Building Racial Dialogue (and a Department) In a Time of BacklashRoundup
tags: universities, ethnic studies, critical race theory, Migration Studies, Diaspora Studies
Leora Auslander is the Arthur and Joann Rasmussen Professor in Western Civilization in the College and professor of European social history at the University of Chicago.
Adom Getachew is a Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago.
In the current climate of backlash against the study and teaching of race-related issues in schools, proposing a new department dedicated to the study of race might seem a foolhardy venture.
The panic over “critical race theory” has prompted 36 states to introduce or pass laws restricting teaching about race and racism in public schools. Expanding academic discussions about race rather than retreating would appear implausible at best, particularly at an institution that has previously avoided such commitments. Yet, as faculty at the University of Chicago, that is exactly what we have done. Last week, we won approval for a new Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity.
This was no easy task, but our experience suggests a methodical process that invites stakeholders from across the university and country into constructive dialogue can help to defuse hostility and find areas of common interest. In our case, this required literally hundreds of meetings, but the goal was worth it. In the forums and town halls we convened, in one-on-one conversations, and in the institutions of faculty governance charged with approving our proposal, we found that beneath the polarization of the moment, our colleagues and students were eager to discuss new ways of studying these sensitive topics, and their ideas and visions helped shape our proposal.
To be clear, we don’t view debate and dialogue through rose-tinted glasses. There were tough and even painful conversations along the way. And not all colleagues have been persuaded by the intellectual merits of our proposal. But by meeting people where they are, and by engaging in good faith with their concerns and questions, we were able to secure supermajority support among the faculty in the Social Sciences Division and in the Council of the University Senate. Along the way, we convinced some colleagues who were initially skeptical. More importantly, we deepened our intellectual vision and the vision for the department, to everyone’s benefit.
Faculty and students had called for such a department and debated various models over decades. We found new energy to pursue this goal when we, like many of our colleagues across the country, were galvanized in the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd and the uprisings across the country. We joined a group of colleagues in launching the #MoreThanDiversity campaign, which sought to expand conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Chicago. Some of the faculty involved in the campaign formed a committee to explore possible models for a department dedicated to the study of race and related topics, following established faculty-led processes for developing a new department.