labelled un-American. Of course, the critics are largely liberals. Unfortunately, many liberals have been duped once again by swallowing right-wing propaganda.

      Space limitations prohibit me from going into a full exposition of my contentions. I will just say something I have said before. It astonishes me that some people at this site have no trouble rejecting the fairy tale stories of the Bible, but, with little knowledge, find it extremely difficult to question the founding myths of American history.

      1. What astonishes me are people who claim knowledge of the history described in 1619 but dismiss its distortions and omissions (in some cases deliberate) on the basis of the claim that most Americans are so uneducated and deluded about our own history that even an ideologically distorted one is better than nothing.

        1. I hate to clue you in, but Americans are woefully uneducated about their history, making them susceptible to right-wing propaganda.

          Here is but one article that discusses this sorry situation.

          You may also wish to ponder whether the right-wing version of American history is ideologically distorted. In my estimation, it is much more so than that of the 1619 Project.

          I have one other astonishment. Why is it that people who would not consider opining on the validity of quantum physics, for example, have no trouble doing so on American history, never having studied that subject or, at best, have vague memories of what was taught to them decades ago in high school by teachers expected to teach “patriotic” history? Perhaps these people would like to contribute to Trump’s new 1776 commission, charged with making the study of American history more patriotic.

          1. The real sadness is that the views of extremists are impacting society’s mainstream. Now it is a battle between ideologues on both sides with truth as a distant third.

            “Why is it that people who would not consider opining on the validity of quantum physics, for example, have no trouble doing so on American history…”

            Because it affects the course of society much more. Quantum physics doesn’t even affect free will! 😉

          2. All of this is true and none of it refutes my point – you are willing to accept an ideologically distorted view of history simply because Americans are stupid people. It’s like suggesting that because Americans don’t understand quantum physics any better than they do history, that they should be taught the works of Depak Chopra to help them understand.

            1. How do you know its ideologically distorted? Who told you this? Have you considered that there may be reputable sources, i.e., historians of integrity, that have different viewpoints? The parroting of countless right-wing websites don’t count. Are you vexed by the fact that for well over a half century and more American students were taught about the happy slave and the beneficence of slavery?

              I have read widely in this topic and my conclusion is that the vast majority of American historians accept the basic thesis of the 1619 Project, although many will quibble with some of the assertions, such as the role of defending slavery as a cause of the American Revolution. But, as I pointed out in previous comments, this is the nature of the historical profession. Without writing a long essay, I will note that this question is a subject of serious debate among historian. There is no consensus.

              I will no longer beat around the bush. Here is my view as to why so many people at this site condemn the 1619 Project without any knowledge of the topic it deals with. It is because the primary author is associated with the most horrifying expression ever to confront humankind: critical race theory. While they are quite ready to consider right-wing arguments on its merits, these people are ready to reject the project with, as I have said, total ignorance of the era. Out of repulsion at considering the views of a person who may or may not accept some of the tenets of critical race theory, they are willing to accept fairy tale propaganda spread by the right wing. I find it disheartening that debate about a most important topic in American history is stifled out of a fear that critical race theorists may gain some credence if it is acknowledged that American history has been characterized by many unsavory incidents.

              1. As one of those people here that is not a historian, let me explain the sources of my doubt about the 1619 Project. First, the fact that the whole thing was begun by a journalist with a political axe to grind and not a historian make me doubt it. Second, although historians are now weighing in on this issue, have many (any?) historians taken this position throughout US history? I’ve never hear of it until Project 1619 was introduced. Third, CRT has made tremendous inroads into the “social studies” departments in academia so I would expect that many history professors are biased toward the Woke side at this point. Sorry, but we’ve seen enough Wokeness reported on this website to know that this is likely the case.

