Alumni Spotlight: Christopher Manning
Northwestern History Ph.D. alum Christopher Manning will become the University of Southern California’s first Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer.
Current Ph.D. student Mikala Stokes spoke with him about his path from Northwestern to Loyola University Chicago to the City of Angels.
Why did you decide to become a historian?
I always wanted to use my education for the benefit of Americans. I was always interested in the question, why did some people do well, and why did others not do well? As an undergrad, I had this perception of European immigrants coming to this country and not having full privileges of whiteness, but then somehow over time they got those privileges. That’s before I understood white racial formation.
My intention was to go to law school and become a lawyer, but when I was an undergraduate, I participated in the University of Florida Collegiate Scholars in History Program, for women and underrepresented folks, and also the Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP), at the University of Chicago. I realized that there was a need for more people of color to get doctorates in various areas, so when I realized that was a professional opportunity, I took it up. I knew that we had a lot of lawyers in the political system, but they don’t always have a long-term perspective. They’re concerned with victories in the present, without understanding the patterns that got us here in the first place. So, for example, if you don’t understand Bacon’s Rebellion and how it established a false narrative that pushed apart the African and African American and white working classes, and if you don’t understand how that figured during the antebellum period, through Reconstruction, to Jim Crow, to the present, then you won’t understand contemporary historical phenomenon, like the Trump election, which, I think, was basically the same. It’s the same razzle dazzle they pulled during Bacon’s Rebellion, when they made European indentured servants somehow feel as if they were in a different and better position than African servants. They created two categories of people where there had not been before that. Tim Breen taught me that.
What was it like to be a graduate student at Northwestern?
Let me say right off the bat that I’m very grateful for the education I got at Northwestern. But it was a curious place to be. I went to the University of Alabama at Huntsville, a small regional school. I excelled there, working 30 hours a week, taking a course overload, and receiving a 3.8 GPA. I graduated a little early, and started at Northwestern at the age of 21. My undergraduate adviser was Johanna Shields, who had been a President of the Southern History Association. She warned me that graduate school wouldn’t be a place where you find social support and connections, so you need to make sure to go to graduate school in a geographic and cultural region where you can find the support that you need. That was true!
It’s not obvious in my bio, but I was a professional Latin dancer, from 1997 to two years ago. It was really Latin dance that sustained me through my graduate career. I was really young. Most of the grad students were at least 25, and some were in their late 30s. I wasn’t always interested in doing what they were doing. I didn’t want to go to coffee shops and talk about Foucault, or go to a bar and have a beer. I wasn’t interested in any of that stuff. He also noticed that when he and another Black student went to parties, white students left when they entered the room. They didn’t leave right away, but they left. So, they were like, what’s going on? For me, grad school was a place where I got my work done. I did what I needed to do, and went about my business.
Northwestern is a very different place for a working-class kid who had their first job at age 12, going to school at a place where kids got Mercedes and BMWs for gifts, then complained about how they didn’t get into Ivy League schools. I just couldn’t relate to those folks.
My education was great, though. Particular shout out to Tim Breen, who was the best instructor I ever had. And Bob Wiebe, who was my mentor. And Adam Green, who’s now at the University of Chicago. But I definitely had to build significant support networks outside of graduate school, which I would really recommend to all graduate students. There were other Black students when I was there, but no Latinx or Asian American students. Because I had other connections, though, I didn’t experience emotional distress. I would go to Northwestern for class, then go home.
How did Northwestern send you on your current path?
The quality of education you get at Northwestern means you’re always going to get a second look, wherever you show up. I was determined to have a career in Chicago. I did a program that was called Preparing Future Faculty. It was a wonderful, wonderful program, created by Northwestern, and by a woman named Penny Warren, who used to be in the diversity division of The Graduate School. She was the guardian angel of countless generations of students of color.
I did that program in my second and third year. I was on the market three years before I was done. I applied everywhere—Purdue University Calumet (now Purdue University Northwest), National Louis University—I applied to every school and just sent them letters. Loyola saw my letter and offered me a Visiting Assistant Professorship with a joint appointment in Poli Sci and History.
I think the Northwestern background helped with that a lot. I had already taught several classes at Northwestern, so I felt very strong in the classroom. The classes I taught at Northwestern became the baseline for my classes at Loyola. Also, my major field exam paper, on American history from year zero to now, is basically my American pluralism course that I’ve taught for the past twenty years. So, that came in really handy.
