Our College Dean responds to threats and calls for cancellation of a class on the “Problem of Whiteness”

November 22, 2022 • 10:45 am

On November 9 I described a proposed University of Chicago course, “The Problem of Whiteness”, to be taught under the aegis of CRES (“Critical Race and Ethnic Studies”). The course was brought to national attention—publicized, as usual, by right-wing venues like this one—via the tweets of one of our undergraduates:

As I described, the course was postponed for one quarter after, according to WBEZ, the instructor received death threats and other disturbing email. According to WBEZ, the postponement gave time for the course to develop a “safety plan”, which it may well need!

Rebecca Journey, a teaching fellow who earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from UChicago, said her class analyzes whiteness as a social construct and dismissed “disingenuous” claims that it stokes “anti-white hatred.” She’s pushing the course to the spring quarter to give university officials time to develop a safety plan for her and her students.

Journey’s response in the article is good with one caveat: she called Schmidt a “cyberterrorist”, which is inflammatory and sets faculty against student. Not that I am a fan of Schmidt’s, though!  For as I described at the time, and still believe, while the course troubles me as a harbinger of “theory” affecting Universities throughout the U.S., as well as a potential chilling of speech here, in the end this is a matter of academic freedom.  Faculty members can teach what they want so long as it’s approved by the curriculum committee. I wrote this:

Although I don’t like the tenor of this course, which seems both anti-white and divisive, I cannot demand that it be canceled. What an instructor decides to teach is a matter of academic freedom, and if her department approves the course, it’s their call, not mine.  I of course worry that the University of Chicago will become as woke as some of its peers, which regularly teach courses like this, but while I can criticize the effect and content of such courses as socially inimical, I cannot and will not call or lobby for the course’s elimination or demand that the instructor be criticized—much less threatened—for teaching it.

Our University responded in a way that makes me proud—and in the usual manner—by defending the instructor’s desire to teach the course because to do otherwise would be to suppress our principles of free speech and academic freedom. And, as in its refusal to punish geophysical science professor Dorian Abbot for posting videos criticizing DEI efforts, the University doesn’t name the faculty member. (Abbot was the subject of a petition, signed by many faculty, students, and alumni, basically calling for his head on a plate.)

On November 15, John Boyer, Dean of the College, presented the statement below to the College Council, a group of elected faculty that meets regularly and deals with University affairs. The doings and sayings of the College Council are confidential, but I went to the administration asking permission to reproduce Dean Boyer’s statement, which they granted. I quote it below. The bolding is mine.

I wish to address the troubling phenomenon of cyber-bullying and classroom intimidation.  Recently an incident occurred on our campus involving cyber-bullying where the clear purpose was to change or limit the content of a course or the expression of ideas by students or instructors by means of the mobilization of anonymous threats and public harassment.

Strong engagement from students and colleagues about fundamental academic issues is one of the defining virtues of the University of Chicago.  This encompasses the right to debate the intellectual content of courses and the way we choose to teach courses, and is not only expected but welcomed as part of the extraordinary vitality of our educational practices and traditions.

Yet our traditions of the freedom of expression presume that this engagement takes place in the open realm of ideas and robust deliberation, with the purpose of articulating the best ideas and persuading others of their logic and substance.  Coercion of any kind must play no role in such debates.   Mass social media is an especially complex area of deliberation, in that it can enable outsiders who do not share these ideals to seek to influence the design and process of instruction, and often in ways that do not respect the safety, security, and autonomy of our campus community.  

In today’s climate we must reaffirm that our faculty have complete discretion over what they choose to teach and how they present material.   Similarly, our students have the freedom to select courses that best support their academic development and preferences.  

We will permit neither outsiders nor insiders to claim control of any part of our curriculum or to intimidate any member of our community in practicing their rights to free expression.   Intimidation, whether overt or covert, anonymous or named, is destructive to the core values of this University.

John W. Boyer

Boyer is referring here not to normal criticism or pushback, but to “intimidation”, i.e., threats to or harassment of the instructor. Note that Schmidt will not of course not be punished for what he tweeted, nor, I think, will anybody else, though threats of harm and death should surely be investigated.

And so we beat on, boats against the current of authoritarianism and the wokeness of the Online Mob.

22 thoughts on “Our College Dean responds to threats and calls for cancellation of a class on the “Problem of Whiteness”

  1. Bravo. I haven’t been feeling well this week, but this buoys my spirits a bit. Thanks for sharing the Dean’s response, and thanks to the College Council for allowing it to be shared, and of course, for responding in such a fashion.

  2. The problem is when faculty members and their departments become dysfunctional. You have spent a lot of time, Jerry, criticizing Maori knowledge being taught as science. But how can that legitimate criticism lead to actual changes within the university without some kind of vetting and internal reaction against what faculty and even departments have decided they think is appropriate for a science course/department? Doesn’t there need to be some kind of “quality assurance” to prevent such occurrences that are harmful to science and even the academy? The trick is how to achieve that without impinging inappropriately on academic freedom.

