Recent police brutality and subsequent unrest have brought race to the forefront of our collective consciousness. The University of Chicago’s English Department chose to respond by professing that this moment demands a strengthened “commitment … to activating histories of engaged art, debate, struggle, collective action, and counterrevolution as contexts for the emergence of ideas and narratives.” To honor that commitment, the department only accepted graduate “applicants interested in working in and with Black Studies” for the 2020-2021 academic year. The department also claims that their own discipline has provided “aesthetic rationalizations for colonization, exploitation, extraction, and anti-Blackness.”
The department is right to take this opportunity to examine what race means to us and to build an “inclusive and equitable field” within its own sphere of academia. However, the department contextualized its decision within an endorsement of “Black Lives Matter,” without specifying whether it is referring to the sentiment or the movement. The lack of qualification allows for the reasonable interpretation that the department is endorsing the movement.
BLM is a fundamentally political movement that seeks to realize its own highly-controversial approach to solving racial discrimination. While equality is a bipartisan goal, and the department’s efforts to accomplish it are admirable, the policies through which this equality should be achieved is a political question. By endorsing BLM, the department gives the perception that it has planted itself firmly on one side of the political aisle, contrary to the ideal of an apolitical university established by the Chicago Principles.
The department’s decision unleashed a torrent of criticism. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a noted critic of Islam and feminist activist, slammed the decision as “too idiotic.” Thomas Chatterton Williams, known for his work on racial identity, characterized the department as “strong arm[ing]” students. And Ted Cruz (R., Texas) presumed that the study of “Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Dickens, Austen” would be “[un]acceptable” under the new policy.
These criticisms wrongly dismiss Black Studies as an intellectual endeavor. The study of race through literature is a critically instructive field that is truly important, especially at this time in our history. When reached for comment, Distinguished Professor Deborah Nelson explained that students this year will focus on “race across genres/media/periods/schools/authors/methods, including those areas where race was conceived quite differently than we currently understand it.” Meanwhile, Nelson explained that the department’s graduate students “will also, as all graduate students in coursework do, study a broad range of topics outside their area of research focus.”
In a moment in which race has so fractured our society and race relations are perceived to be at their lowest point in 20 years, building a stronger understanding about what race means and has meant to us is necessary. In support of this notion, the department strives to clarify the conception of race and its impacts across periods and societies. And by studying how racial hierarchies develop, the department’s work makes us more prepared to critically examine the development of our own institutions, attitudes, and beliefs.
The aforementioned criticisms are also ignorant of how graduate departments function. The decision to focus upon Black Studies is neither arbitrary nor unusual, because graduate departments regularly change their academic focus to reflect changing times and administrative constraints. Professor Nelson explained that the English Department receives over “600 applications for 5 – 10 spots … we are always going to make choices.” This year’s focus is an ordinary choice meant to make sense of extraordinary times.
However, by proclaiming support for the Black Lives Matter movement, the department gives a political spin to what would otherwise be an apolitical assessment of its responsibilities and goals. The department begins its explanation of graduate admissions in solidarity with BLM, using its approval of the movement to buttress its decision. BLM is a political movement. It exists not only as a mechanism to bring attention to social issues, but as an ideological framework through which to solve them. While BLM is decentralized and its ideology is not homogeneous, its is overwhelmingly associated with leftistpolitics. For example, prominent activists within the BLM movement call to defund police departments and condone looting as a form of protest. And, the BLM Global Network, the official charity arm, extends past ideology into partisan politics by taking a firm stance against the Republican Party.
As a result, the department’s efforts to highlight and examine racial problems are overshadowed by its institutional political endorsement, because it seemingly takes a political stance on how the social problems it has identified should be solved.
This behavior conflicts with the principle of institutional recusal from political and social questions, which is laid out by the University of Chicago’s own declarations in the Chicago Principles and the Kalven Report. The latter describes the university as “a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.” President Robert Zimmer addressed concerns that the department’s decision violated this ideal, invoking two dueling interpretations: one, that “the exclusive disciplinary commitment effectively represents a political test for admission,” and two, that “this action also can be understood to be the natural exercise of the prerogatives of an academic department to make decisions about the choice of scholarly directions it wants to emphasize in its educational and research programs.” Here, I want to emphasize that these interpretations are not mutually exclusive. The manner in which the department academically orients itself can politicize its decision, even if it has the prerogative to choose its academic focus. Partisan intentions can, and did, taint an otherwise valid decision.
In addressing the intention behind the department’s decision, I would like to give the department the benefit of the doubt. It is possible that, in citing BLM, the department wished only to express that it values black lives—rather than communicate its political leanings. However, the department should have been aware of the implications of its statement. By withholding a qualification, the department is endorsing the BLM movement, regardless of whether it intends to do so. The endorsement not only discourages qualified students on the other side of the political aisle from applying, but it also raises questions of bias. The department wants to use Black Studies to “context[ualize] … the emergence of ideas and narratives,” assuredly in good faith. But after reading the statement, an observer may doubt the validity of otherwise valuable, intellectually sound work, because the institution that it comes from has preemptively and politically judged the ideas and narratives it tries to evaluate.
Educational institutions have a right to identify problems they see within their disciplines, especially when it helps to contextualize their work within larger society. And the University of Chicago’s English Department is justified in standing for racial equality and striving to promote increased representation and respect for minority authors. After all, institutions have an obligation to make students feel heard and valued. However, in the pursuit of these goals, university departments also have an obligation to remain apolitical and unbiased, preserve intellectual vitality, and protect the integrity of their students’ work, especially at the University of Chicago. By endorsing BLM, the department has failed to do so.
Niranjan Joshi plans to major in History and Biology at the University of Chicago. In his free time, he enjoys American political history, constitutional law, fishing, playing blues guitar, and Star Wars.