After A Summer Of Protests, University of Chicago Students And Faculty See Little Change On Campus

Activists and faculty for years have pushed for changes they say would make the university more welcoming to people of color.

Maurice Washington is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. He says he and other students of color can feel alienated on campus. Esther Yoon-Ji Kang / WBEZ
Maurice Washington is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. He says he and other students of color can feel alienated on campus. Esther Yoon-Ji Kang / WBEZ

After A Summer Of Protests, University of Chicago Students And Faculty See Little Change On Campus

Activists and faculty for years have pushed for changes they say would make the university more welcoming to people of color.

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For Maurice Washington, the corner of 60th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue is more than just a busy intersection where the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus meets Washington Park.

“This, to me, symbolizes the division between the haves and the have-nots, the privileged and the underprivileged,” Washington said, looking west from the corner, just a block from the university’s glimmering Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts building.

Washington is a graduate student in UChicago’s School of Social Service Administration. A native of nearby Englewood, he attended Chicago public schools that have since shuttered. After college in Michigan and a year serving with AmeriCorps in Arizona, he returned to his beloved South Side, where he said “[his] heart and soul are.”

At the elite university where he is currently studying, however, Washington said he has felt unwelcome at times.

“How could a person who resides on the South Side of Chicago — Woodlawn, South Shore, Washington Park, Greater Grand Crossing — feel comfortable and welcome on a campus where it’s so policed and so patrolled?” Washington said, pointing to a parking lot where he said he has seen officers from the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) and the Chicago Police Department, plus security guards employed by the university.

He recalled being singled out at an event he attended on campus. The only Black student in his class, Washington was with his professor and classmates when a security guard said, “Hey, you!” and summoned him.

“And as I started walking towards him, my professor looked at him as well, like, ‘What’s the issue?’” Washington remembered. “When [the officer] finally realized I was actually a graduate student there, he just completely let it go. In a way, I guess I look like a typical South Sider, but we shouldn’t even be deciding who’s worthy of being on campus and who’s not.”

For Washington and other students of color at UChicago, feeling unwelcome at the university stems not just from what they call a heavy presence of police on campus. They also take issue with the way the university engages its neighboring community, the paucity of academic courses devoted to race, and what they say is a lack of resources for students of color.

After years of activism on campus around these issues, and a summer of protests over racial justice, some students and faculty at the University of Chicago are frustrated that the meaningful change they are looking for has not taken place at an institution that prides itself on being rooted in the South Side. What’s happening at UChicago is not unique — many other colleges, including Northwestern University in Evanston, are being called on to take more action on issues of racial justice.

Policing on campus

In response to this summer’s protests, the university came out with statements affirming its long-standing commitments to diversity and inclusion. It also pointed to a range of community programs and services on the South Side and noted reforms to its police force over the past 10 years.

In an August statement, President Robert Zimmer also vowed to take steps to listen to the community and make improvements to campus police and public safety on campus. But the university is adamant that the campus force remain, saying it “provides a vital service in helping to keep safe and support” the campus and the surrounding communities.

For student activists and some faculty, the statements are not only insufficient, but incongruous.

“The university just has a bunch of false claims of wanting to practice diversity and inclusion in what they do,” said second-year student Chioma Nwoye. “But even diversity and inclusion isn’t really enough for all the harm that they do.”

Nwoye is part of UChicago United, a coalition of multicultural student groups that advocates for more cultural centers for students of color and for increased community input over what the university does. But two big issues dominate their work and similar efforts by faculty: They want to see the campus police defunded, and they want an ethnic studies department created.

Over the summer, organizers with a group called #CareNotCops staged two occupations to protest UCPD, the city’s largest private police force with a jurisdiction that extends beyond Hyde Park. The #CareNotCops campaign, which calls for the abolition of the UCPD, was created after campus police shot a student who was experiencing a mental health episode. The first protest this summer was at UCPD headquarters; the second was in front of the home of UChicago Provost Ka Yee Lee.

Over the summer, organizers #CareNotCops protested against the University of Chicago Police Department in front of the home of the University of Chicago’s provost. Paul Goyette / Courtesy of UChicago United

Student activists asked for a public meeting with administration to discuss defunding the police. The university did not agree to a public forum; in a Sept. 1 statement, Lee wrote that organizers “rejected a constructive dialogue” by insisting on a public meeting. Lee also wrote that “the University has no intention of disbanding the UCPD” and referred to the August statement from President Zimmer.

