O-Issue 2013: Student activism

The University has a long history of activism and engagement that stretches from the ’60s to now.

By Alex Hays

The University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) opened the Center for Care and Discovery (CCD), its new hospital, on February 23, and its lack of a Level 1 trauma center became the most recent flashpoint for student activism on campus. While the late ’60s were exceptionally tumultuous years for UChicago, with the two-week-long occupation of the Administration Building by student protesters, recent events on campus and in Chicago have sparked a new wave of student activism that is no longer limited to the quads or to the Hyde Park community, moving beyond issues that just affect students.

The lack of a Level 1 adult trauma center on the southside of Chicago and the push for the UCMC to build one has been an issue that community groups have been raising for years. Most recently, the RSO Students for Health Equity (SHE) has joined community groups to protest the University’s continued refusal to host a center, which they argue is the biggest obstacle in the fight to improve trauma care for southside residents. The UCMC says that a trauma center would be too costly and would take resources from other vital resources the hospital provides.

On February 26, just three days after the CCD opened, SHE along with community group Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY) held their second protest at the site of the University’s newest hospital (see “Campus Controversies”). The groups claim that SHE’s projected $15 million per-year price tag for the trauma center is a small number compared to the $700 million spent to build the new facility, while the University and some community leaders claim the new hospital is doing a lot for the surrounding community.

The subsequent discovery of an undercover UCPD officer posing as a protestor at the February 26 demonstration prompted outrage from students and from the administration, which claimed that it had no knowledge of the undercover officer before it was made public. (see “Campus Controversies”).

In response, students from Southside Solidarity Network (SSN) launched a campaign seeking to reform certain aspects of the UCPD, including increasing transparency within the police force. The campaign culminated in a UCPD Speakout event held in late May, where students shared personal accounts of encounters with officers.

Third-year and SSN coordinator Emma LaBounty said that the campaign for UCPD reform will continue through the upcoming school year. She feels that there is still an issue of policing on campus and that SSN would try to tackle the question of “how do we prevent instances like [the undercover UCPD officer] from happening again?”

LaBounty also indicated that SSN, along with other groups on campuses across Chicago, would continue to fight for the University to adopt a no-loan policy, which the groups argue is vital to incoming students who must consider financial aid packages to make their choice.

As SSN and SHE continue their campaigns this school year, others are moving on to new projects after successes last June. Students Organizing United with Labor (SOUL), a group dedicated to tackling labor-related issues on campus, fought University administrators and food service provider Aramark over the fate of Pierce Dining Hall workers. They were able to secure a guarantee from Aramark that there would be no layoffs to dining hall staff as a result of the closure.

Third-year and SOUL member Miriam Shestack said that her group would continue to look out for the rights of workers on campus. “This is an example of why a group like SOUL exists,” she said. “Basically, when something is going on on campus we talk to workers to see if their concerns are being addressed by the University, and if they’re not, we try to address them.”

SOUL will also join the Chicago Fight for 15 campaign, a group of Chicago fast food and retail workers who are demanding the minimum wage be raised to $15 an hour, which would affect workers across the campus.

While some groups on campus have been fighting for issues for many years, this quarter will also see new social justice groups begin to officially organize. One such group, the Socioeconomic Diversity Alliance (SDA), began planning last year to apply for RSO status this fall.

In the short term, SDA would like to establish a support group for low-income and first-generation students in the College, fourth-year Lynda Lopez, one of the group’s main organizers, wrote in an e-mail. She said that the general consensus within SDA and on campus is that the University lacks any real resources for these students. Lopez also believes that SDA will be able to convince the University to assemble a task force to look into socioeconomic diversity on campus. This would be the group’s long term goal, she said.

Other groups continue to fight for their own issues on campus. Stop Funding Climate Change (SFCC), the UChicago Climate Action Network (UCAN) and the Green Campus Initiative (GCI) will continue to demand that the University stop funding climate change. In April, a referendum was passed during Student Government (SG) elections, which called for the University “to shift its investment strategy to account for the environmental impact of oil, gas, and coal used by the companies it invests in.” Despite student support for the referendum, the University has refrained from divesting from companies involved in political controversies in the past, saying that it is bound to be politically neutral by a document called the Kalven Report.

As both new and old students return to campus this September, they will be entering an environment of student activism that Lopez said is “alive and well.”