New department is the result of an inclusive, faculty-led process underway since 2020

The University of Chicago’s Council of the University Senate approved a new Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity (RDI) at its meeting on Feb. 22. The new interdisciplinary department will be a home for ambitious scholarship on concepts that have helped shape the modern world and continue to reverberate in contemporary thought, culture and policy.

“The approved plan emerged from a process among our faculty in which strongly differing points of view have been put forth, through which many people changed their minds as they listened and engaged, and by which the proposal itself evolved in response to ideas of colleagues,” said President Paul Alivisatos and Provost Ka Yee C. Lee in a message to the University community. “We look forward to working with the Division of Social Sciences, as well as faculty, students, alumni and friends of the University as we build for the success of this new department.”

“This outcome is the culmination of years of dedicated collaboration and discussion among faculty and students across the University,” said two of the faculty leaders of the proposal, Adom Getachew, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science and the College; and Leora Auslander, the Arthur and Joann Rasmussen Professor in Western Civilization in the College and Professor of European Social History. “Our collective work has produced an original approach that will benefit our colleagues, students and this field of study as a whole. We are deeply grateful to everyone who has contributed to this process.”

At the University of Chicago, the proposal of a new academic department is a faculty-driven process. The Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity, which will have its academic home in the Division of the Social Sciences (SSD), emerged from such a process that began in Autumn 2020. A committee consisting of faculty members and doctoral students from SSD and Humanities studied departments at peer institutions, invited external speakers to help inform the process, and engaged with faculty and students across campus, including colleagues across SSD and Humanities and the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice. The discussions included deans and department chairs, students, program directors and other colleagues.

“We took part in hundreds of conversations reflecting an immense diversity of viewpoints. There were many tough questions along the way, and we engaged in good faith, which led to a constructive evolution of the proposal over time. This not only helped gain support for the proposal, it deepened our intellectual vision and the vision for the department,” said faculty committee member Adrienne Brown, an associate professor in the Department of English.

“Our collective work has produced an original approach that will benefit our colleagues, students and this field of study as a whole.”

—Asst. Prof. Adom Getachew and Prof. Leora Auslander, two of the faculty leaders of the RDI proposal

In addition, the Office of the Provost supported the committee’s exploratory work, which included a series of invited panelists in Winter 2021, forums open to UChicago faculty, students and staff. Those discussions and feedback informed the final proposal.

Of the 223 faculty members with primary or secondary appointments in SSD, 150 participated in an advisory vote on the RDI proposal in November 2021. Among those who participated, 83 percent supported the proposal. After that, Amanda Woodward, SSD dean and the William S. Gray Distinguished Service Professor of Psychology, sent the proposal to the Committee of the Council and the Council of the University Senate for consideration, discussion and a vote on whether to approve the proposal.

“Race, diaspora and indigeneity are among the most important topics studied across the social sciences,” Woodward said. “This new department offers an exciting advance in scholarly work in these areas because it aims to go beyond the study of particular social identities to investigate the historical and social processes that give rise to conceptions of race and human difference, processes that integrally involve the movements of people and connections between identity and place.”

The Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity is the fourth academic department created at the University of Chicago in the last decade. Proposals for the creation of academic departments follow the same process — a faculty proposal, consideration by the appropriate division, and discussion and vote in the Committee of the Council and the Council of the University Senate.

Faculty and students connected with the new department will explore topics increasingly viewed as interrelated and co-constituted, within the categories of race, diaspora and indigeneity. Uniting these subjects in a single department is a novel approach that will generate new questions and push the boundaries of existing fields. Race is commonly understood by scholars as a social construction that defines difference and shapes relations among people; the new department will encompass questions such as why race has been viewed in biological terms during some periods in history and in social or cultural terms at other times. Diaspora, based on a Greek word meaning “scatter,” refers to processes of migration and the ways in which groups separated by distance derive meaning from shared cultures. The concept of indigeneity has distinct meanings in different parts of the world, but it refers in part to the evolving self-identity of peoples in the context of often violent occupation or settlement of their land. Increasingly, scholars have examined complex intersections involving race, diaspora and indigeneity, including how concepts of modern political and social life are reconfigured from the perspective of indigenous political thought and cultural practices.

The novel intellectual framing of the new department contributed to its support. The new department’s comparative, historical and transnational approach will help advance areas of interest that are shared with other departments across the University. The department’s commitment to engaging with diverse theoretical perspectives and methodologies was also viewed as a strength.

In outlining the scope of the new department, the faculty committee acknowledged that the core subjects of race, diaspora and indigeneity are “contested concepts and categories.” Bringing them together will create new opportunities for field-defining research to advance understanding of these concepts, generate new research agendas and train a new generation of scholars.

The Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture has fulfilled vital functions on campus since its founding in 1996, and it will continue to serve as an institute devoted to the study of race. The CSRPC will support scholars and artists across the University and city, engage with communities on the South Side, host conferences and workshops, and support a range of projects among faculty and students. The new department will assume responsibility for all educational programs currently housed in the CSRPC.

The department will immediately begin its undergraduate program. Opportunities for graduate study will follow, including a Ph.D. certificate and collaboration with master’s programs. Plans for a doctoral program will be developed over the next several years.

“Colleagues both nationally and internationally have expressed remarkable enthusiasm and excitement about this initiative. This gives us confidence that we will be able to attract some of the most eminent and innovative scholars in these fields to our campus,” Auslander and Getachew said.