After Another Student Death, the University Must Act

To ensure the safety of our campus, the University must be more reliable in its communications, improve student transportation options, and use its resources to foster a better future for the South Side.

By Rob Vail

The past few weeks have been an incredibly disturbing time for UChicago students, faculty, and staff and for members of the broader Hyde Park community. A recent graduate and fellow member of our community, Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng, was gunned down in broad daylight in a shocking act of violence less than two blocks from campus. Like many of my fellow students, I was horrified at the fact that a peer, a dedicated and ambitious young person who had just received his master’s degree in statistics, had his life ended in such a gruesome way.

The day after, I felt compelled to go to the site of the shooting. It was startling to see how close to campus it occurred. It’s in a relatively upscale area of Hyde Park less than two blocks away from the Ratner Athletics Center, at the corner of East 54th Place and South Ellis Avenue. Lined with apartment buildings and classy, well-maintained homes, this is a place many students and professors live and walk through on their way to campus.

The site of the shooting soon became a beautiful shrine to Dennis’s life. Many people left flowers, handwritten notes, and drawings to pay their respects, yet not a word was said the entire time I was there: The sense of grief was overwhelming. It was clear that many of his friends and acquaintances were still processing what had just happened. I don’t think I ever crossed paths with Dennis, but his death has been on my mind ever since that day.

When I found out later that the Chicago Police Department (CPD) had apprehended a suspect in the case, it was somewhat relieving to know that the offender would not escape justice. Yet it does little to repair the damage of what has happened. Nothing will bring Dennis back or erase the trauma that his friends and family have experienced. CPD later shared that the suspect pawned off Zheng’s belongings for $100. As police superintendent David Brown put it: “Just let that sink in. A hundred dollars for Mr. Zheng and his family’s grief.”

Gun violence is a horrific reality in Chicago, but this past year has been surreal for us. Just this year, three University students were shot—Dennis Zheng is just the latest victim this awful epidemic has taken from us. Over the summer, Max Lewis, then a rising third-year majoring in economics and computer science, died after being struck by a stray bullet while riding the Green Line on his way home from his internship. In January, Yiran Fan, a 30-year-old Ph.D. student, was murdered by a deranged spree killer, who went on to kill four others across the city that day. On a citywide scale, violent crime is also on the rise. The Chicago Police Department’s crime report shows that shootings are up 39.5 percent and murders are up 36 percent from 2019 levels. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, there have been 794 homicides so far this year, compared to 501 homicides for all of 2019.

For most of my time at UChicago, I’ve thought of myself less as a Chicagoan and more as a student who is temporarily residing in Hyde Park. As such, I’ve seen myself as a product of the University and not much else. I’ve spent very little time outside of Hyde Park, partly since it’s inconvenient to do so, but also out of fear. The fact is that at school here, we are affected by what goes on in the rest of the city. UChicago is not an island, walled off from the surrounding neighborhoods—nor should we be. To ensure that no one else suffers the same fate as Dennis, Max, or Yiran, we must respect that with both words and action. When tragedies like this occur, it seems like it consumes everyone's lives, and yet within a few weeks most people forget and move on. If we become numb to the harsh realities around us, we’ll neglect the urgent problems that need our attention. We have a chance to ensure the safety of future students, but only if we acknowledge the ongoing crisis our community faces and address the root causes of systemic violence.

 First, the ways in which the University chooses to phrase its messaging matters. Emphasizing that the incidents occurred “off-campus” is an incredibly misleading way to inform students about tragedies. The latest shooting occurred very close to campus, in an area heavily trafficked by students, professors, and alumni. Choosing to focus on innocuous details is irresponsible at best, as this could have happened to anyone. It’s also especially concerning that the University has not been consistent in informing us about instances of crime near campus. In the aftermath of the latest incidents of violence, many students and faculty have opted to download the Citizen app, which generates security alerts for all nearby crimes that are reported to CPD. Less than a week after the latest shooting, I found out through the app that two people had been robbed at gunpoint by three assailants less than a block from Renee Granville-Grossman Residential Commons. This is also within two blocks of where I live off campus. I never would have known about this incident if I hadn’t downloaded the app because the University never sent out any notification about it. Such inaction endangers our lives—the lives of the students, faculty, and staff who rely on the University to keep us informed about unsafe activity. It’s outrageous that we can rely on an app, but not our university, to be real with us about the security situation at and around campus. Sadly, it’s clear that our university administration has not fulfilled even the bare minimum of its responsibility to keep its students and personnel safe.

