We have a new department

February 23, 2022 • 1:15 pm

The University of Chicago offers a BA degree in Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, but it’s offered inter-departmentally, with faculty from the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture (CSRPC), which is not a department but a “research institute“. For several years, though, a group of faculty and students have been calling for their own department to support those studies. And now they’ve got one.  Until yesterday, I heard that the proposed new department, “The Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity,” was under discussion, and all I could find about it on the Internet was this (reproduced below):

CSRPC STATEMENT OF SUPPORT FOR THE DEPARTMENT OF RACE, DIASPORA, AND INDIGENEITY

On November 17, 2021, the Division of the Social Sciences is convening all social science faculty for an advisory discussion and vote regarding the proposal for a Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity. In solidarity with years of student advocacy and in acknowledgment of the work of our dedicated colleagues, the CSRPC is excited to witness this historic vote on the department of Race, Diaspora and Indigeneity in the Social Science Division and look forward to its presence at the University of Chicago. We believe that departmentalization is a crucial and momentous step in supporting scholarship and training on race, politics, and culture at the University. The innovative design of juxtaposing race, diaspora, and indigeneity–concepts and practices that have evolved in tandem with the modern world—has the potential to offer new paradigms for thinking across a constellation of conversant fields, including disciplines that have been established according to area, racial identity, or ethnicity.

The CSRPC envisions a strong relationship with the proposed department, as the Center continues to serve as a research and programmatic meeting ground for faculty, staff and students across the University and partners with community leaders and civic organizations in Chicago’s southside and beyond. We look forward to welcoming the Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity department as an exciting strategic and collaborative partner that will strengthen and enhance our work as related yet distinct entities.

The need for a separate department is justified as “supporting scholarship and training on race, politics, and culture”.  Now, as of yesterday, the department has become a reality after an overwhelmingly positive vote of the Faculty Council. This morning the new President of the University, Paul Alivisatos, as well as Provost Ka Yee C. Lee, issued this announcement:

I don’t know much about this department, and there’s surely no course list, but of course I have concerns. Since the department hasn’t yet taken shape, and I haven’t seen a rationale beyond what’s above, I’ll wait for a bit and see how things shake out. [UPDATE: Somehow I missed the rationale behind the proposal, which is here, and so I’ll report back after reading it carefuly.)

But I’ll confess that it’s worrying. One thing that concerns me is that the creation of this department seems motivated more by ideological currents than by scholarly need. What was the need? What is the intellectual rationale that wasn’t met by the present degree-granting program? Further, I am unsure what the announcement means by saying the department was “conceived in a different way from [sic] other departments that are organized around the experiences of particular groups, periods in time, or places.”  I presume that this means the department will not concentrate on individual identities, but will take an “intersectional” approach incorporating various groups.

And I’m concerned above all—yes, I’m a worrier—that this will begin an unstoppable erosion of the features made Chicago unique among American universities: a freedom from political and academic trends, at least in principle, and an emphasis on rigor and free expression. The school had no “dogma”, no “approved way of thinking,” a principle embodied in our Kalven Report.  We were a school that differed from, say Harvard, because we had very little social prestige, but on the other hand enjoyed a worldwide  reputation for research and academic rigor. I am worried that this department will, as similar departments in other places have, promote an accepted “way of thinking” that brooks no dissent.

We were the “nerd school”, the very last of the 300 schools ranked as “party schools”. Our students proudly wore t-shirts that said “The University of Chicago: where fun goes to die”. Another tee-shirt: “The University of Chicago: Hell does freeze over.” But many would also wear shirts with a big list of all the Nobel Laureates who worked here (see below).

I came here because of the academic rigor, giving up a comfortable and easier life, and a big house in the Maryland suburbs, so I could rub elbows with the members of the best ecology and evolution department in the country. It was hard, but immensely stimulating. Best colleagues around, and fiercely motivated students.

It’s that rigor, and complete intellectual independence, that lured lots of other faculty and students to the school. Many of our faculty could have gone to the “prestige schools” like the Ivies, but repeatedly turned down outside offers because of our unique intellectual climate.

Will we still have that climate, or are we being buffeted by the winds of fashion? If it’s the latter, I’d become deeply pessimistic, even though I’m retired. I still retain a substantial pride at even being associated with this place. It seems to be changing so fast!

As I said, I’ll see what the new department has on offer before I weigh in, and that might be a while! But I encourage readers to offer their own takes below.

