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University of Chicago takes steps toward launch of ‘Critical Race Studies’ department

Came after June letter demanded it

The University of Chicago will consider funding to explore the creation of a Department of Critical Race Studies.

Critical race is the idea that “the law and legal institutions are inherently racist” and that race is a “socially constructed concept that is used by white people to further their economic and political interests,” according to the encyclopedia Britannica.

“Should this proposal be approved through University processes, Provost [Ka Yee] Lee will work with the relevant division to ensure that resources are provided for its support,” Gerald McSwiggan, a spokesperson for the university, said in a December email to The College Fix. “She recognizes the commitment of many faculty members at the University to ensuring that the study of race continues to thrive here.”

McSwiggan did not respond to an email on January 8 seeking an update on the proposal.

The proposal has to win approval from the “faculty council,” according to the campus paper The Chicago Maroon. The paper presumably is referring to the University Senate. The senate meets again on January 26. The provost cannot unilaterally provide funding to a department.

The Fix emailed Carol Wilinski, the secretary of the faculties, but did not receive a response to a January 8 inquiry into the likelihood of passage.

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Passage of the proposal for a new department would only study how the department might be created, and would depend on the passage of another measure in the summer to create the new department before the next school year.

The pledge from the provost comes after a campaign by a group called #MoreThanDiversity began a demand for such a department in a June letter on the heels of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

This absence is particularly egregious in a university that prides itself on continuously questioning and challenging knowledge formations and their institutional groundings,” the activists, which included students and faculty, wrote in their letter.

The group did not respond to multiple emailed requests for comment in the past several weeks from The Fix.

The creation of a department would improve teaching of the subject, according to its proponents. There is currently only a major in critical race and ethnic studies.

The Maroon said, paraphrasing Leora Auslander, a history professor:

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.

Other professors told the Maroon that the new department would make it easier for them to create new courses. Currently, cross-listed courses must gain approval from the department it is listed under, according to the campus paper.

“Any course must meet the requirements of an existing department to be approved,” the campus paper said. “Courses must satisfy the requirements of existing departments, limiting their instructor’s ability to design their best curricula.”

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About the Author
Adam Burnett - Illinois State University