November 18, 2014

Petition demands institutional changes to address racial issues

A petition demanding that the University make tangible policy changes to “address the culture of racial intolerance at the University of Chicago” was released Friday after the University did not publicly respond to a statement of principles regarding racism on campus.

The statement, which called on the University to respond to racist actions, was precipitated by several racially charged Halloween costumes of lower-class Mexican gangsters worn by several students. The statement called for the administration to respond by Friday, November 14. It had amassed endorsements from multiple RSOs and faculty members.

The petition had 428 signatures as of Monday night and has a deadline of today for a University response, delayed from an original deadline of yesterday morning.  Unlike the previous statement, it contains several policy changes—three short-term and two long-term changes—that it calls for the University to enact. The main changes called for are the creation of a campus climate survey, a mandatory cross-cultural competency program, clearly laid out responses by the University to racially insensitive actions, changes to the Core Curriculum to incorporate racial and ethnic studies, and diversification of the faculty.

University spokesperson Jeremy Manier wrote in an e-mail that the University is committed to working with students to address racial intolerance.

“[Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services] Karen Warren Coleman, [Dean of Students] Michele Rasmussen, [Director of the Office of Multicultural Students Affairs (OMSA)] Karlene Burrell-McRae and [associate professor of American history] Adam Green met with the two student authors of the letter on Friday,” he wrote. “The participants said it was a constructive meeting and demonstrated a mutual commitment to make progress on these issues. The appropriate University leaders will move forward with a thoughtful response soon, and will continue working with concerned students.”

Third-year Vincente Perez, who co-wrote the statement and the petition with fourth-year Jaime Sanchez said the University expressed concern about how to separate acts of racism from freedom of expression, which prevented a response. He said the petition would help to remedy the issue by providing a template for proactive policies.

“I think what the administration is having a hard time doing is understanding how to…draw a line in between acts of discrimination and freedom of expression,” Perez said. “The administration doesn’t know how to react quickly, and react adequately to these situations, so that’s why the petition is a list of demands and actions we feel would address that issue.”

Sanchez said the petition has received widespread support from alumni, and that the support stemmed from a sense of concern with the University’s poor record on racial insensitivity.

“Once we released the petition, a lot of alumni decided to sign on and spread the word to their fellow alumni, because this is obviously an issue that had been ongoing, and alumni are invested in continuing that struggle. I wouldn’t want to be an alumni that isn’t proud of my institution,” Sanchez said.

Perez cited the effects of a 2003 University report outlining how to address race on campus as evidence of the change that can come from having a campus conversation about race. This report, Perez said, played a large role in former University President Don Michael Randel’s admonishment of a “Straight Thuggin’”–themed party in Max Palevsky in 2005, the creation of OMSA, the addition of a deputy provost for research into minority issues, and the creation of the Colonizations civilizations sequence. These campus-wide conversations, Perez said, are not happening under the administration of President Robert Zimmer, who has been in office since 2006.

“We don’t see that type of action from the new president; we don’t see that type of action from the administration we have now…. It shows that there is a continued disconnect between the student body and the administration that is causing this to reproduce itself and happen over and over, and unless there’s an institutional memory of these kinds of incidents, students won’t have anything to rally behind,” Perez said.

Perez also argued for the importance of incorporating race into the Core, arguing that existing events talking about race on campus only attract students who already care about such issues. Integrating race and ethnicity into the Core is necessary to draw in people who wouldn’t otherwise care about such issues, he said.

“If it’s going to be a campus issue, the campus has to be involved in this conversation. So the Core is one of the only things that require students to come to this conversation, so we need to address that…. The intellectual freedom-of-expression culture that exists here means that people can opt out of caring about racism; they can opt out of caring about issues that affect students of color,” Perez said.

If the University does not respond by Tuesday, Sanchez and Perez said they would continue to circulate the statement and petition in order to make race a campus issue. Both posted on Facebook that they would also utilize other methods to achieve their goals.