The University of Chicago is still offering a course called The Problem of Whiteness, which attracted negative attention online, but it will do so a term later than originally planned—in the spring instead of the upcoming winter quarter.
It’s unclear just what prompted the course delay. The instructor, Rebecca Journey, a teaching fellow in anthropology, did not respond to a request for comment.
In a public statement affirming its commitment to academic freedom, the university said Journey asked to push back the class.
“As articulated in the Chicago Principles, the University of Chicago is deeply committed to upholding the values of academic freedom, the free expression of ideas, and the ability of faculty and students to express a wide range of views and to contest the ideas that they oppose,” the university’s statement says. “We believe universities have an important role as places where novel ideas can be proposed, tested, and debated and where diverse perspectives, experiences, individuals, and ideas inform and stimulate intellectual exchange, challenge, and engagement.”
Chicago works to “foster an inclusive climate on campus, so all may participate fully in the distinctive open and questioning environment that has always defined the university,” the statement also says.
This is not the first time a whiteness course has caused a stir. In Arizona in 2017, for instance, Republican state legislators criticized an Arizona State University course on whiteness and race theory and later proposed legislation against “divisive” courses or events at public colleges and universities. Another whiteness studies course at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2015 was publicly attacked as promoting white guilt.
The Arizona bill didn’t make it out of committee, as it lacked sufficient support from even other Republicans. This was before widespread national debates over critical race theory and before multiple states passed similar, Republican-backed bills restricting the teaching of divisive concepts. (Critics of these laws call them “gag orders.”)
A description of the University of Chicago course in question says, in part, that “Whiteness has long functioned as an ‘unmarked’ racial category, saturating a default surround against which non-white or ‘not quite’ others appear as aberrant. This saturation has had wide-ranging effects, coloring everything from the consolidation of wealth, power and property to the distribution of environmental health hazards. Yet in recent years whiteness has resurfaced as a conspicuous problem within liberal political discourse. This seminar examines the problem of whiteness through an anthropological lens, drawing from classic works and contemporary works of critical race theory.”
The course became a target for critics earlier this month after Daniel Schmidt, a sophomore on campus with 30,000 Twitter followers, tweeted about it as an example of “anti-white hate.”
“Rebecca Journey, a ‘cultural anthropologist,’ who, ironically, appears to be white, will teach it,” Schmidt tweeted, listing Journey’s photo and Chicago email address. “The course description describes whiteness ‘as a conspicuous problem within liberal political discourse’ with ‘worldmaking (and razing) effects.’ Anti-white hatred is now mainstream academic inquiry. And you’re not even allowed to call that out without being called racist.”
Schmidt posted an apparent screenshot of the course’s registration information, which at the time listed zero students enrolled.
Several days later, Schmidt tweeted another apparent registration screenshot showing the class had been canceled.
“Thank you to everyone who shared my thread,” he said. “We are obviously fighting an uphill battle, but this is a huge victory. Students need to call out anti-white hatred whenever they see it. Just the beginning.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression soon weighed in on this case, saying that while it had learned that the course was actually rescheduled for spring and not canceled, it still had concerns—especially (but not merely) because Chicago has a strong reputation for protecting academic freedom.
“U Chicago told us the class was not canceled, but the instructor had simply ‘chosen to move’ the course to the spring term. All good? Maybe…” FIRE said on Twitter. “Administrators can inappropriately pressure a professor to cancel or delay a class in hopes that a controversy will die down. We don’t have evidence that happened here, but in these cases, transparency is paramount so academics don’t fear teaching controversial material.”
Alex Morey, director of campus rights advocacy at FIRE, told Inside Higher Ed Tuesday that the University of Chicago “doesn’t appear to have exerted any pressure on this professor to cancel their course, which is great and exactly what we expect from a top school for free speech. But other sources of pressure on faculty are also common these days. For example—from legislators or Twitter mobs, who sometimes threaten the professor’s funding or even their safety.”
Given the current polarized political environment, Morey said, “universities should urgently re-evaluate what it means to support a professor through a controversy over their teaching. It likely needs to go beyond just saying their speech is protected. Sadly, that may look like taking interim measures to ensure their safety, like providing their class meetings police protection, so they can continue their important work without delay. That’s what it may take these days to preserve faculty’s rights. Universities and faculty senates should have this on their radar.”
Some institutions have adopted clear policies on the trolling of faculty members. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for instance, adopted an executive officer action that includes reporting mechanisms and safety resources, a template statement of support for the scholar to be deployed within hours of the attack, and model language to be used by staff members and with students.
“The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is committed to academic freedom,” the draft statement of support says. “[SCHOLAR NAME] is an established and admired scholar in [DISCIPLINARY AREA] and a valued member of our university. As with all of our scholars at the University of Illinois, [PROFESSOR NAME] has the right of academic freedom necessary to pursue scholarship and research on important subjects and to reach conclusions even if some might disagree with those conclusions. Exploring challenging and important questions is exactly what scholars in a world-class university should be doing.”