Another blow to intellectual freedom

The University of Chicago’s English department is this year only admitting PhD students in ‘Black studies’.

Benjamin Schwarz

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In the latest instance of illiberal academic wokery, the English department of the University of Chicago – a department that has already firmly established itself as, well, illiberally woke – has declared that in 2020-2021 it will be admitting only PhD students (five in all) who will pursue scholarship in ‘Black studies’.

That this brouhaha has arisen at the University of Chicago is seemingly surprising. No university in the world has historically been more committed to the principles of academic freedom and of freedom of expression than Chicago, and no university has such a storied heritage of scrutinising and upending the conventional wisdom and the shibboleths dominating higher education. From its founding in 1890 the university defined itself by its culture of fierce intellectuality, a culture characterised by relentless inquiry and robust debate. The university has recognised that such an environment demands protecting its faculty and students so that they can explore and develop the most unpopular ideas untrammelled. As Hanna Holborn Gray, a professor of history, emeritus, and the former president of Chicago, explained the university’s guiding principle: ‘Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.’

To nurture and sustain that intellectually free environment, Chicago long ago recognised that it must commit itself and its constituent bodies – its departments, institutes and professional schools – to neutrality on political, social and moral issues, regardless of how right and settled the response to those issues might appear. The university’s ‘Kalven report’ enshrined this principle in 1967. Written as a response to the demands of some students and faculty that the university take a political stand on such issues as the Vietnam War and the civil-rights movement, the report is a singular and justly famous monument to academic free expression, and it remains, as the university proclaims, ‘one of the most important policy documents at the University of Chicago’. It acknowledges that ‘a university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices and institutions. By design and by effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones… a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.’ But, crucially, the report insists, ‘the instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.’ Because a university must ‘maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures’, it is ‘a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.’ This strictly neutral posture is necessary, the report explains, because any collective stance would inhibit the expression and exploration of ideas contrary to that stance:

‘[The university] is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all of its members favour a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues… It should not, therefore, permit itself to be diverted from its mission into playing the role of a second-rate political force or influence.’

For over 50 years the university has, correctly, held that an intellectually free university in which expression is afforded the widest possible latitude demands adherence to the Kalven report’s principles. As the university’s current president, Robert Zimmer, has argued:

[T]he focus on rigorous, intense, and open inquiry carried out by the faculty and students of the university must be accompanied by the greatest possible intellectual freedom, in an environment that supports openness and avoids steps that lead to chilling the environment…

‘[I]t follows that the university… should take no political positions and should remain neutral on such matters (except of necessity those in which it is a direct party), in order to ensure that we have a maximally open environment. Violations of neutrality are a mark against the maintenance of a non-chilling environment.

Just as the university’s commitment to free inquiry has dictated adhering to institutional neutrality, it has also dictated that the university give its faculty members free rein to pursue their research, as well as their political predilections (even in the politically intolerant 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, the university held that the left-wing and even Communist politics of some of its professors weren’t its business). A commitment to academic freedom has also meant that academic departments within the university have been given the widest latitude to establish their own academic agendas – that is, to set curricular and investigative priorities and, concomitantly, to set priorities in graduate (ie, ‘postgraduate’) student and faculty recruitment. On its face, therefore, the English department’s decision to privilege Black studies as an area of scholarly investigation, even if misguided, is defensible. But as the lengthy and overwrought statement in which the department has announced its decision makes clear, the logic behind that policy is, in fact, pernicious and violates the university’s long-held and hard-won principles of freedom of expression and academic freedom. In full, that statement reads:

The English department at the University of Chicago believes that Black Lives Matter, and that the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks matter, as do thousands of others named and unnamed who have been subject to police violence. As literary scholars, we attend to the histories, atmospheres, and scenes of anti-Black racism and racial violence in the United States and across the world. We are committed to the struggle of Black and Indigenous people, and all racialised and dispossessed people, against inequality and brutality.

‘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. For more information on faculty and current graduate students in this area, please visit our Black studies page.

‘The department is invested in the study of African-American, African, and African diaspora literature and media, as well as in the histories of political struggle, collective action, and protest that Black, Indigenous and other racialised peoples have pursued, both here in the United States and in solidarity with international movements. Together with students, we attend both to literature’s capacity to normalise violence and derive pleasure from its aesthetic expression, and ways to use the representation of that violence to reorganise how we address making and breaking life. Our commitment is not just to ideas in the abstract, but also to activating histories of engaged art, debate, struggle, collective action, and counterrevolution as contexts for the emergence of ideas and narratives.

‘English as a discipline has a long history of providing aesthetic rationalisations for colonisation, exploitation, extraction, and anti-Blackness. Our discipline is responsible for developing hierarchies of cultural production that have contributed directly to social and systemic determinations of whose lives matter and why. And while inroads have been made in terms of acknowledging the centrality of both individual literary works and collective histories of racialised and colonised people, there is still much to do as a discipline and as a department to build a more inclusive and equitable field for describing, studying, and teaching the relationship between aesthetics, representation, inequality, and power.