38 thoughts on “We have a new department

  1. I will make a prediction that the diaspora in the Department’s title is a reference to Palestinian Muslim resettlement in the early 1900s…and that the department students and profs will be highly offended should anyone point out the original, historical origin of the term.

    1. Here, I think ‘diaspora’ is primarily a reference to the African Diaspora, especially given that the term is followed immediately by ‘Indigeneity’. These are the people who don’t see the redundancy of terms like ‘BIPOC´. ‘Race, diaspora, and indigeneity’ will mean ‘Race, but we’re only focusing on people of African and Native American descent’. I doubt they will examine indigenous populations in Europe, Asia, or even Africa.

      1. I’m sorry; I don’t want to harp on and I will shut up after this follow-up.

        This exemplifies a point I’ve made before: the New Left is learning the techniques that the New Right has been using for the past 20-30 years. In this case, it is dog-whistle vocabulary, the use of wording that has a very specific meaning to a target population, but is otherwise unremarkable to the uninitiated. In this case, ‘disapora and indigeneity’ could mean everyone whose family has left their homeland – and everyone whose family has stayed. Humans migrate, so we all have some level of diaspora and indigeneity. But that’s not how they are using it here. I don’t expect anyone to mention the Irish Diaspora or Irish Indigeneity here.

      2. Yes I will admit I forgot that obvious one. That is another, even more likely example of how the Diaspora department will ignore the actual, historical diaspora from which the term is derived. 🙂

    2. HAHAHA. Well it sure as hell won’t be the Jewish diaspora – them being Zionist Nazis and all….

      Many unis have this kind of stuff but I’m surprised (and a little disappointed) it is at U.C. Terrible.
      D.A.
      NYC

  2. Well, of course, it’s going to train a specific ideology (Wokeness or the Successor Ideology or whatever you want to call it), and I doubt there will be much in the way of scholarship that will be produced, unless you call polemic scholarship. There is no reason for Chicago to waste its resources on this, or to waste the educational potential of their students in this way.

    With regard to our unique culture, we used to say that Chicago was the place where you wore t-shirts for the schools you wish you’d gone to. Back in the ’80s Chamberlain House in Burton-Judson Courts, which was mostly undergrads then, produced a t-shirt with the title “University of Chicago / Big Ten Champions,” which listed all our Big Ten championships, right up to the last one in 1924.

    1. Yes, it will function as a kind of secular madrassa inculcating the gullible into the anti-rational dictates and dogmas of “wokeness”, as well as being a colossal waste of funds, yet public schools such as Michigan and Ohio State, to name but two, have massive bureaucracies of D.E.I. “administrators” costing the tax-payers of their states millions per annum.

  3. There is a lot to be said for independent-study interdisciplinary liberal arts programs; however, once a given center takes the helm of a program, interdisciplinary programs seem become a little more rigid and less creative. I hope students and researchers will still be able to enjoy freedom of inquiry, but I don’t anticipate that happening – at least, not for much longer. To make matters worse, I suspect that the Center may come to take on a pervasive steering power throughout the Undergraduate College and develop a wider reach. I expect the Center will then start offering MAs, PhDs, and … it won’t be long until we start seeing someone graduate with a D.D. : Doctorate of Diversity.

    At universities with distinct colleges of liberal arts, engineering, business, etc., the only hope would be to make the various colleges as independent as possible. It seems like here the only successful path at this point is to get on board and try to help steer things in (what you perceive to be) the right direction. That is exactly what we saw in one-party states over the past century, from Cuba to the USSR to China. Once there is no more freedom of opinion, the only way to change the party is from the inside.

    Sorry to be such a buzzkill. Best of luck.

  4. My wife is a 1977 University of Chicago graduate. She tells me that the University of Chicago was also the place “Where libidos goes to die.” I don’t know if there was a t-shirt with that phrase or not. If not, maybe there should be. 🙂

  5. I’m *in* theater and was sad to see when they started a theater department at the UChicago. It’s more of what makes universities worse – giving students what they want instead of what they need to learn.

    If I were optimistic I’d say this were a way to cordon off the spread of the virus to other departments. If I were MORE optimistic, I would say that the University would demand the same Maroon Rigor required of other humanities and social science departments, and that there is occasional utility in ethnic/gender critical lenses when studying history, literature, institutional behavior, and cultural movements.

    I’m not an optimist anymore. I believe this is the University of Chicago surrendering an important part of their brand to fad.

  6. “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.”

