More Than a Proposal: Fund CRES Department Now

UChicago has a responsibility to fully support the study of critical race and ethnic studies, especially given its history of contributing to systems of oppression.

By Jennifer Rivera

The University of Chicago is renowned for its support of intellectual curiosity, and yet, somehow, the school lacks a department devoted to critical race and ethnic studies (CRES)—a department that would further investigate race relations during such a pivotal moment in history. In the summer of 2020, a #MoreThanDiversity campaign—launched by faculty affiliates of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture (CSRPC)—demanded that UChicago’s provost, Ka Yee C. Lee, set aside funds for a department dedicated to CRES. In December, Ka Yee C. Lee allocated funding to #MoreThanDiversity so that they could propose a CRES department, but allocating funds for a proposal does not mean that it will be approved or implemented to the extent that it should be. Students of color cannot feel at ease when campus administration tiptoes around the need for a department that would prioritize critical questions regarding race and ethnicity, which has been expressed by students and faculty numerous times. Despite the fact that establishing a critical race and ethnic studies department is crucial to conveying their supposed commitment to diversity and inclusion, the administration has unsurprisingly delayed conversations surrounding its implementation, especially considering UChicago’s role in upholding white supremacy. The University of Chicago has a responsibility as an institution that has been racist from its inception to work towards dismantling systems of oppression and heeding to their students’ needs. In an effort to do so, UChicago must actualize a critical race and ethnic studies department.

Currently, the CRES program of study is administered by the CSRPC, and, since the CRES program does not have its own department, the lack of resources has created issues. Given such circumstances, there has been an ongoing effort from several campaigns on campus, such as #MoreThanDiversity and #EthnicStudiesNow, to push for funding and unwavering support for a critical race and ethnic studies department—and rightfully so. The fact that the provost has allocated funds for a department proposal could be a step in the right direction, but these funds should not be taken at face value, especially considering UChicago’s history of abandoning vital projects, perpetuating racist systems, and upholding white supremacy. From UChicago’s role in restrictive covenants on the South Side to aggressive policing from UCPD, it is no surprise that they shy away from establishing a department dedicated to scholarship from people of color. To say that this is a subtle form of racism would be incorrect when, to students of color, it’s blatant.

In the wake of recent racial unrest—from Black Lives Matter protests to the rise in anti-Asian violence—the CRES program has proven to be a vital force allowing students, especially those with marginalized identities, to reflect on and probe into difficult questions of race and identity. The program for critical race and ethnic studies provided by UChicago’s CSRPC gives “students interested in the study of race and racialized ethnic groups…the opportunity to take courses and participate in programs that illustrate how race and ethnicity and their structural manifestations impact and shape our lives on a daily basis.” The UChicago administration is complicit in racism by refusing to establish a department that would allow these students to engage, in an even more meaningful way, with racial injustices plaguing the contemporary world.

When campus administration provides a program of study without adequate infrastructure or resources, it is doomed to fail, and the fact that the CRES program of study is managed by the CSRPC rather than a University department has spawned a long list of difficulties for students and faculty affiliates. Since the CSRPC is not able to hire faculty, it ultimately relies on instructors who work in other departments. This means that there aren’t faculty members exclusively teaching CRES classes and this, consequently, minimizes the distinctiveness of the CRES program. This, in turn, means that CRES’s non-departmental status is not only an infrastructural impediment but an intellectual one as well; a history professor, no matter how talented, will never teach CRES classes as effectively as an individual who has dedicated their years of study to the intricacies that constitute this area of study. UChicago’s administration must establish better structures and support for students studying CRES by creating a fully funded department for the field, hiring new professors, and giving them sufficient resources to ensure that a CRES department is properly instated.

UChicago’s administration needs to reevaluate their commitment to diversity and inclusion, especially considering that their response to #MoreThanDiversity’s demands has merely been to fund a department proposal, refusing to fund the creation of the department itself or acknowledge its importance in dismantling racist systems. Critical race and ethnic studies serve to transform the conventional mode of thought surrounding race and give room for self-reflexive comprehension, so when the University creates obstacles for #MoreThanDiversity, they are also creating another obstacle for students to engage in transformative studies. Students seeking to study CRES deserve better than a poorly staffed center, and, regardless of the outcome of the proposal presented by #MoreThanDiversity, UChicago administration must establish a department dedicated solely to critical race and ethnic studies.

Jennifer Rivera is a second-year in the College.