The UChicago community is searching for answers after a graduate’s murder

Dennis Zheng’s murder sparked turmoil on campus and beyond. Six people with a stake in the crisis share their take on the path forward.

Zheng Memorial
An impromptu memorial of flowers, stuffed animals and signs was constructed at the site of the Nov. 9, 2021 murder of Shaoxiong "Dennis" Zheng, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ
Zheng Memorial
An impromptu memorial of flowers, stuffed animals and signs was constructed at the site of the Nov. 9, 2021 murder of Shaoxiong "Dennis" Zheng, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

The UChicago community is searching for answers after a graduate’s murder

Dennis Zheng’s murder sparked turmoil on campus and beyond. Six people with a stake in the crisis share their take on the path forward.

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The murder of a University of Chicago graduate last month, just a block from campus, has thrown the Hyde Park community into turmoil like nothing else in its recent history.

It was the third murder of a person affiliated with the university this year in a city grappling with a surge in violence, prompting what some on campus are calling an “existential crisis” for the school. In response, UChicago has ramped up policing and surveillance, while also talking about longer-term structural solutions to social issues that drive crime.

University leaders are calling safety the school’s top priority as they try to calm rattled students, parents and faculty as well as protect the long-term prospects for the school. But its moves are exacerbating long-simmering tensions within the South Side, majority-Black neighborhoods UChicago is nestled in, which have often been subject to over-policing, crime and are under-resourced.

The delicate balance all urban universities try to strike between taking care of their own and protecting their interests, while trying to be a good neighbor and a part of the city they inhabit, is now on display for everyone to inspect.

In the weeks following the murder, WBEZ has been tracking the reactions of students, community members, politicians and others at the center of this unfolding crisis.

Paul Alivisatos

UChicago president

Paul Alivisatos

A day after the Nov. 9 murder of Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng, President Alivisatos offered condolences to Zheng’s family and his loved ones in a video message.

“Tragically, violence afflicts our city and others in the U.S.,” Alivisatos said. “It is more vital than ever for the University of Chicago and our neighbors on the South Side to show what is possible by coming together with purpose and creativity to address this issue.”

Zheng, a 24-year-old from China who recently graduated with a master’s in statistics, was shot and killed during a robbery on 54th Street at the edge of campus.

Within 48 hours, Alivisatos and other university officials hosted a forum to announce short-term steps to address public safety: adding officers, surveillance and cameras to the Hyde Park area, more collaboration with the Chicago Police Department and extending transportation services for students.

Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown said six permanent positions were added to the second district, which serves Hyde Park, with 10 more coming by the end of the year and another 10 early next year. The university police department also announced plans to start a 24-hour center to adjust police deployments quickly and a new unit to support victims of serious crime.

“I would like to state unequivocally that safety is my top priority,” Alivisatos said at a follow up forum on Nov. 17. “We are diligently working to make it safer on and around our campus.”

UChicago officials also pledged to develop a long-term safety plan with Brown and Mayor Lori Lightfoot to get at the root causes of rising violence in the neighborhood and the city.

But the unfolding situation had already taken on a life of its own, leaving students, faculty and locals divided over whether increased policing is the right way to respond.

It also has raised longstanding questions about the role UChicago has played in gentrifying the South Side and whether that has contributed to increased violence.

The university has a long and often fraught history as it has expanded and imposed itself on Hyde Park and its neighbors.

Amid this crisis, Alivisatos has maintained that UChicago will not wall itself off from the rest of the South Side. When asked in a forum whether UChicago was considering creating barriers to protect the university as some other urban schools have, Alivisatos said “I don’t want us to have a wall.”

“We’re a part of the city,” he said. “We’re not separate from it.”

UChicago Campus
The University of Chicago campus. Simonne Carlton declined to be photographed. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

Simonne Carlton

UChicago graduate student

Graduate student Simonne Carlton said she’s felt an overwhelming sense of sadness for the students who knew Zheng personally.

She understands why an institution like UChicago would call on law enforcement in a crisis, but the grad student in fine arts said she doesn’t think it’s “the most productive way to deal with harm caused to students on our campus.”

“The police presence makes a lot of students uncomfortable, particularly students of color and Black students,” said Carlton, who is Black and from Chicago. “It also makes for an unsafe environment for the people who live in this neighborhood who are not a part of the university community.”

In addition to more Chicago police, the university police force is stepping up its patrols. Its area extends far beyond UChicago’s footprint, south into Woodlawn and north into North Kenwood/Oakland. It also extends from the Lakefront west to Cottage Grove. These areas are mostly African-American and struggle with more violence than Hyde Park.

There have long been calls by some students and activists to disband the university’s police department, and they’ve grown louder in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. Many people of color, students and community members, have long complained of being over-policed and singled out, with many arguing for addressing crime on the South Side by investing in people and institutions rather than through policing. The university says it has reformed the university police but is committed to retaining it.

In the immediate aftermath of Zheng’s murder, students reported a rise in anti-Black sentiment on campus, particularly over social media, that paints Black students and Black residents of neighboring communities with a broad brush. The man arrested in Zheng’s murder is Black.

For Carlton personally, the increased policing on campus has left her anxious. She’s had bad experiences with city police in the past. “And I know that when it comes to going on campus, there’s a certain way that I now feel like I have to act or behave or be careful of, because I don’t want to get profiled if something is happening and … they’re looking for someone,” she said.

Carlton said she feels like she has to move differently because of how law enforcement disproportionately targets Black, brown and marginalized people nationwide.

“If other students feel more comfortable with more police being around,” she said, then “good for them. But it’s not the same for all of us.”

Yue Gong

UChicago Ph.D. student

Yue Gong

Yue Gong, a Ph.D. student from China, said she’s felt paranoid since the death of Zheng.