‘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. In support of this aim, we have been expanding our range of research and teaching through recent hiring, mentorship, and admissions initiatives that have enriched our department with a number of Black scholars and scholars of colour who are innovating in the study of the global contours of anti-Blackness and in the equally global project of Black freedom. Our collective enrichment is also a collective debt; this department reaffirms the urgency of ensuring institutional and intellectual support for colleagues and students working in the Black studies tradition, alongside whom we continue to deepen our intellectual commitments to this tradition. As such, we believe all scholars have a responsibility to know the literatures of African-American, African diasporic, and colonised peoples, regardless of area of specialisation, as a core competence of the profession.

‘We acknowledge the university’s and our field’s complicated history with the South Side. While we draw intellectual inspiration from the work of writers deeply connected to Chicago’s south side, including Ida B Wells, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, and Richard Wright, we are also attuned to the way that the university has been a vehicle of intellectual and economic opportunity for some in the community, and a site of exclusion and violence for others. Part of our commitment to the struggle for Black lives entails vigorous participation in university-wide conversations and activism about the university’s past and present role in the historically Black neighborhood that houses it.

This statement is plainly a manifesto expressing political commitment. From its first sentence, it explicitly aligns the English department to a political movement, Black Lives Matter, that adheres to a specific ideology, built on premises that range from the undisputed to the debatable to the dubious, in pursuit of radical societal goals that are hardly uncontested. The manifesto next commits the department and all its members to ‘the struggle of Black and Indigenous people, and all racialised and dispossessed people’ – a struggle that, however laudable some might find it, is certainly far from politically neutral. In detailing its academic programme, the department makes another demand for collective political action – ‘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’ (emphasis added). The department returns to an explicit declaration of social advocacy in the statement’s final paragraph: ‘Part of our commitment to the struggle for Black lives entails… activism.’

The English department’s proclamation, issued by a constituent body of the University of Chicago, flies in the face of the Kalven report. While the Kalven report maintains that any official orthodoxy on political and social issues must be avoided so as not to censure the minority, the English department has delivered a collective political declaration, which repeatedly presents as settled fact what are contestable claims that require scholarly exploration, to which presumably all current and future faculty and students must adhere. Imagine the ‘chilling’ effect, to quote President Zimmer, that this manifesto would exercise on those whose views deviated from the official departmental line, particularly if they were, say, graduate students beholden to advisers or associate professors up for tenure. While the Kalven report asserts that only the individual within the university is the proper ‘instrument of dissent’, the English department demands that ‘all faculty’ participate in ‘undoing anti-Blackness’ – a mandate for collective responsibility and for collective political action. While the Kalven report argues for the importance of institutional neutrality and for ‘maintain[ing] an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures’, the English department has defined its identity and purpose according to those fashions, passions, and pressures.

Because it is so fundamentally irreconcilable to the Kalven report, the English department’s manifesto is illegitimate. Moreover, that manifesto demonstrates that the department’s academic programme – its curricular and investigative priorities and its concomitant priorities in student and faculty recruitment – is plainly defined by, and emerges directly from, the department’s political commitment, its views on social justice, and its advocacy of anti-‘anti-Black’ activism. By the university’s own lights, the department should not be adopting a political stance or committing itself and its members to a programme of advocacy and activism in the first place; therefore, the academic priorities and programme that flow from and express that political commitment are, themselves, irreconcilable with the Kalven report’s insistence on official neutrality, and are also illegitimate.

Although a university spokesman, perhaps wishing to defuse the current imbroglio, stated that ‘as with other departments in the university, the [English] department’s faculty will decide which areas of scholarship they wish to focus on for PhD admissions’, that explanation is at best obtuse and at worst disingenuous. Certainly a history department, say, could legitimately define its academic priorities by privileging Marxian analysis. But if that department declared that, in pursuit of its conception of social justice, it was committing all its faculty to the workers’ struggle and to the concomitant project of squashing the workers’ class enemies, and was therefore prioritising scholarship informed by dialectical materialism in its curricular and recruitment decisions, then, plainly, the department’s academic programme would merely be a creature of its political advocacy.

In short, the decision of the University of Chicago’s English department to admit only graduate students pursuing ‘Black studies’ next year is reprehensible less for the policy itself than for the political commitment that dictated it. Alas, the English department is hardly the only unit of the University of Chicago to flout the Kalven report by indulging in political advocacy. The department of human genetics, the school of social-service administration, and the university’s art museum have issued similar political pronouncements, replete with their thudding litanies of slogans, jargon, and unargued assertions. If the university is to remain true to its glorious history as a bastion of free inquiry and free expression, it must reaffirm its commitment to the Kalven report. I don’t foresee it doing so.

Benjamin Schwarz is the former national and literary editor of The Atlantic.

Picture by: Ndshankar, published under a creative-commons license.

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