Is the University of Chicago Requiring Loyalty Oaths from its Faculty? | Opinion

The University of Chicago's English department, which has been ranked nationally as top in its field, has declared a set of beliefs to which its faculty is "committing." Its announcement began with the following mea culpa: "English as a discipline" has encouraged "colonization, exploitation, extraction and anti-Blackness." It then expressed the faculty's collective belief: "In light of this historical reality, we believe that undoing persistent, recalcitrant anti-Blackness in our discipline and in our institutions must be the collective responsibility of all faculty, here and elsewhere." Finally, it announced that "for the 2020-2021 graduate admissions cycle" it will accept "only applicants interested in working in and with Black Studies." It is this last restriction that has generated the most interest—and criticism. But it is the formal declaration of a collective creed by a university department that is most troubling.

Any individual faculty member is entitled to commit him or herself to what the English Department calls "the struggle of Black and Indigenous people and all racialized and dispossessed people, against inequality and brutality," but no department has the right to compel its faculty, staff or students to subscribe to any set of beliefs or commit to any "struggle." Universities, and departments within universities, must be open to all points of view, beliefs and struggles. In totalitarian countries around the world, universities are required to be aligned with governmentally approved values. And when I was in college, some universities required teachers to take loyalty oaths against Communism.

But in the United States today, professors and students must remain free to come to their own conclusions, to arrive at their own beliefs and to decide for themselves which struggles are most important. That is what real diversity requires—diversity of thought, belief and commitment, not imposed uniformity.

What if a faculty member or student does not "believe" that studying Shakespeare, Melville, Faulkner, Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell and Alice Walker has actually encouraged these evils? Will such faculty members or students be evaluated fairly and their work judged objectively?

How would the University of Chicago English department deal with a Zionist scholar who strongly believes that the struggle against anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is as important as the struggle of "dispossessed people?"

University of Chicago protest
Demonstrators protest a visit by Corey Lewandowski, President Donald Trump's former campaign manager, at the University of Chicago on February 15, 2017 (Photo by Scott Olson) Getty

Would it allow University of Pennsylvania professor Adolph Reed, an African American Marxist, to argue, as he does, that race—i.e., Blackness—is less important than class, in struggling against an unjust society?

Would it allow professors to assign Martin Luther King's speech in which the civil rights leader dreams of living in a nation where people will "not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character?" Will it disqualify any professor who is opposed to identity politics or race-based affirmative action?

Or what if a brilliant Shakespeare scholar is the daughter of a policeman who was killed in the line of duty and honestly believes that police are not systemically racist. Would she be denied tenure on that ground?

Will the English Department of the University of Chicago now demand loyalty oaths to the "collective" responsibility and belief in the department's "struggle?"

Allowing a university department to impose its collective beliefs on all professors and students is a core violation of academic freedom. It threatens freedom of speech and conscience. It coerces compliance by dissidents who fear cancelation and discrimination. It risks turning great universities into propaganda mills for political correctness. Most frighteningly, it threatens to produce a generation of leaders who have not been taught how to think for themselves, but instead have been indoctrinated into a groupthink reminiscent of Orwell's 1984—a book which I doubt will ever be assigned by the University of Chicago's brave new English curriculum.

Nor does the Chicago English department want to limit its imposed beliefs only to its own faculty and students. It insists that "all faculty, here and elsewhere" commit to its "struggle" and follow its lead. I hope they don't. It's the road to conformity and tyranny of the mind, even if well intentioned. As Justice Louis Brandeis cautioned a century ago: "The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men [and women] of zeal, well meaning but without understanding."

Alan M. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Emeritus at Harvard Law School and author of the book, Guilt by Accusation: The Challenge of Proving Innocence in the Age of #MeToo, Skyhorse Publishing, 2019.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.