    Terence, the playwright who said that, was an African brought to Rome as a slave, where he was educated and manumitted; so, way I see it, he’s a fella knew a thing or two about race, diaspora, and culture.

    No field of human inquiry ought to be alien to the study of humanities at a world-class university.

    1. Oh, come now. Terence was from Carthage, and was therefore African the same way that St. Augustine was African. “No field of study”? Is “race” a field of study? How about “diaspora”? How would you define the academic discipline of “race”?

      1. Terence was African enough to be brought to Rome as a slave. There are any number of ways to study “race” — from biological to historical to sociological. (I assume that’s why it has thus far been studied inter-departmentally.) Are you saying they should all be off limits?

        1. No, Ken. Not at all. He was not brought to Rome “because he was African.” The Romans didn’t enslave people based on race–a concept that was foreign to them anyway. Too crudely put, the Romans enslaved people because they beat them in war, or because someone else beat them in war and they were bought by Romans. So most of Rome’s slaves were Greek–but Rome also had many slaves from Gaul, Germany, the Balkans, etc. This isn’t a matter of interpretation but of fact: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_ancient_Rome#Demography

          1. and PS, Of course, I’m not arguing that issues involving “race” should are not worthy of scholarly inquiry. They are–and are studied, as you point out, in the disciplines of history, sociology, political science, philosophy, literature, etc. So maybe are positions are pretty similar.

          2. Well, Terence was certainly enslaved because he was Carthaginian. After all, he spent his brief quarter century or so in years leading up to the Third Punic War, when the motto of the Roman Republic (as coined by Cato the Elder) was “Carthago delenda est.” Thus, he understood what it was like to be in Rome as the member of a despised minority.

            Anyway, dabbler that I am, I probably overemphasized his biography at the expense of his words. I simply wished to point out that nothing ought to be beyond the pale when it comes to academic inquiry. (Plus, I’ll admit, part of my motivation was to present a contrarian view, since I expected nearly everyone else here to be headed in the opposite direction.)

            Thus, you’re probably right, Benjamin; there may not be so great a distance between our underlying positions after all.

      2. Terence was from Carthage, and was therefore African the same way that St. Augustine was African

        A buddy of mine joined the African-American club when he was an undergrad. The other members were a bit put out given he was white, but he was also the only club member who had lived in Africa and the only club member who spoke an African language (Masri – Egyptian arabic).

        Clearly he was not what they meant. Everyone knew that. But also clearly, they didn’t want to explicitly say what they meant. And that, IMO, was worth the symbolic gesture to point out.

        1. Afrocentrism holds that all of Africa(and for some proponents; parts of Asia and Southern Europe)was wholly black and that North Africans are invaders from Asia. That is partly what is behind black antisemitism, “fake Jews”. In some schools now, it is being taught that the Olmec civilization was black African, much to the consternation of latino students.
          It saddens me that this is the level of scholarship likely to be rewarded with degrees from the University of Chicago.

          1. It’s not just Latino’s who are insulted by the claims about the Olmec, which rather ironically originated with a 19th Century gent who claimed that the Olmec stone heads ‘proved’ that Native Americans were ‘inferior’ to West Africans because they worshiped them as gods, there’ve been a few cases of Native American groups sueing universities for making exactly the claim that you’ve mentioned. Namely that Native Americans are descended from West Africans as ‘proven’ by Olmec Stone Heads.

  7. How old is the red T shirt at the end of the article? It says that Charles Huggins is currently associated with the University but he died in 1997, so I’m guessing that ended his affiliation!

    On checking the total is now 94 not the 53 listed there which ages the shirt (it seems compulsory for every member of the Econ dept to get a prize as a right of passage!)

  8. I can’t equal the rigor and eloquence of our JC, so first I’ll simply repeat his concerns:

    “One thing that concerns me is that the creation of this department seems motivated more by ideological currents than by scholarly need. What was the need? What is the intellectual rationale that wasn’t met by the present degree-granting program? ….Further, I am unsure what the announcement means by saying the department was “conceived in a different way from [sic] other departments that are organized around the experiences of particular groups, periods in time, or places.” What is that about?”