What was your experience as a faculty member at Loyola?
I liked Loyola because their diversity appeared to be greater than Northwestern’s, particularly in terms of class. My impression of the students I was working with was that there were more first gen students, more Latinx students, more students from the Middle East, not as many African American students, as I recall. But it was a more diverse diversity, which is closer to my experience as an Army child.
I taught for a long time, from 2001 to 2015. I had a lot of satisfaction as a professor, really shaping the minds of the students in my classes. But around 2015, I also wanted to do something that was a little bit more impactful socially, kind of connecting back to why I got into Higher Ed in the first place. And even though I have an active research agenda—I have a book on social justice in New Orleans about to come out—I still wanted to do something that impacted people in real time, rather than impacting groups of scholars. That’s when I really began to transition to doing the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Work.
What drew you to administrative work?
I published my first book in 2009. That was a very interesting feeling. I did the book, got tenure, and then felt kind of a letdown. Since 1995, that was the goal: get a job at a good school, publish the book, get tenure. But honestly, I found it a little unsatisfying. At that time, I was still a dance instructor, and I began to get most of my fulfillment on the arts side—that active molding of people who wanted to be artists, to sort of reveal their artistic selves, and on the academic side, the active effort of molding people who wanted to have a better understanding of the world, helping them become their better selves. My favorite moments in the classroom were when you had a chalkboard, and you had students breaking down Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color, and putting up their outlines of each chapter on the board, and working together. That kind of thing is beautiful to me.
I’d gone to New Orleans to do some volunteer work after Hurricane Katrina. Then between 2008 and 2010, I went to Ghana and Tanzania and Kenya. We saw the work that Catholic charities were doing with victims of the AIDS crisis. We were with a group, and the person who was leading our group said, don’t go back to the United States and think you’re going to save Africa. Instead, ask yourself what you could be doing with your talents to make your area of the world better? That’s when I formed my nonprofit, Inspiración Dance Chicago, with kind of a DEI mission.
We basically utilized Latin dance to enhance the lives of young people in high schools. We also wanted to enhance the experience of Latinx students at Loyola, to give them a cultural touchstone where they felt included. And then our third point was to bring together diverse adult dancers. That started in 2011, and in 2016 the President of Loyola asked me if I could be their special representative on issues of race. I said Yes, I would do it, if I could be more than a representative. I asked specifically if I could develop programming to improve the circumstances of people of color, and women, and our LGBTQIA colleagues, and people with disabilities in our institution. I was like, if I can’t do the programming, I don’t really want the gig. They agreed to that.
When the interim president returned to the Provost’s office, I went with him to Academic Affairs. There was no programming at all, even though we had someone in the Chief Diversity Office role. With skills that I learned at Northwestern, I did a qualitative interview project with faculty of color. I coded and themed the data, and with the coding and themes I ended up developing my programming for three years. The next year, I did interviews with women faculty, again coded and themed the data, and used that to develop more programming. So, the qualitative analysis skills I got as a graduate student were really helpful in being able to do what’s called grounded analysis with communities at Loyola, and then turn that into policies and programming around DEI work. Currently, I’m doing the same thing at USC. I’ve interviewed 70 people since March 1st, and I have about 700 hours of interviews. I don’t believe in making DEI programming without talking to the people you hope to support.
What are you excited about at USC? What will you be doing in this new role?
With this being an inaugural role, you have to build the apparatus. Depending on the institution, you have more or less to work with. Also, you don’t know exactly what the content of that is. What is fortunate about USC is that there is a lot of content to work with. First, we are in the most diverse city in the United States, on the Pacific Rim, where everyone wants to be. We have a very, very diverse undergraduate population—remarkably diverse for both our ranking, and our price point. Like Northwestern, we have the program where there’s sort of a debt ceiling for students. So, we have a lot of inputs. And over the years, a lot of DEI programming has happened. USC is gigantic. I think it has 23 schools and colleges. All of those schools and colleges have initiated DEI programming. Part of the issue is that it’s very decentralized, so we don’t have a baseline experience, but that’s great, because it means I’ll have a lot to work with.