“He appeared in a safe place at a safe time, but he got killed,” said Gong, who is studying computer science. “So every time I pass that place … I feel like I could be like the next one to get killed.”

Gong attended a student-organized rally after the incident where more than 200 UChicago students, many of them Asian or from elsewhere abroad, called on the university for safety improvements. The slogan of the rally was “We are here to learn, not die,” and students held signs saying “Keep us alive,” and “Who is next?”

About 400 faculty members also signed an open letter asking the university to take immediate, specific actions to address violence on and around the campus. The letter includes a broad cross section of faculty but many who signed are also Asian.

“These recent tragedies have had a negative impact on the reputation of our university,” the faculty wrote. “They have also severely affected our capability of attracting and retaining talented students and researchers. U of C is being depicted as one of the most dangerous campuses in the United States by several international news outlets. Even more concerning, the repeated gun violence on and around campus has started to affect our students’ willingness to go to classes in person.”

Akira Imamoto, a UChicago biology professor, said he signed the letter because recent incidents of violence in the Hyde Park area have just felt “too close” to campus.

“This year has just been exceptional, in a bad way,” he said.

Imamoto said other faculty members have been reluctant to talk about signing the letter because of how polarizing the issues of policing and gun ownership are in the U.S. He added that the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans this past year has made the discussion over policing even more sensitive for a group that is feeling targeted.

Others say international students and faculty might have a different perspective on policing that “comes from [having experienced] policing in a different country, and it’s very different the way that policing is racialized in the United States,” Jasmine Lu, a graduate computer science student, said in a WBEZ report last month.

Gong said she has felt safer since the university increased policing and extended its free Lyft program at night. But Gong still feels the need to stay alert on and off campus.

“We also need to keep a normal life,” she said. “We can’t not go out of our homes, just to not go anywhere because of those safety issues.”

Mario Smith

Mario Smith

Poet, writer, radio host

Mario Smith has lived in the Hyde Park area for the last two decades. He heard the gunshots on the day of Zheng’s murder from his apartment on 51st street.

He says the surge in violence in Hyde Park is on par with the spike in crime across the city of Chicago, where the murder rate has already exceeded 800 murders this year, the most violent year in a quarter century. But when tragedies happen within the UChicago community, they receive more attention than in surrounding neighborhoods, he said.

“When you talk about the University of Chicago, you have to talk about Woodlawn, you have to talk about Kenwood, you have to talk about west of 55th Street,” he said, talking about the neighborhoods on all sides of Hyde Park. “These areas are feeling the brunt [of violence and over-policing] more than the insular Hyde Park neighborhood is.”

He expects that to get worse now that there is more law enforcement in the area.

Still, he understands the university needs to look after its own interests.

“Of course you’re gonna protect somebody that’s paying that much money to be in your care,” Smith said. “No one is implying that they shouldn’t take care of those folks. But I don’t see more cops and more cameras as a solution. And it looks like that’s the band aid they’re going to put on it.”

Smith thinks UChicago officials and politicians should be more willing to involve South Side residents in conversations about policing and working to give people the tools needed to help themselves, such as affordable housing and mental health services.

Leslie Hairston

5th ward alderman

Leslie Hairston
Ald. Leslie Hairston at Hillary Clinton for president rally. Andrew Gill

Alderman Leslie Hairston, whose ward includes parts of Hyde Park, Woodlawn and extends south to 79th Street, said residents have been as divided as students over policing concerns.

“I think that it’s important that they [UChicago] take these steps,” Hairston said. “It’s their responsibility to educate their students and keep them safe … and not everybody is going to agree with the response.”

She said the violence in Hyde Park is part of the city’s larger struggle with gun violence.

“We are in a crisis,” Hairston said of the city as a whole, “and we have the responsibility to respond. It isn’t going to be perfect. But at the end of the day, we’re trying to keep everybody safe.”

Hairston said it’s going to take more than a month to develop a plan that adequately addresses public safety and the socioeconomic disparities in Hyde Park and the surrounding communities.

“If there was a magic wand, one that we could wave and make this go away, surely we would,” she said. “But that is not the situation. And we are all working 24/7 trying to figure out how to deal with this. But this is not just a policing issue. This is a social equity issue. This is a social justice issue. And it is a family issue as well.”

Davarian Baldwin

Davarian Baldwin

Professor of American studies at Trinity College

Davarian Baldwin, who researches universities in urban settings, says Zheng’s murder highlights the disparity between the prosperity of college campuses such as UChicago’s and the poverty that often surrounds them.

Baldwin says similar tensions are playing out in Philadelphia. After two shooting deaths near the campus of Temple University in November, the university announced it would increase policing and add cameras around campus.

And in New York City, Columbia University is having similar conversations about safety with New York City officials and police following the fatal Dec. 2 stabbing of a doctoral student near campus.

“When we look at crime as connective tissue, these are mostly crimes of poverty. Why else would somebody try to steal a cell phone? To sell it,” Baldwin said. Zheng was murdered during a robbery. “So when we pull back and look at the response that we see at Temple, at Columbia, at UChicago, these shootings become a gateway into ramping up the policing infrastructure that universities have been building over the last 30 … 40 years,” he explained.

The impact has become more profound as armed university police officers have been given authority to reach deeper into neighborhoods beyond campus, Baldwin said.

“This is critical because, especially with private schools like UChicago and Columbia, this creates a dynamic where you have private police forces with public authority with limited public oversight,” Baldwin said.

He doesn’t think the policing response will solve UChicago or the city’s problems.

“From an institutional standpoint, it makes sense that they have to offer an immediate show of force because they’re worried about student enrollment atrophying,” he added. “But it’s not a public safety response. Public safety issues are about housing security, food security and job security.”

Reporter Anna Savchenko covers higher education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @annasavchenkoo.