    1. Yes, when dealing with academic freedom, I think there should be a distinction between STEM courses that teach pseudoscience or technical applications that simply don’t work, and humanities courses that teach things which are controversial. There may not be Many Ways of Knowing, but there are Different Ways of Being Wrong. Errors of established fact (MM is science) seem to me to differ in nature from interpretations of facts (the Problem of Whiteness) which may be right or wrong — or neither. As you point out, though, threading that particular needle is tricky.

      1. Maya, would you cite an economics course teaching the value of socialism as an example of Different Ways of Being Wrong?

  3. I wonder what would happen if someone started teaching theology or astrology as a fact. If I were a student / alumnus / professor at a university that started teaching certain subject matter, I think I would re-examine my commitment to them.

    We’ve certainly seen enough stories on this site about teachers behaving badly, like the DC teacher-librarian who had her students re-enact the holocaust. Drawing a line between what types of “lessons” we want to support and what we don’t will be difficult. Still, private universities have more leeway than public institutions; I don’t want to judge them by the same metric. There’s a lot of gray area here.

  4. Good to see UofC’s robust response. I hope that the students taking the course appreciate that they should be equally tolerant.

  5. “Faculty members can teach what they want so long as it’s approved by the curriculum committee.”

    This sentence raises many questions:

    1) What is the curriculum committee?
    2) Is there a different committee for each department?
    3) How does one get on it? Who chooses its members?
    4) What is the criteria for a course being approved by the committee?
    5) Does the committee have the authority to veto any request by a faculty member to teach a course on a particular topic?

    In other words, it would appear that faculty members cannot teach whatever they want if the course can be vetoed by the committee. Otherwise, why does it exist? It would seem that the ideological composition of the committee is the real determinant of what courses can be taught.

    Also, the particular case of Jennifer Senior is interesting. Her webpage describes her as following:

    “Rebecca Journey is a cultural anthropologist who earned her PhD from the University of Chicago in 2021. Her work examines how the evolutionary and reformist logics of eugenic ideology animate the aesthetics of green urbanism in contemporary Denmark. She has special interests in the techno- and ethnopolitics of climate change; histories of Scandinavian design; and the semiotics of social difference.“

    Her biography raise this question:

    Is a recently minted Ph.D. in 2021 from the U. of Chicago that studied “how the evolutionary and reformist logics of eugenic ideology animate the aesthetics of green urbanism in contemporary Denmark.” really qualified to teach a course on whiteness?

    Since the course has been approved, it should not be cancelled by the clamor of the mob. Nevertheless, there is much going on behind the scenes that we do not know. Is the approval of her to teach this class a harbinger of future courses offered by the University of Chicago to be taught by instructors with limited qualifications, but with an abundance of ideological zeal?


    1. Yes indeed. I was wondering if it would be equally easy to teach a course on “The problem of Color”, “The problem of Blackness”, The problem of (insert favorite problem here)?
      I suppose “The Commitee” will solve that, hm, problem.

      1. I was thinking the exact same thing. A course teaching essentially that there is something fundamentally pathological and malevolent and blacks or Jews would never be tolerated or defended in the name of academic freedom.

        You can be sure the Woke Zombie horde will quickly assemble to condescendingly ‘explain’ how it’s not racist and robotically parrot any of the standard apologetics for this type of hate (e.g. “When you’re privileged equality feels like oppression” etc).

        I think it’s cowardly and dishonest to argue that blatantly racist garbage like this falls within the scope of what could be reasonably defended in the name of academic freedom; it can’t. This anti-white racist nonsense is at least as unacceptable as creationism in a biology class.

        When inevitably blood starts to be shed on a grand scale the accommodating cowards that knew this sort of stuff was horribly wrong but chose to rationalize it in the name of academic freedom will have blood on their hands. This isn’t motivated by a deep commitment to the value of academic freedom; it’s a cowardly attempt to mildly criticize it but nevertheless support it being taught for fear of the woke mob and a desire to be accepted by it (e.g. “I don’t like this sort of stuff and think it’s anti-white and divisive BUT… academic freedom 😘” etc).

        Try to imagine any context in which a guy like Jerry would find himself saying “I don’t like this curriculum and I think it’s anti-black and BUT… academic freedom” etc).

        This stuff is blatantly racist and obviously toxic and harmful and most of us know it, but unfortunately, most centrists and classical liberals and even a fair number of people on the far left, as well as a huge percentage of everybody else are afraid to criticize it unequivocally, whether for fear of being repercussions and to stay within the good graces of the establishment.

        The train is very clearly headed very fast towards the edge of the cliff and when the inevitable happens a lot of normally decent but ultimately cowardly people are going to have a horrible sense of remorse and shame.

        This stuff has gotten way out of control and it’s far past time for good people to do something rather than let evil prevail for fear of losing the respect of very bad people.

        But I digress… 😉

  6. We should note that the course was offered last year, so the present offering is a rerun. FIRE, which has defended the rerun, says that the offering was successful the first time. We don’t know the criteria for success, but we shouldn’t just assume it was academic junk. Nor do we know Journey’s qualifications for teaching the course. A course drawing on Critical Race Theory might be offered by a graduate student who had herself taken one or more seminars on Critical Race Theory, or who had done directed readings, etc. Certainly discussions of whiteness going back at least to James Baldwin are respectable topics for academic discussion from an anthropological point of view.