Alicia Hurtado, a #CareNotCops activist, said South Side communities have been making their feelings about UCPD clear for years, but the university has not listened.

“The way they’ve been talking about policing has undermined any sort of claims that the university is a welcoming place for people of color and that the university cares about the surrounding community,” she said.

Washington, the Englewood native, said the balance between public safety and public service is off at UChicago. “If you invested more in the South Side, you won’t have to invest so much in public safety.” He also said community members should be included “in discussions at the highest levels.”

Studying race

Another ongoing fight at UChicago has been the struggle to create an academic department devoted to the study of race. The university offers a major and a minor in Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies, but the lack of a department has limited the program’s scope and reach. For example, the program has little power to hire instructors to teach race-related courses and create a robust and consistent curriculum.

“This has been a demand even before I came on campus,” said Lilly Le, a fourth-year student who has been part of a campaign called #EthnicStudiesNow. “It’s not surprising, but kind of disappointing that, despite all the things that are going on in the city of Chicago — and also nationwide conversations around like all these important issues concerning race and racial justice — we’re still not seeing meaningful change happen.”

Hurtado, with the #CareNotCops campaign, said, “The education that I’m receiving is not something that was made for me; it’s an education that was made for a white student, for an affluent student.”

The appetite for a new department devoted to race extends to faculty members as well, according to Adom Getachew, an assistant professor of political science at the university.

“The University of Chicago sometimes feels like a place where the 1960s didn’t really happen,” Getachew said. “Many departments of this kind, African American studies or ethnic studies, were created really in the 1960s, early ’70s, as the result of student protest and student demand.”

She added most universities in Chicago and across the United States have ethnic studies departments, “so [UChicago] is very behind on this question.”

The University of Chicago Hyde Park campus last spring. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

Getachew also pointed to the university’s own “Climate Survey” in 2016, a temperature check on campus attitudes on issues of diversity and inclusion. The survey found that 78% of Black UChicago community members “considered not recommending the university to a prospective member” of their respective communities.

“You can see a combination of neglect or marginalization or a sort of superficial or not deep enough engagement and interest” from the university, Getachew said.

As a response to what they called the university’s “hollow” professed commitments to diversity and inclusion, Getachew and about 60 faculty members launched a campaign in early August called #MoreThanDiversity.” In a detailed, seven-page letter, faculty issued a set of demands, including the formation of an ethnic studies department, defunding of UCPD, and a new commission to look at ways the university can repair its relationship with its surrounding communities.

Two professors leading the campaign penned an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune calling out the university for refusing to acknowledge its harms to the South Side, for discouraging student protests and in general paying lip service to diversity and inclusion. The piece acknowledged the work of undergraduate activists, as well as efforts from Black graduate students, who penned their own letter to administration this fall.

As leverage for their demands, some professors in the #MoreThanDiversity campaign are participating in a work stoppage, refusing to take part in faculty searches and what they perceive are nominal committees related to diversity and inclusion, as well as not allowing their work to be publicized by the University’s press office.

“We’re holding some of our labor hostage until we can address some of these more systemic issues,” said Adrienne Brown, an associate professor of English at UChicago and co-author of the op-ed.

Brown and Getachew say there has been some movement since the start of their campaign, but that progress has been uneven. For example, the group and the administration don’t see eye-to-eye on policing, Getachew said. But the provost’s office did give the OK — and dedicated some funds — to develop a proposal for a new department, albeit with no guarantees that the university would approve the proposal. Also in the works, Getachew said, is a truth and justice commission to explore how UChicago can repair its relationship with its neighbors.

The university declined WBEZ’s request for an interview but sent a statement from Lee. She said the administration and faculty have been “engaged in productive discussions concerning many of the issues they have raised.”

“Our discussions have been thoughtful, enlightening, and characterized by mutual respect and collegiality,” Lee wrote. She said the two groups have made progress on a number of fronts, and she plans to provide “an update on next steps” early in the new year.

Those updates can’t come soon enough for students like Maurice Washington. He is set to graduate in the spring, and said he hopes to find work in public service on the South or West sides of Chicago.

He also shared a call to action for his soon-to-be alma mater: Prioritize the voices of community members and students of color.

“The [university is] portraying [itself] as a community-based institution, but we don’t feel it,” he said. “And that’s the issue — we don’t feel welcome.”

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk and WBEZ’s Education desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.