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December 13, 2020

Provost Allocates Funding to #MoreThanDiversity Campaign to Propose New Department of Critical Race Studies

By Danya Wang  , Ryan Owyang  , and Nick Tarr  

Levi Hall

Levi Hall

Courtesy of University of Chicago

Provost Ka Yee Lee has awarded funding to the #MoreThanDiversity campaign to propose a new department dedicated to the study of race. The campaign says the funding will be used to study the structure of a department dedicated to the study of race before a proposal to create the department is formally announced by the end of the 2020–21 school year.

The provost provided the funding to #MoreThanDiversity’s Academic Unit Committee, which is composed of 18 people: 11 faculty members, four undergraduate students from the #EthnicStudiesNow working group of UChicago United, and three graduate students.

Earlier this summer, the campaign’s call to action, wherein members of #MoreThanDiversity stated their intention to refuse to partake in University-led diversity and inclusion work, secured a meeting with the provost for the proposal funding. The Call to Action demanded that university administrators create a new department dedicated to the study of race and hire new professors to staff it. Specifically, #MoreThanDiversity called for “four full lines in the new Department, including at least two full professors, the option of half lines for existing faculty seeking affiliation with the new Department and their home Department that would not count against the full lines in the Department, and 2 staff positions and a space allocation for the new department.” Full lines are professorships with contractual obligation solely in the hiring department. Half lines are a common hiring setup in which the professor strictly has half their contractual obligations to one department and half to another department.

The College currently offers a critical race and ethnic studies (CRES) major. The program is designed to “examine both the processes through which members of the human population have been constructed as racial and ethnic groups, and the political, historical, social, and cultural effects of this constitution,” according to the College Catalog. The major is administered by the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture (CSRPC) instead of a dedicated department for the study of race. As such, educators administering the CRES major face major logistical hurdles, history professor Leora Auslander, a member of the Academic Unit Committee, told The Maroon in an interview.

As a Center, the CSRPC cannot hire faculty, meaning CRES electives are taught by instructors with contractual obligations to another department who volunteer their time to the Center. As a result, all professors who teach CRES classes are contracted members of an academic department and non-contracted affiliates of the Center, taking their academic, mentorship, and instructional focus away from critical race and ethnic studies, according to Auslander. Additionally, without professors and a dedicated department, the majority of CRES classes are taught by graduate students, leading to inconsistent class offerings as a result of graduate student turnover.

By taking over the CRES major, the proposed department would be able to administer more focused instruction and support the study of race at the undergraduate, graduate, and faculty levels, according to Auslander and political science professor Adom Getachew. “My whole appointment is in political science so my whole obligation is to political science,” Getachew, a member of #MoreThanDiversity’s academic committee, said in an interview with The Maroon. “Sure, whatever I teach is cross-listed with CRES, but the Center has no hold on my time. Whatever I do there, I do voluntarily.”

The creation of a department dedicated to the study of race and ethnicity would also allow educators to offer students more focused instruction in that field. “What’s great about a department is if half my line is [in a department], it means that half my teaching obligations are in that department,” Getachew said. Faculty would also be able to provide greater resources such as office hours and mentorship, according to Getachew.

Beyond the time constraints the current system places on instructors, the absence of a department dedicated to the study of race also limits the content of courses offered in the CRES major. Currently, to propose a CRES course, professors work around disciplinary divides: Any course must meet the requirements of an existing department to be approved. Courses must satisfy the requirements of existing departments, limiting their instructor’s ability to design their best curricula, according to Auslander.

For example, a course on race taught by a history professor must therefore adopt an approach deemed appropriate by the Department of History. A department dedicated to the study of race, however, would allow professors to set department-specific standards for instruction. The obstacles for faculty to teach CRES courses “varies a lot from department to department,” and depends on individual professors’ tenure status, Auslander said.

Despite Lee’s decision to fund an inquiry into the creation of a department dedicated to studying race, however, members of the #MoreThanDiversity campaign said that administrators’ past decisions have been less than supportive. Faculty who previously attempted informal conversations in support of a proposal were told by administrators, including former provost Daniel Diermeier, that the proposal could not pass, according to Auslander. Lee replaced Diermeier as provost earlier this year after the latter became chancellor of Vanderbilt University.

Auslander also said recent conversations with Lee’s office were unsatisfactory given the context of George Floyd’s murder and Black Lives Matter protests in the spring and summer. “We are satisfied with the proposal money but are disappointed that even given this context the university wasn’t able to get it together and make an exception to commit money before the proposal was approved,” Auslander said.

In a statement to The Maroon, university spokesperson Jeremy Manier said, “While the Provost cannot create or fund a new University department unilaterally, Provost Lee is committed to ensuring that University processes are clearly-defined [sic], open, and available to review the final proposal.”

However, the provost’s agreement to fund the search process is little comfort to some members of #MoreThanDiversity. Their primary concern is whether the University will be willing to fund the department itself satisfactorily should the proposal pass the faculty council. The worry has been that the University’s not willing to put real resources, meaning money, behind their mouth. [We] recognize that money is symbolically indicative of the seriousness with which an institution takes an area of research, so we worried that we would get lip service to the importance, and somehow nothing would happen. If it passes the council and it is not funded then it is of no use,” Auslander said.

Our fear [is that we] put in all this work and create a wonderful proposal and in the end they find a reason why it cannot be funded, or that it be funded most minimally. The worst would be if it’s funded but funded at such a low level that it drags along so it fails. That’s worse in a way than not doing it at all,” Auslander continued.

If we don’t get a good vote in the council, we either shelve it or we try again. In proposals there’s a lot of back and forth with the administration and the council so we’ll try to—without compromising our principles or the integrity of the department we want to create—be in dialogue to assure that we receive support.”

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