A couple things that I’ll be doing, broadly speaking. Similar to Loyola, I’ve engaged in an intentional process of trying to understand the community, to know what they want and need. They include staff, students, faculty, community members, alumni, senior executive leaders—the full gamut. Then, I want to start proposing early wins; early win pilot programming based on what people are looking for. A lot of times, what people are looking for can be accomplished pretty quickly, but you have to find out what it is. Then I’ll have to do two more things. First, I’ll figure out how to bring together dozens and dozens of programs across the university and make it a cohesive whole, which is basically like writing a dissertation in history. Second, I’ll work to create a singular message that conveys our institution’s intentionality around DEI.
The thing that’s interesting to me is that you may not have gone to school to do DEI work, but you have a fully-fledged vision of what you think it should be, and all of the logistics that go into it.
Yeah. One thing I’ll say is that I didn’t earn a history degree because I wanted to be a historian per se. I got a history degree because I thought it was the best way to understand the circumstances of working class, minoritized, and underprivileged people in the United States and then be able to work on the ground for change. I would not have gotten a history degree just because the topic is interesting. If I didn't see immediate application to improving the circumstances of our brothers and sisters across this country, I wasn't that interested. That was my mission from jump. Period.
History was the vehicle for getting me there. Teaching students was the vehicle. If I’ve got a black student, a Latinx student, a white student, an LGBTQ student, a student who has a disability, all working together on a project about something like, I don’t know, the status of women in the colonial period, that’s AWESOME! All of those people are gonna be better humans when they finish. That was always the mission. And my mission has always been to utilize my education and skillsets to make this a better place, and wherever that takes me is where I’m going to go.
Last question. There’s a long history of colleges and universities using people of color doing social justice work, either on campuses or maybe larger efforts that can be appropriated and even exploited. Now that you’re in this role, what do you think institutions of higher learning can do to not just appropriate social justice and equity work, but also have long term community building?
Great question. First, an institution needs to enter into DEI work with the explicit notion that this is everyone’s work. That actually goes beyond minoritized populations. That also addresses the divisional infrastructure of Higher Ed. So, a university has multiple divisions—academic affairs, student affairs, finance, marketing & communications, etc. Most of the DEI work on campus takes place in two divisions: student affairs and academic affairs. That’s a problem right away, because not all of the support structures have any notion of DEI goals and planning and accountability. You’re putting all of the weight on faculty and academic-facing staff. It’s not only an issue of the essentialized identities doing the work, it’s also certain identities in the university. At USC, what I hope to do is build a cadre of folks who are able to work in DEI across every division and across every category.
Second, I want to remunerate people for their work. Don’t take advantage of the fact that a woman who’s in science will say to herself, she doesn’t want other women to experience the same difficulty that she had, and therefore she puts her energy into that work. Don’t take advantage of that work, or don’t take advantage of that person’s bad experience as motivating them to do work. Remunerate people for their time. That means on the staff side, people need to get releases from their Directors, so they can do DEI work and still get paid. If they’re going to train to be DEI trainers, it should be a certification that they can put on their resume and help them with their career advancement. If they’re faculty, they should get course releases, so they can do the work.
We also need to change our evaluation processes, really for all of our employees across the university, to make DEI part of their evaluation. Speaking just from the faculty side: how does your research address the circumstance of minoritized or underrepresented people? How has your teaching or mentoring supported the presence of minoritized or underrepresented people in our field? How has your service contributed to the circumstances of minoritized people in the university? That should be in your yearly evaluation, and if you’re not doing one of them, you’re not leading us to excellence. That loops you right back to point one, making it something that everyone does, not just individuals.
Last but not least, I am very explicit in telling people who do DEI, that they need to practice self-care. There is no amount of blood, sweat, tears, crying, anger, sadness, or depression, that will make oppression go away. You can have all those feelings day and night, and all those -isms will still exist. So, why would you do that? If you let the -isms of the world break you down, stress you out, cause you to have high blood pressure, diabetes, or a heart attack, you let oppression win. So, do your work, go home and watch Netflix. Do your work, and go to Church. Do your work, and go to the gym. But don’t do DEI in your head all the time, because it’s bigger than you are. You have to separate that, or you won’t survive in the work. And as a historian, if you’re an Americanist, you know the toll emotionally that the Civil Rights Movement took on the people involved in it. And that was back in the 50s and 60s, when we didn’t know better. Now we know better. So, take care of self, so you can be in the struggle for longer and more effectively.