    JC may be rigorous and eloquent, but he’s just too nice. As many of those leaving comments have pointed out, *of course* this department was created in response to ideological fashion, not scholarly need. Chicago used to stand as the one university immune to academic fashion and to the dangerous mixture of scholarship and activism. Of course, we;ll have to wait for this new department to issue a statement defining its academic purpose, but of course it’s telling that said statement did not accompany the announcement of its creation. When, say, linguistics and computer science departments were created, the academic need they were fulfilling and the context of their scholarly inquiry, themselves, constituted the announcement. Here, they’ve created a department–a department not based on a scholarly discipline–and we’re supposed to (a) applaud, because we should just assume, because of the words “race” and “indigeneity” in its name, that it is A Good Thing because it will engage in a noble pursuit, or (b) wait for them to piece together the slogans and shibboleths that will tell us what the department will be doing. Chicago has been debasing itself deeply and quickly. What a sad decline.

  9. There have long been departments of theology at universities, so this comes as no surprise. But if free debate, logical coherence and empirical validation are the currency of legitimate thought, this begins to sound like cryptocurrency.

    I’m reminded of the long tradition of coherence as opposed to empiricism as a theory of truth. These folks are asserting their legitimacy without any requirement to “touch ground” with reality, so to speak. Their existence is proof enough of their legitimacy.

    1. It has always been outrageous to me that there ARE departments of theology at universities. Fairy tales should be in the literature departments, history at best. Or psychology. 😉
      I’m a lefty (of the PCC (E) type) – I can’t see how or why the left can ignore the similarity between Christian creation myths (which they rightly despise) and indigenous ones (which they applaud and adore).

      D.A.
      NYC

  10. Someone should translate their announcements into plain English. I’ve always found simplifying obfuscatory explanations is a great first step in demonstrating their emptiness. I’ve always loved Peter Medawar’s masterful dispatch of The Phenomenon of Man.

  11. Wait! I thought race was a “social construct”. A writer in Scientific American told us so just a few months ago. How can a university have a program built around that?

  12. “Where fun goes to die.”

    Perhaps it should be, “Where frivolity and fatuity go to die.”

    But then, perhaps they’re being recently ressurected.

  13. “The BA program in Critical Race and Ethnic Studies (CRES) offers an interdisciplinary curriculum that…trains students to think critically and comparatively about the varying ways in which race and ethnicity have been constructed in different parts of the world and in different historical periods. Focusing on conquest, subjugation, genocide, slavery, segregation, migration, and diasporas, among other related topics, CRES prompts students to examine the political, social, and cultural practices and institutions of minority or marginalized populations in colonial and postcolonial settings.”

    Source: https://csrpc.uchicago.edu/cres/

    Obviously, this BA program is based on and guided by woke epistemology/methodology:

    “Cultural/social constructivism: An approach to knowledge that assumes that what we think is true has actually been constructed by power dynamics in society and culture. This stands in opposition to the scientific view that there are objective truths that we can get closer to using evidence and reason. Example: the belief that men are only socialized to be violent and are no more naturally inclined toward violence than women, whether due to evolutionary or hormonal factors, is a cultural or social constructivist view. Taking this approach with the additional perspective and methods of Critical Theory is called critical constructivism, which is the academic term for what we have called “applied postmodernism” throughout this book.”

    (Pluckrose, Helen, James Lindsay, and Rebecca Christiansen. Social (In)Justice. Durham, NC: Pitchstone, 2022. p. 232)

  14. Clearly “buffeted by the winds of fashion.” As the parent of a UChicago undergrad, I’m appalled if not surprised.

  15. This is the first act of the new President of the University of Chicago, Paul Alivasatos, who is a highly accomplished physical chemist. But apparently being an excellent scientist does not prepare one to the leadership role.

    I think Alivasatos is on track to rival the accomplishments of the former MIT president, described here: https://babblingbeaver.com/2022/02/14/mit-president-cancels-himself/

    I am sure the new department will positively contribute to the excellence of the university, enhance its scholarship, and enrich students’ educational and cultural experience, along these lines:
    https://babblingbeaver.com/2022/02/18/mit-dives-into-erotic-vomiting-to-reorganize-hegemonic-gender-formations/

  16. B.A 1970 here. Back then we were proud of the fact that there was nothing practical or trendy in the curriculum. No engineering or dentistry. Computer science was disdained as too practical.

    They also abandoned the common core curriculum. I stopped giving money a long time ago.

    Your Nobel Prize T-shirt is way out of date. The most recent winner on it was Chandrasekhar. Winners since then include Obama, and even one from my class — Frank Wilczek (Physics 2004). I did not know him back then. He was brilliant and I was a stoner. The official list claims 94:
    https://www.uchicago.edu/who-we-are/global-impact/accolades/nobel-laureates

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