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.