              2. Honestly, Historian, why do you erect this cardboard caricature of critics of 1619 Project? What makes you think that people who are repelled by the CRT aspect of the project somehow are accepting of fictionalization right wing historical fiction? Why do you argue that being critical of the project is equivalent to a failure to recognize the deep roots of racism and the consequences of hundreds of years of slavery? Stop demanding that the rest of us ignore what we find offensive in CRT under threat of being called historically uninformed right wing stooges, or worse.

              3. And another thing. The British were trying to retain their American colonies in the Revolutionary War. I can’t imagine they were fighting it because of slavery. If one side was, wouldn’t it have been more of an issue raised in the back and forth between the two countries at this time? Even if we buy that there was this silent effort on the American side to defend slavery, why would the British also be silent on it?

              4. To GBJames:

                You can think whatever you want of critical race theory. Nevertheless, why is it that people when told that the 1619 Project is somehow identified with critical race theory that it must be rejected out of hand? Are you so naïve as to think actually that the right-wing attack on the project is out of some deep seated desire for “truth” in American history? I will repeat what I have said before: although reputable historians will debate topics from this period (for example, there is a hot debate that has been going for decades as to whether or not the constitution was a pro-slavery document), there is no disagreement that American history cannot be understood without understanding the roles of slavery and race.

                To Paul Topping:

                The major role of slavery and race in American history has been well known and written about by historians for well over half a century, long before the rise of the Woke. Beginning in the late 1950s a new generation of historians came on to the scene that wrote in reaction to the Lost Cause mythology that had predominated in American society and historical writing for more than the prior half century. The pity is that very few people are required to take U.S. history courses on the college level. It appears that what is taught in many high schools is still a throwback to historical understanding that has been discarded for a long time. This is why right-wing propaganda is so easily embraced by many Americans.

                As I have indicated, historians debate the role of slavery in the American Revolution, as they debate a myriad of topics. Here is one historian’s take on the issue:


                These debates arise because of the lack of evidence, the ambiguity of evidence, and how it should be interpreted. And yes, personal bias is unavoidable. This is why I have said there is no “true” history, but there is false history, the latter being assertions made without any convincing evidence or clear distortion of it.

              5. “The major role of slavery and race in American history has been well known and written about by historians for well over half a century…”

                Of course, but that’s not what I disputed. Were there any historians of repute, before the current discussion sparked by the 1619 Project, that claimed that protecting racism was what the Revolution was really all about? I’m sure there will be plenty that will claim it now, for the reason I state.

              6. Historian… You seem intent on being driven by a false dichotomy. It is completely reasonable to reject right-wing patriotic whitewashed history while simultaneously rejecting CRT-driven equally false representations. One must not pick between them.

                To make statements like “there is no disagreement that American history cannot be understood without understanding the roles of slavery and race” is to crash through an open door. Or, as a younger me might say, No shit, Sherlock!.

                Which of us do you imagine are ignorant or dismissive of this insight?

              7. Well, GB, I’m very glad you understand the role of slavery and race. You are a member of a proud minority. That’s no shit, either.

              8. Historian,
                It seems that “opining” about the 1619 Project’s specious central thesis given your “no true history” position makes it far more appropriate than opining about quantum physics which, well, let the tryer beware.

          3. I suspect one problem here is also seen in what the English department in Chicago have done. Bending over backwards to fix past racial problems can also be damaging. As we see in Chicago it has caused the English department to throw away long time missions of the school as an institution of open and free learning. People are talking past each other and failing to find a discussion that makes sense. Extreme ideas from the right and the left that no one in the middle can hear.

            As someone who knows a bit about American History I certainly know of the racial issue and how it has impacted this country from beginning to the current times. The ideas that Trump put out the other day about his new teaching methods are a joke. But also out of my understanding is the claim that Racism was the reason for the revolution. That does not hold much water in my understand of history.

            1. By 1PM here we are way past any replies being left so I will use my own.

              If the revolution had spent it’s first year in South Carolina or even Virginia this racial cause idea might be something to consider but it did not. Instead it was much farther to the North in that hot bed of slavery called Boston. And this must be the reason the British attacked here first. Just the place to attack those slave holders don’t you think?

