I previously praised the position of my alma mater, The University of Chicago, in refusing to limit free speech with the creation of safe spaces and speech codes. Indeed, the courageous position of UChicago stood in sharp contrast to the troubling position of my other alma mater, Northwestern University (which has only grown more hostile to both free speech and academic freedom). Now the university faces another test of academic principles after a coalition of student groups called “UChicago United” has given the Administration of list of 50 demands. Most troubling are demands that seek decisions impacting the academic integrity of the curriculum and school as a whole.
The group demands the creation of a “Race and Ethnic Studies Department,” a “Black Studies Academic Department,” an “African Studies Department,” a “Caribbean Studies Department,” an “Asian American Studies Program,” a “Center for African and Caribbean Studies” and a “Latinx Affairs Office.” UChicago is commonly credited with the establishment of the “common core” approach to education and its reliance on classic works. It has avoided the creation of race-based departments or programs as opposed to traditional academic division (within which faculty are free to focus on different racial or gender or cultural elements of their subject matters).
I have long been an advocate of the traditional division of academic departments. A faculty senate can certainly debate the merits of abandoning this approach, but it is not a decision left to the students or, worse yet, a group threatening direct action unless the university yields on a matter of academic principle.
The group also asked for UChicago to impose a mandatory “Diversity and Inclusion” requirement for graduation that would be “primarily focused on any US-centric structural oppression, such as race, gender, and sexuality.” Once again, such a requirement has a direct impact on the academic mission and principles. Many would object to the obvious endorsement of the structural oppression premise of the requirement.
Other academic-related demands include the changing of the social science and humanities curriculums to “include more insight from Black authors, specifically Black women” and to require more teaching of the “the Islamic Golden Age.”
The students also insist that the department be independent but funded by the university. UChicago is also asked to establish “university-funded and run cultural houses, specifically a Black House, a Latinx House, and an Asian House.” This is less of an academic matter but it does run counter to the position on safe spaces and the desire for students to live an open, vibrant, and unsegregated environment. The demands for race-based separation would materially alter the UChicago environment.
There is always room to discuss suggestions for improving the feelings of inclusion and addressing racial concerns for students. However, UChicago should refuse to negotiate over demands that would fundamentally alter its academic curriculum and values. Those decisions rest with the faculty and should be based exclusively on intellectual and academic values.
Here are the demands: UChicago List