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Divinity Student Advocacy Letter

April, 2017

We, the students of The University of Chicago Divinity School, write to address the recent controversy over Rachel Fulton Brown’s February 16th article in Sightings. We welcome commitments made by our administration and faculty to defend students genuinely threatened by harassment. However, we are compelled to contextualize Fulton Brown’s argument in our current political climate and wish to insist on further concrete actions from the Divinity School moving forward. These actions must cultivate an environment where all students are free not merely to express themselves but to exist as they are. No institution can thrive while significant portions of its population are at risk of being marked, targeted, threatened, or silenced.The publication of Fulton Brown’s article must be understood in its proper context: the escalation of bigotry and its violent effects, both locally and nationally. In fact, the central ideas Fulton Brown relates in her essay resonate with and act as means of harassment and recruitment common to the informal coalition of the self-identified alt-right. The correlations are straightforward. Her praise for Yiannopolous amplifies his antipathy to trans students and has welcomed threatening anti-trans fliering on our campus by white nationalists. Her selective valorization of European history along with her critiques of the modern academy and so-called multicultural Marxism aligns with the platform of another recently active white nationalist organization. One need not establish whether or not Fulton Brown supports or collaborates with these groups, given the bare ideological similitude. What remains essential, is the welcome offered to such individuals and organizations by national politics, University policy, and Sightings editorial standards. Unwittingly or otherwise, the publication of Fulton Brown’s article has provided a platform for the proliferation and mobilization of white supremacy, nativism, and patriarchal chauvinism.

Various interested parties have made public displays defending this kind of speech by resorting to arguments for “freedom of expression.” We find this line of reasoning disingenuous. The University itself deploys the rhetoric even as it threatens student activism with disciplinary action. Sightings, for its part, deferred to freedom of expression only in response to public critiques, none of which took into account the bodies this article endangered or the inability for the response to uproot the cause of bigotry. In both instances, a highly circumscribed idea of free expression has been deployed selectively and after the fact to dismiss criticism out of hand, to defend discriminatory speech, and to leverage ‘shared ideals’ against anyone who merely expresses opposition to established authorities. Under these conditions, “lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation” is impossible.

Freedom of expression cannot exist without freedom of subjects. We take this approach because we firmly believe that students are able to critically assess their ideals and intellectual commitments. Central to Fulton Brown’s critique of the modern academy is her belief that students are passive vessels to be filled by the ideological priorities of their instructors. We reject any characterization of students that assumes we are incapable of discerning the critical quality of arguments. Such characterizations, regardless of whether they come from Fulton Brown, her allies, or her critics, only lend credence to Fulton Brown’s insistence that our rejection of her own particular religious frame is not a practice of discernment, but rather an effect of indoctrination. We discern and describe our terrain with analytical categories of race, class, and gender that require capacious critical thinking as well as serious engagement with so-called “politically incorrect” speech, not its avoidance.

Freedom of subjects requires a prior commitment to protecting the physical, emotional, and intellectual security of all people, especially those most concretely and historically threatened: people of color, lgbtq+, trans*, gender non-conforming people, immigrants, undocumented people, women, religious minorities, and differently-abled people. Failure to adhere to these commitments is reflected in the University’s recent Campus Climate Survey, in which students who identify as members of marginalized groups report higher incidence of physical violence, intimidation, discrimination, and harassment. In spite of these facts, University statements have not addressed freedom of subjects, instead focusing on free expression. This preference denigrates the creation of safe spaces and the use of trigger warnings, vital resources both for those who have experienced trauma and for the cultivation of effective educational environments.

Accordingly, we demand that the Divinity School take specific actions to help define the climate and values that we seek to sustain in our shared institution. First, the Diversity Committee at the Divinity School needs to be reformed with official student representation and participation with equal procedural authority. Second, we request more programing at orientation events to proactively combat current climate issues. Finally, we request annual Divinity School climate surveys with published results and action plans to maintain transparency as we continue to define our institution in the future. With such actions we hope to build the Divinity School as a safe and flourishing environment for all of its students, faculty, and administration.

Signatures

Héctor M. Varela Rios PhD Student, Theology
Anonymous PhD Candidate History of Christianity
Anonymous PhD Candidate History of Christianity
William Underwood MA
Sara-Jo Swiatek PhD Student, Religious Ethics
Anonymous Student PhD Student, Religious Ethics
Greg Chatterley PhD Candidate, Religions in America
Allison Kanner PhD Student, Islamic Studies
Kiva Nice-Webb MDiv Student
Diane Picio PhD Student, Religion, Literature, & Visual Culture
Marielle Harrison PhD Student, History of Religions
Ramzi Nimr MA
Foster J. Pinkney PhD Student, Religious Ethics
Charlotte Heltai MA
Mendel Kranz PhD Student, Philosophy of Religions
Daniel Wyche PhD Candidate, Philosophy of Religions
Maryam Sabbaghi PhD Student, Islamic Studies
Ernest A. Brooks III MA Student
Danielle DeLano MA
Nathan J. Hardy PhD Student, History of Christianity
David J. Cohen PhD Student, History of Judaism
Elizabeth Sartell PhD Student, Islamic Studies
Raúl Zegarra PhD Student, Theology
Kelly Holob PhD Student, Bible
Samantha Pellegrino MA
Alex Matthews PhD student, Islamic Studies
Olivia Bustion PhD Student, Theology
Shelly Tilton MA
Aslan Cohen Mizrahi PhD Candidate, Hebrew Bible
Judith Guy Mdiv Student
Claire Hautot PhD Student, Religions in America
Matthew Peterson PhD Student, Philosophy of Religions
Caroline Anglim PhD Student, Religious Ethics
Miriam Attia PhD student, Religious Ethics
Miriam Bilsker PhD student, History of Judaism
Chelsea Cornelius MDiv Student
Timothy Gutmann PhD candidate, Islamic studies
Erin Simmonds MA
Juliana Locke MA
Samuel Stella MA
A. Tonks Lynch MDiv
Myung-Sahm Suh PhD Candidate, Anthropology & Sociology of Religion
Seth Auster-Rosen PhD Student, Philosophy of Religions
Keri Anderson MDiv Student
Sara Lytle MDiv Student
Sarah Lusche Mdiv Student
Anonymous PhD Candidate, History of Judaism
RL Watson PhD Candidate, Religion and Literature

(Signatures last updated 5/4/17)

To add your signature to this letter, follow this link: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSdeckVZXet_2Q3Lm-yxu1X2FF9MmTRROPyKyosG8-C5jYKyvw/viewform