          4. As part of its foundation myth the US likes to paint the British as the bad guys (and g*d knows, our actions around the world don’t help). But as I understand it, and I’m the first to admit that I’m not a historian, a significant part of the grievance that the colonies had against the British was a refusal on the part of the latter to break treaties about westward expansion that had been agreed with the native Americans?

            1. I believe that was part of it. But there were many things, such as Britain was attempting to make back the loses caused by the French and Indian war. They believed the colonies should be helping with this as they benefitted. The colonies did not see it that way and thought taxes were unjust. There is also another thing that is not often included and that is something called shared sovereighty. If the British had gone for that they may have prevented the revolution. They just didn’t want to give any of it.

      2. You know me so well. [Yawn]
        Thanks for the lecture though I didn’t learn much. No one said that the 1619 Project didn’t have elements of honest and serious scholarship and by historians. Its alliance with CRT however makes it instantly suspect given that CRT is atrocious sociology and psychology, unable to withstand highly credible critiques so its proponents resort to ad hominem attacks and personal narratives rather than rebuttal and fact finding. Its goal is not human understanding but political and cultural power. But sure, honest scholars react to scathing and legitimate criticism all the time by altering the original account in the “paper of record” NYT and feigning ignorance when the lights flick on…right?

  5. An excellent letter. Forceful yet polite. It won’t change any minds over in English, but will perhaps it will help the resistance in other departments which are being pressured by the Woke to do the same sort of thing.

  6. A good letter indeed! This idea of silently changing a statement after its publication seems to be popular these days. The New York Times is being accused of this also. Search for #1619Gate on Twitter. I guess it is a sign of the Woke’s self-righteousness, their intellectual depravity, or both.

    1. “This idea of silently changing a statement after its publication seems to be popular these days. The New York Times is being accused of this also.”

      IIRC, the Times won a Pulitzer prize for this 1619 thing. Enough to cause a retraction of the prize? After all, “Silence Is (some kind of) Violence.”

  7. Bravo, PCC(e), a fine letter.
    The odd thing about our current wave of attempted “anti-racist” indoctrination is that the zealots in charge pay no attention whatsoever to its actual effects. There is some literature showing that forcing people into required “trainings” and outward shows of conformism are (surprise! surprise!) in fact counter-productive.

    The zealots of wokery have apparently not heard news of the Polish 1989 legislative elections. After 40 years of relentless indoctrination, enforced conformism, and “trainings” all the time, the ruling Communist Party unwisely allowed free, multi-candidate elections to occur. Every single Party candidate lost.

  8. In the early ’70s, I was an under grad. at the LSE. One of my acquaintances was an American post grad in sociology who once asserted that American Uni’s were “indoctrinating Imperialism Colonialism and Racism” -can’t remember exact syntax-. I thought that was “beyond the pale” but I didn’t take him up on that. After all he was an American with a BA from an American Uni.
    After almost 50 yrs the Faculty of the Department of English say that I was wrong and I was refuting a “historical reality”!

  9. Great letter, Professor.

    Next, given the claim that ‘persistent, recalcitrant anti-Blackness in our discipline and in our institutions must be the collective responsibility of all faculty’, we might ask the English department specifically what had been done in their department along ‘anti-Blackness’ lines, who specifically had done it, and how their proposed action would be a likely remedy. As JG (comment #10) points out, indoctrination doesn’t always work.

  10. There is another addition to the admissions web page, which makes quite a difference:

    “Please note that this focus on Black Studies applies only to the 2020-21 PhD admissions cycle. The department plans to target different subject-areas each year to foster cohesive cohorts of students working towards compatible goals.”

  11. Changing statements like that – with the same date – is despicable.

    It reduces the cred of the department to that of a facebook page (effectively, toilet wall graffiti).

    Good you called them out on it.

    D.A., NYC

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