  7. Can someone please explain what this means? “how the evolutionary and reformist logics of eugenic ideology animate the aesthetics of green urbanism in contemporary Denmark.”

    1. My guess is “selective breeding [evolutionary eugenic ideology] of ornamental plants [green] to improve [reformist logic] a Copenhagen [Denmark] park [urbanism]”. But as we all know this kind of writing is deliberately obscure. It’s meant to signal insider status to other insiders, not to improve understanding.

      Woops I didn’t scroll down far enough – agree with Cransdale. But I wager that Dr. Journey doesn’t know a darned thing about evolution or eugenics (most cultural anthropologists don’t).

  8. Aesthetics of green urbanism refers to things like ideas about planning of parks and design of open spaces. These ideas can draw on conceptions of health and healthy living which were widespread among eugenicists. These ideas drew on then-contemporary ideas about evolution. The idea that there is a continuing influence of these ideas in contemporary Denmark could be studied.

  9. I wonder if the Dean would equally affirm academic freedom for “The Problem of Blackness”? That would be a better test of the Dean’s devotion.

  10. I found interesting the juxtaposition of this post with the one about the “infiltration of ‘progressive’ ideology into psychotherapy”. I have no opinion about the course at Jerry’s institution; it may be entirely satisfactory as to its intellectual content. But what if that psychotherapy training or something similar comes to your college? Let’s even set aside the professors for a moment: do we really believe that the activist teaching assistants in the classroom—from social sciences to undergraduate composition courses—all leave their politics at the door and have the maturity to let disagreement flourish?

    I’ll ask this as a hypothetical: If a professor or other instructor uses his power in the classroom to subject students to ideological dogma presented as fact, limits discussion to a range of “accepted” views as defined by that dogma, expects recitation of the dogma in coursework in order to earn a good grade, or if she demands participation in leftist, activist activities outside of the classroom as part of the course requirement, then when have we crossed from academic freedom to abuse of power, especially if it is a course required of the student?

    Judge the course content and the instructor’s behavior by the standards of his field and his peers? Sure, sure. And when entire disciplines are being overrun by ‘progressive’ ideology, what then? It seems academic freedom proponents assume an academic culture of intelligence, discipline, and tolerance. If that culture were gone, does academic freedom then become a weapon?

    1. Hi Doug. I would answer that yes it does become a weapon. I agree it would be lousy for that hypothetical professor to teach the course you described. But we should find tools other than censorship and cancellation to resist the damage done by that weapon.

      OTOH I think a university that’s so overrun by progressive ideology that it approves this kind of teaching across the curriculum would have bigger problems than those courses. If adoption of explicit partisan political positions on social issues, and pushing those positions on students and the public, gets out of control then real politicians will start to notice and some will start to do something about it.

      At private universities that might be limited to lost external grant funding. But at public universities it could mean replacement of boards of governors, state or provincial funding cuts, program closures, and mass firings for redundancy.

      I sincerely think that’s what many public universities may have to look forward to if they don’t mend the breach between their public political stances on race, gender, immigration, economics, & public health versus the stance of the median voter or (more important) the median state or provincial legislator.

  11. Banners, right and left, seem to have forgotten the value of debate.

    When I was in college, I was assigned a debate partner and subject in a senior seminar. I was assigned the “side” of the debate with which I and most students (at a fairly conservative school, though I am now fairly liberal) personally disagreed, and I recall the sympathetic groans of my classmates: “Oh, man, I would hate to have to argue that!”

    But I saw it as an opportunity to hone my skills as a debater. My opponent, a mild-mannered sort, seemed almost smug in his certainty that he would prevail.

    When time came for the actual debate, I *smoked* him with passion, with cadence, with argument, with reams of facts. He was crispy at the end, and despite the opinion of the class, I got an ovation.

    The professor said, “I don’t know if you are planning to be a lawyer some day, but if you are, I sure wouldn’t want to face you in court.”

    This admittedly self-aggrandizing little vignette is not intended to shore up my ego. It’s intended to convey the old-fashioned idea that we should not only be OK with ideas we don’t agree with, but seek them out and engage with them, debate them.

    “The Problem of Whiteness” seems, to me, odious on its face. But what an opportunity for some sharp kid to come in and build her debating muscles, which might just educate a few fellow students, even, dare I say it, the professor.

    It’s amusing to me that a conservative, the supposed “tough guys” of political debate, is such a whiny snowflake that he wants the course banned.

  12. The problem isn’t the course but the rhetorical unevenness. Your supposedly upright institution would cave if a conservative black person (not even to mention a white person) tried to teach a course called “The Problem of Blackness” highlighting black inner-city violence, black cultural anti-intellectualism, etc. It isn’t investigation of the problems of white culture which galls reasonable white people; white culture is indeed a mess, historically and presently, in all kinds of interesting ways. What galls is the sheer, in-your-face, rhetorical hypocrisy. A course on the idea of blackness titled this way would be widely condemned as genocidal, tasteless, propagandistic, evil, white supremacist, vicious, etc.; and it would be cancelled.

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