On February 23rd, University of Chicago President Paul Alivisatos and Provost Ka Yee C. Lee announced the establishment of a Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity (RDI). This statement comes after nearly two years of debate among the university’s Committee of the Council and the Council of the University Senate, the bodies responsible for approving new departments.
Following the wave of race-related protests in the summer of 2020, an exploratory committee made up of faculty members and doctoral students from the Social Sciences Division (SSD) and Humanities Division initiated the process of proposing the new RDI department.
Then, in November 2021, SSD faculty members put the proposed department to an advisory vote; among those who participated, 83% expressed support. Subsequently, Amanda Woodward, SSD dean and professor of psychology, sent the proposal to the Committee of the Council and the Council of the University Senate for consideration. The University Senate approved the motion on February 22nd, 2022.
A Department ‘Predicated On An Ideology’
Throughout the proposal process, several faculty members raised concerns over the RDI department’s alignment with the university’s “Kalven Report.” This document, written in 1967, stipulates that the UChicago administration must remain socially and politically neutral to allow the fullest degree of academic freedom. According to the Kalven Report, 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.”
The two most outspoken critics of the new department have been Dorian Abbot, an associate professor of geophysical sciences, and Harold Uhlig, a professor of economics. Both sit on the University Senate.
Uhlig argued that several departments – including the Departments of History, English Language and Literature, Music, and Human Genetics – have been “in flagrant violation” of the Kalven Report by publishing “highly political statements in support of ‘Black Lives Matter’ and stating that we live in a ‘system that encourages state-supported erasure of Black life.’” These proclamations, Uhlig contended, were plainly motivated by the 2020 race-related protests, and a new RDI department would “join that chorus.”
“The [RDI proposal] process is tainted by the officially sanctioned positions taken by various departments,” Uhlig continued. Consequently, he believes that the new department would “forever be stained by its origin in a politically charged atmosphere rather than as the result of a free and genuinely open discussion on its merits.”
Similarly, Abbot argued that the proposed RDI department is “predicated on an ideology, as much as a subject-matter,” and therefore undercuts the Kalven Report’s core aims to “counter the initialization of any dogma [and] foster critical reasoning and assumption-questioning in a fearless academic environment where faculty and students do not bite their tongues.” He cautioned that if UChicago sacrifices these principles, then it will “lose [its] main virtue, strength, and standing.”
Abbot also amplified these concerns on Fox News’ Ingraham Angle, where he emphasized that this RDI controversy reflects the continued politicization of supposedly neutral academic institutions.
UChicago has conceded “that the core subjects of race, diaspora, and indigeneity are ‘contested concepts and categories,’” suggesting that it is aware of the potential social and political sensitivity of such a department. Nevertheless, the decision to move forward with the department signals that it does not consider it a violation of the Kalven Report.
By all indications, the establishment of the RDI Department will move forward. It is unclear when it will begin offering classes, but the university has indicated that it will first offer undergraduate degrees, and later offer a full-fledged doctoral program.