Closed Observatory, Open Dialogue

The University has respectfully engaged with those affected by the Yerkes Observatory closure. Undergrads and union organizers deserve the same.

By Maroon Editorial Board

After announcing the impending closure of the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay Village, Wisconsin, the University has engaged with communities around Yerkes in order to find out what they want to happen with the property. This standard—involving stakeholders in decisions made by the administration—is laudable, and should become standard for the University going forward.  

In September, the University acknowledged that it was in talks with the Yerkes Future Foundation about the future of the Observatory. The administration has also transferred some of the educational programming that happened at Yerkes to another organization in Williams Bay Village. The chair of the Yerkes Future Foundation told The Maroon: “the University has been very cordial, very responsible…. I have no issue with how they have communicated or managed with the Yerkes Future Foundation.” 

The University here is making a good-faith effort to find out what the community around Yerkes wants to do with the property, which stands in stark contrast to how the administration has interacted with on-campus communities. Take two recent examples: the University’s steadfast opposition to graduate student unionization and the controversial new undergraduate housing policies. 

Despite graduate students making clear that they want a union and collective bargaining rights, the administration refuses to seriously engage with their concerns. We don’t need to speculate as to what graduate students want: They overwhelmingly voted to unionize last fall.  

The University might argue that it has tried to address graduate students’ demands via measures like the Committee on Graduate Education (CGE). However, nearly every graduate student present at the last CGE meeting walked out upon learning that discussion of unionization was off the table. It is unclear what concerns the University hopes the CGE will address, as they refuse to discuss the one issue an overwhelming majority of graduate students can get behind.  

Similarly, the University clearly did not take students’ opinions into account when crafting the recently-announced housing policy. The new policy requires incoming students in the College to spend two years in housing, creates a random lottery to place students in dorms, and assigns academic advisers to students based on which house they live in. 

While the randomization of housing assignments does address concerns that the old policy advantaged students with the means to pay their deposits early by granting them better slots in the lottery, it’s not clear that the other components of the policy align with students’ desires. It has already been noted that the two-year housing requirement puts an undue burden on marginalized students in College housing. 

It is encouraging to see the administration willingly engage the community in Williams Bay Village about the fate of the Yerkes Observatory, because it demonstrates that the University can work toward solutions that are acceptable to all stakeholders. It would do well to adopt the same strategy regarding other decisions that affect members of the immediate University community.