O-Issue 2012: Student activism

By Colin Bradley

On November 14, 1968, the University of Chicago held an inaugural procession for recently named president Edward Levi. According to the Maroon, approximately 100 students protested the inauguration and the formal dinner held afterwards. They were joined, fatefully, by at least one professor: Marlene Dixon. Though no reason was officially given, in January of 1969 the Department of Sociology voted not to renew Dixon’s contract. Whether or not the firing of Professor Dixon was the issue, the campus exploded in outrage. This was the height of the student movement; the university community remembered well the sit-ins of 1966 and 1967; Nixon had recently been elected; the nation was engaged in an unpopular war in Vietnam. As the Maroon’s editorial board wrote, “After a very quiet quarter in which the administration prided itself on how well it was handling the ‘student problem,’ and the radicals stamped around looking for an issue, the campus is beginning to move again.”

The tension of early 1969 culminated in a mass student movement, when on January 30 approximately 400 students moved into the Administration building. The occupation lasted two weeks, with numbers dwindling to around 175. The protest met a harsh crackdown. A highly controversial disciplinary committee which allowed only student observers—that is, not participants—was tasked with punishing the unruly students. In the midst of protests from both students and faculty, by April 1 the disciplinary committee had suspended 81 and expelled 42 students implicated in the sit-in, more than Columbia and Berkeley’s expulsions combined. However, unlike at Columbia, the civil authorities were never involved in the U of C sit-in of 1969.

It is tempting to relegate this to a bracketed history of student activism existing only in the 1960s and 1970s, as what one monograph on the subject glibly calls “psychological melee and carnivalesque excitement,” likening it to the French Revolution. But that would be a mistake. Though the culture in which large scale student movements such as those of the late 1960s could be possible seems to be a historical relic, the memory strongly persists. In fact, the author of that monograph is none other than John Boyer, the current Dean of the College. It provides the backdrop against which all current activism–or lack thereof–exists at this university.

More recently a group of students organized as Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND) protested the University’s investments in companies implicated in Bashir’s genocidal regime in Darfur. The University admitted it held approximately one million dollars in companies active in Darfur, but refused to consider divestment, instead citing the principles of the 1967 Kalven Report which recommends that the University maintain neutrality regarding social and political issues. The Board of Trustees and President Zimmer declared that the Report “has served the University well and can be expected to do so in the decades ahead if followed assiduously.” Meanwhile, a student invited to meet with Zimmer and James Crown, former Chairman of the Board of Trustees, reported, “if [Crown]were the only conduit by which the Board of Trustees was introduced to the divestment proposal, it would be proposed in a way that sought its defeat.”

In an attempt to make their voices louder, approximately 200 students and community members marched behind Congressman Bobby Rush to the Board meeting in March 2007. However, the protesting party was unable to communicate their proposals to the Board. Instead, the police were called to disband the group, provoking Rush to declare, “The University is no friend of mine.” The rest of the state also joined in the opposition to the University’s neutrality to no avail.  The Chicago City Council passed unopposed a Human Relations committee resolution condemning the University, a resolution supported by Senator Dick Durbin and, no surprise, Bobby Rush.

Though the University has never been convinced to divest, today a new manifestation of the STAND protest carries on in the calls by Students for a Socially Responsible Investment Committee (SRIC) to establish a committee to review the University’s investment policies. In the 2011 Student Government elections, a non-binding referendum passed with overwhelming student support for instituting such a committee. The group continues to meet with University officials but has reported the same difficulties faced by STAND in 2007.

Other groups continue to engage in their own campaigns of varying size and success. Green Campus Initiative (GCI) fights pollution on campus and UChicago Climate Action Network (UCAN) takes on coal plants in Chicago. Students Organizing United with Labor (SOUL) confronted the University over its refusal to guarantee the jobs of custodial and dining hall employees during a 2011 restructuring of University dining. Southside Solidarity Network (SSN) continues to be actively involved in an anti-eviction campaign across the South Side. Students for Health Equality (SHE) works with community groups to protest the lack of a level-one adult trauma center at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

During the 1969 protests, Dean Boyer, then a first-year graduate student in the History Department, observed three types of students: those concerned with “national or external issues,” those “for whom the primary motives were student rights,” and “those who were random observers, curiosity seekers, and excited and enthusiastic hangers-on.” Fortunately, the University of Chicago has, and needs, all of those types.