Second, the University needs to be honest about the risks of riding the CTA. There is very little security enforcement on the Red and Green Lines. I personally have had multiple experiences on the CTA where I’ve feared for my safety and the safety of others around me. The last time I rode the Red Line, I experienced a couple of disturbing incidents. Around 9 p.m., as we were waiting for our train to arrive, a man who was twitching and did not appear to be mentally stable approached me and my friends and asked us, “Will you kill me?” At that moment, we froze. I realized later that it would have been wiser for us to get away from him as fast as possible—the man could have harmed us had he chosen to do so, and at the time I thought that there was a decent chance he would. Later that same night, a woman rushed past us on our way out of Garfield station, saying that someone was chasing her and that she was afraid about what he might do to her. I haven’t ridden the Red Line since that night out of fear of what else could happen. I’ve also heard numerous secondhand accounts from female students who have been sexually harassed and catcalled on the Red Line—many of them refuse to ride it again. I still enjoy using public transportation, and will likely continue to do so in the future, but it's unacceptable that the University does not properly inform and prepare its students to avoid potentially dangerous situations when riding the CTA. For these reasons, the University ought to allow students to opt out of the currently mandatory U-Pass, which costs $106 per quarter. The University should also do more to encourage students to use other modes of transportation if they would rather not use the CTA. It could start, for example, by expanding the service area and the hours of the Lyft Ride Smart program. Increasing campus shuttle availability and providing additional routes would also be immensely helpful. Another possibility would be Metra pass subsidies. Most students don’t own cars and depend heavily on the transportation options that the University offers. It’s crucial that the University step up and take action to help students travel more safely.

As students, our safety concerns matter, and the University should be straightforward and honest in the ways it addresses them. I’ve been disappointed by what I see as the administration’s choice to prioritize its image over accurate information and guidance. Furthermore, I’ve realized that the University has been complicit in perpetuating a system of structural racism. Through its historic defense of racially restrictive covenants and displacement of low-income residents in the name of “urban renewal,” the University has contributed substantially to disparities in economic welfare, homeownership, education, and infrastructure that extend largely along racial lines—so it’s disgraceful that our University enrolls so few students from the nearby neighborhoods. UChicago ranks within the top 1 percent of accredited U.S. universities for geographic diversity among the student body, with students from every part of the country and the globe, as well as the top 8 percent for racial and ethnic diversity. UChicago also professes to be a need-blind institution and guarantees free tuition and typical assets for families with incomes under $125,000 per year. All of that is true; yet because of a lack of educational resources and emotional support, children growing up in the nearby neighborhoods of Woodlawn, Washington Park, and Englewood have no feasible hope of attending the University of Chicago. Providing more pathways to a college education is the best thing we can do to help children escape poverty, so educating more students from the nearby areas would demonstrate our commitment to a better future for the South Side. For example, one approach could be to create more K-12 charter schools in our local neighborhoods, which would draw from both state and University resources. If we show our local youth that the block on which you grew up won’t prevent you from attending college, that would be game-changing. We need to do more to make this a reality.

I love UChicago and want it to be a place where students feel safe in their surroundings while pursuing their passions. However, we can only have that if we accept reality: The South Side community is in the midst of a socioeconomic crisis long in the making in which we have had a hand. While increased security measures may be warranted, we can’t police our way out of this issue. We must do everything in our power to correct intergenerational harms in order to foster a safer community. We can do this by working alongside local community leaders to reach solutions that improve conditions for all South Side residents. For example, granting our neighbors bargaining power in the decisions that have an impact over their lives, especially regarding matters of policing and development, would go a long way toward creating an atmosphere of trust and agency. We should also expand our existing community outreach programs and create new ones at the direction of residents who grew up in the neighborhoods they seek to revitalize. We must do everything in our power to reverse the crisis facing our South Side community.

I believe that the University can be a place that inspires confidence and trust in both ourselves and our neighbors; it can also be a better partner in helping enact positive change on the South Side of Chicago. However, it must start by acknowledging these uncomfortable truths. In doing so, we can honor the lives of Dennis, Max, and Yiran. On my part, I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t done much to give back to the local community during my time here. I intend to do everything I can to make up for it.

Rob Vail is a fourth-year in the College.